During its five-season run, Showtime’s The Affair was distinguished by a storytelling device in which episodes were often divided into two parts, with each half being told from the very different perspective of characters involved in the same incident. In keeping with that theme, series co-creator and showrunner Sarah Treem has written her truth about the exit of Ruth Wilson, the intent of the provocative scenes that were part of a drama about the ripple effects of infidelity and what was done to protect the actors involved in them.
A little less than two weeks ago, writers from The Hollywood Reporter reached out to say they would be publishing an article about how I created a hostile work environment and asked for a response. Unfortunately, not much of my perspective made it into the story, nor the perspectives of many of the half dozen senior level producers, director and other key crew members who spoke up.
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My show was about perspective and memory. When people would ask me what the “truth” was on The Affair, I would say, there is no objective truth on this show – there’s only peoples’ truthful interpretation of what happened. And it’s up to the audience to bring their own biases and perspectives to viewing the story – to weave through the differing accounts and figure out for themselves, individually, what they believe. So, in a way, each viewer comes away having watched a slightly different show. I built the show that way, because that’s how life works. We experience things, we talk to people we trust, and we all come away with different versions of collective narratives. In the case of The Affair, what follows is my perspective on the experience.
I started writing the show about nine years ago. I had just gotten out of a very bad relationship. This is not information I ever wanted to share in a public forum, but it’s necessary to understanding where the genesis of The Affair came from and especially the character of Alison. In the pilot of the show, there were five separate sex scenes, three for the character of Alison. The final two took place over the hood of a car. If you’ve seen the show, you know that scenes are often told twice, from two different perspectives. The first time we see the scene on the hood of the car, from the perspective of the character of Noah, it looks like Alison is being raped by a man. The second time we see the scene, from Alison’s perspective, the audience realizes the man is her husband, they’ve both lost a child, and this aggressive sex has become part of their dynamic in their grief. It’s not something they’re talking about, but they are clearly communicating and what happens against the hood of the car is consensual.
The reason this is important, is because Alison was a character forged in grief and pain, whose sexual relationships had a violent, transgressive element from the beginning, as she was using them to escape an amorphous, emotional pain that is harder to tolerate. For me, the process of writing the character for four years, was one of working my own way through trauma, to try to understand where it came from and why it was so difficult to find a way out. When I first started writing the character, I felt like I was walking along a razor’s edge of survival. That’s why in the pilot, Alison says to Lieutenant Jeffries, “I was 31 years old. I told myself, I’d make it to 35 and if nothing had changed, well then, I had tried hard enough.”
Throughout The Affair, we watch Alison going through different phases as she struggles to find her way through her own darkness and choose her life. When she’s having the titular affair in the first seasons, she’s transmuting all her feelings of self-hatred into “love” for Noah.
Meanwhile, he’s projecting all his savior fantasies on to her. We shot a sex scene against a tree in the second season, which The Hollywood Reporter makes mention of. The scene was written from Noah’s perspective. From Noah’s perspective, Alison is angry at him, but the force of her attraction to him overwhelms her and they have aggressive, but consensual, sex against a tree.
Did I know that scene reads as a male fantasy? Of course. That was the whole point. The Affair was about perspective. And specifically, about subverting the male narrative. By the middle of the second season, I had faith that our audience understood the rules of the show and they knew that Noah was an unreliable narrator.
But Ruth Wilson, who was playing Alison, didn’t approve of the scene and didn’t want to play it as written. By this point, it wasn’t a surprise as we had been disagreeing on the character’s choices since the second episode. By now we were at this complicated impasse where I didn’t know how to write the character any differently and she didn’t feel she could play what I was writing.
So that day, as in most cases, we had a lengthy discussion about the scene, notes went back and forth, changes were made, and then Ruth played the scene the way she felt her character would. Which did alter the intent of the scene to something that seemed non-consensual. But we had discussed the scene and Ruth made her choices as an artist. Then we brought in a body-double to do any nudity. And that was the scene we aired.
On a continuous basis throughout Ruth’s time on the show, I tried to protect her and shoot sex scenes safely and respectfully. In the pilot episode referenced above, she came to me and didn’t like the director’s suggestion that she do the scene nude against the hood of the car. I agreed and talked to the director and we changed the scene. In the third episode, I took out a sex scene she objected to. In the fourth episode, we rehearsed a sex scene with doubles, story-boarded it and then showed it to the actors for their approval before we shot it. In the fifth episode, we showed Ruth a cut of a sex scene she was unsure about and she approved it before we aired it. In the ninth episode, she objected to a sex scene, but I needed it to tell the story, so a body-double was brought in to shoot the entire scene.
We didn’t agree on the choices of the character or whether or not a sex scene was necessary to advance the plot, but that is not the same thing as not respecting or supporting an actress’s need to feel safe in her work environment, which is something I always take incredibly seriously.
By the time we got to the third season, I had abandoned my original plan for the character and was actively trying to write Alison closer to Ruth’s vision. Alison becomes a social worker. She breaks up with Noah for good. She’s strong, independent and alone. In that season, Ruth had asked to leave before shooting wrapped to perform in Hedda Gabler on stage, which was creatively problematic for the show, but she was really excited about the project, so I wrote her out of the season early. I was working incredibly hard to locate some sort of happy medium for us, where she would feel good about doing the show and we could continue to move the story forward. But that season, an incident happened between Jeff Reiner and Lena Dunham in Montauk. I was in California at the time, editing the show and taking care of my new baby. When I heard about the incident, I came back to New York and tried to figure out what actually happened. When the Lenny Letter came out, I repeatedly urged Showtime to do something. I wanted to shut down production, do sensitivity training, address the cast and crew and apologize for what had occurred. But instead, I was told to stick to certain talking points and let the network handle the response. By the time the third season was over, Showtime executives told me to write Ruth out of the show.
Which brings me to my final point, about her final season. In the article, it was reported that I wrote a distasteful script and the Showtime executives had to “intervene” to remove a “violent sexual assault.” Here’s what really happened. Alison needed to go. But for a character to disappear, on a show like this, she needed to die. She couldn’t just walk away into the sunset because we followed our characters wherever they went. I could have written that she got hit by a bus in the first episode, but I loved her character and wanted to finish her story meaningfully. So I put my head down and tried to write her a brief, but satisfying final season. We introduced a new character in the beginning of the fourth season, a veteran named Ben. He saves her life in her first episode of the season and there’s an immediate spark. He tells her that, since the war, he’s been impotent. Also, that he’s in his first year of sobriety and thus, not looking to date. And then he asks her out.
If you know anything about the tendencies of abusive men, that would be a big red flag. But Alison doesn’t. All Alison knows is that she’s attracted to him. Over the course of her final season, she slowly starts to open up to him. She tells him about her past. About the loss of her son, about her affair. He seems like he can understand her grief, because he’s been through his own. And then one day, she goes to find him at his office, unannounced. And there she meets his wife. She flees to California and has a breakdown with Noah, who brings her to his ex-wife, Helen. Helen tells her that she has to stop playing the victim. That these things keep happening to her because she lets them. That she has to stand up to men and take control of her own narrative. Helen doesn’t know who Alison is dealing with though. In the case of a domestic violence victim, ‘standing up’ to the abuser is bad advice.
So that’s how I set up the final episode. Alison calls Ben and tells him to meet her alone in her apartment. She is living in a condominium apartment called Rough Riders, a real place in Montauk. The reason I put her there is, that was the place I was staying when something similar happened to me. The reason I mention this is because I wrote two things the following year, as I tried to unpack what had happened to me and why. The first was a play called When We Were Young and Unafraid about a domestic violence victim on the run from an abusive ex-husband. And the second was the pilot of The Affair.
These were the things I was thinking about at the time. This was the origin of Alison’s character. So, when it came time to end Alison’s story, I went back to her beginning. Back into a situation where a married man is projecting his fantasies onto her and she could potentially use sex to numb her pain. But this time, she chooses differently. She breaks up with him. He tries to force himself on her, but he’s still impotent. She fights him off and screams at him to get the hell out of her apartment. She then gives him this powerful speech about how she’s been in pain her entire life. And maybe that’s why people think she’s weak. But she is fucking sick of it. And because she is finally standing up to him, because he has to face the fact that she can’t and won’t save him from himself, because she’s finally showing him the truth of who he is… he kills her. Which, in situations of domestic violence, is exactly what often happens.
I showed the network that script four times before I sent it out to the actors. I knew it was going to be a controversial episode and I wanted to make sure they approved it. They did. In fact, they told me they loved it and never gave a single note on the sexual content. But once Ruth’s team reported that she wasn’t happy, they suddenly asked me to change it. At that point, I absolutely fought back because I didn’t want to write a script where a veteran just goes insane and kills a woman with no impetus. If I had known I wouldn’t have been able to follow through on a storyline I had been setting up since the beginning of the season, I would not have made the character of Ben a veteran. To this day, I hate that the storyline seems to suggest that veterans suffering from PTSD are so crazy they might murder women at any point.
Everybody is, of course, welcome to their own opinion of the storyline. For me, it felt like a triumph. Yes, Alison had to die, but in the end, she stands up for herself, she refuses to let herself be used. She gives Ben the fight of her life. Which is something she has never done before on the show. It’s an ending that was seeded in the beginning, where the character goes back into the darkness she’s always been attracted to, one more time, and comes out with a greater understanding of herself and control over her behavior. And in that way, she changes. Which is what I’d always hoped she’d do.
I have always thought of writing as the act of diving down deeply into your darkest places — into your grief and your shame — and coming back to the surface again with some sort of truth. That is how I wrote Alison. As an attempt to make meaning out of madness. Sometimes that means taking characters to very dark places and walking hand-in-hand with them as they try to fight their way back to the light.
I have given my entire professional life to confronting the patriarchy and celebrating women’s narratives through my writing. Yes, I know women can be chauvinists and there is misogyny among women, but that is simply not what happened here.
When I asked for more help at the end of the first season because I was having difficulty being all things to all people and maintaining a creative vision, I was told I simply needed to be “more maternal.” As in many things, it is very tough to be a woman and do this job. I did not always agree with Ruth Wilson, but I did always have respect for her craft, her ability and her process and I tried to write her a character deserving of her immense talent. I know she’ll continue to tell the story of complex, multi-faceted, remarkable female characters for the rest of her long career.
I plan on doing the same.
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