SPOILER ALERT: This article and interview with Sarah Treem contains details about tonight’s episode of The Affair.
Back for its fifth and final season, Showtime’s The Affair returns with some real surprises. The show was modeled on the varying viewpoints of four main characters: Noah and Helen Solloway, and Alison and Cole Lockhart. Noah (Dominic West) and Helen (Maura Tierney) are the only ones left standing. Ruth Wilson checked out last season, as her troubled Alison — whose affair with Noah launched the drama — was either murdered or committed suicide, with both versions shown during a shocking episode last season. Now, her husband Cole, last seen driving away from Montauk with daughter Joanie asking questions about her dead mother he couldn’t answer, is also gone. Joshua Jackson, a key part of this wonderful quartet of actors who brought startling emotional pain you don’t usually see outside of a great James L. Brooks movie, isn’t taking part in the final season.
That gives executive producer and co-creator Sarah Treem and her creative team the need and opportunity to flesh out storylines told from a wider group of characters, which in tonight’s launch and the next few episodes includes Janelle (Sanaa Lathan), who is Noah’s lover and his boss at a charter school, and Whitney. The latter, played by Julia Goldani Telles, has come a long way from the too big for her britches bratty teen daughter of Noah and Helen, who seemed to rub their noses in her abusive relationship with a douchey artist named Furcat. She’s now struggling to make her way as an art gallery assistant whose boss is too cheap to turn on the air conditioning, and she is supporting a fiancé from Ireland who may or may not be a real artist, but who contributes little while he waits for her to marry him and end the chance he can be deported.
Tonight’s episode has several tantalizing story threads. First is Noah, who sold his tell-all book Descent to be turned into a movie by a huge James Bond-like action star named Sasha Mann (Claes Bang), who plans to star in and direct the scandalous tale that broke up Noah and Helen and continues to traumatize their children. Mann spends breakfast asking Noah probing questions about how he could betray a great wife like Helen, and copying every physical move Noah makes as the actor prepares to sink into character. It’s clear that his infiltration into Noah’s life will go much deeper and it is hard not to think Noah the philandering cad is getting a well deserved taste of his own medicine. When Mann tries to get Noah to cut to the core of why he ruined a happy marriage to a wonderful partner, and Noah says that he felt his wife was holding him back and that Alison seemed everything his wife wasn’t, Sasha confides he too was once addicted to toxic relationships. Noah didn’t understand, but he will soon.
Next comes the storyline surrounding Helen, trying to keep it together when Vik Ullah (Omar Metwally), the brilliant surgeon who got sick late last season, is dying, at a moment in which Sierra is trying to give birth to his son before he passes away. At the funeral, there is a bitter argument between Helen and Vik’s mother and father (Zuhair Haddad & Zenobia Shroff) over following Hindu cremation traditions – which wasn’t what Vik wanted — and clear reminders of how much Vik had supplanted Noah as the guiding and settling influence on Helen and her children. That is clear when Vik gives a posthumous speech and says how much he regrets he couldn’t hang on to see Whitney marry her fiancé Colin. It’s clear Noah hadn’t been told any of this.
Noah does comply with Helen’s ask to stay and be there as a support mechanism during Vik’s funeral, something that will strain his relationship with Janelle. Helen’s Hemingway-esque author father Bruce (John Doman) asks Noah’s girlfriend to freshen his drink, thinking she is a waitress at the funeral reception, Noah, who can’t do anything right at this somber affair, stands by and lets it happen. While Noah tells Janelle his ex-father in law’s memory is failing — Noah had earlier introduced Janelle to Helen’s parents as his girlfriend — the moment is indelible, particularly when the version is told from her point of view, along with the other pressures that are facing her. That includes a move by her charter school to supplant her with a younger colleague after violence erupted on campus, and forcing her to reapply for her own job. It is clear that Helen spreading her wings will be a big part of the show’s final season, even as her dysfunctional mother (Kathleen Chalfant) tries to pry her back to New York to help care for her declining father.
The last vantage point is the biggest departure for the show and a most intriguing dip into futuristic storytelling. That is the introduction of Joanie, last seen as the young daughter of Alison and Cole, asking questions about her mother’s suicide that her father simply couldn’t answer. Anna Paquin plays the young girl at age 38, the age Alison was when she died. She is a young woman in severe emotional distress. Married with a loving husband and two young daughters of her own, she will seek any opportunity to be away from them. That will include doing a job in Montauk and wait till you see The Affair’s futuristic look at the East End of Long Island that served as such a picturesque beachfront vacation spot for the original affair between the bored unsuccessful novelist/teacher Noah and Alison, the seafood restaurant waitress in an endless grief spiral over the death of her young son Gabriel. In the futuristic version, Montauk has been ravaged by climate change and global warming, and storms and flooding have destroyed the tourist destination. It is a very upsetting moment, particularly at a moment when the rainforests are burning in Brazil and the conservative government was slow to step in and put them out.
The most emotionally touching moment in the Season Five’s launch episode is the attempt by Sierra (Emily Browning) to use natural means to birth the child that she conceived with Vik. The results constitute that even when you think you know what is coming in this incredibly well written emotional drama, you can still be surprised. And Vik leaves Helen with a message from the grave that will eventually help her re-embrace life.
What so far remains untouched are the circumstances of Alison’s death and the role that Ben Cruz (Ramon Rodriguez) played in her demise. It sure seemed like he murdered her when Alison threatened to expose their relationship to Ben’s wife. Or what became of Cole, or Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), his long-suffering partner who just had no chance to measure up to Cole’s memory of Alison.
Here is an interview I did last night with The Affair co-creator Sarah Treem, in which she addresses tonight’s episode, and gives a glimpse of how she and her creative team will tie together all of these loose ends and do it without Wilson and Jackson. Those actors are gone, but their characters will never be far from mind. I got to see the first four episodes and will try my best to keep the spoilers to a minimum.
DEADLINE: The show’s format relied on stories told from the perspectives of the four main characters. You started Season Five without two of them. What can you say about the exit of Joshua Jackson, who was last seen running away with Alison’s ashes, and then finally driving away with daughter Joanie asking questions about her dead mother that he couldn’t answer?
TREEM: We love Josh, he’s amazing. His contract was only ever for three years. That’s the time he agreed to give us, at the beginning of the process. Then I pitched him the fourth year and he liked it and signed on. But he was pretty clear that was going to be his last year. He has a lot of stuff he wants to do; he’s at the peak of his career and he’s incredibly talented. And he’s in demand. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think he felt satisfied after the fourth season. And felt he had done some great work and had gotten to play a bunch of stuff and I don’t know that he felt that he had anything else to give to the character. But you should talk to him, I don’t want to speak for him about that, but that was the sense I got. He had done what he wanted to do with the character. Obviously, I love and miss him but he’s doing other incredible things.
DEADLINE: Maybe he felt like you’d emotionally pummeled Cole enough?
TREEM: Poor Cole. He’s such a noble character, Cole. And if you write a noble character like that, you’ve just got to kick the shit out of him, test that nobility.
DEADLINE: So you knew he would be gone and that you would have to frame out the show’s final season differently. What were the storylines that are most important to you, some of which we see in tonight’s season premiere?
TREEM: In my head at least, so much of the show has been about repercussions. The metaphor I had given going back to when I first pitched it was, the affair is the pebble that drops into the lake, and the show is about the ripples that go out and out, forever. There is this one action you think won’t have consequences; obviously, when people have affairs, they hope they will be limited to this quiet sequence of events that nobody ever finds out about. But oftentimes, people do. And the repercussions go forever. I was interested in exploring generational trauma, and how the trauma of an act doesn’t just necessarily affect the generation that endures it. It gets codified in the DNA and can get passed down to subsequent generations. So this idea of life and death was very top of mind as we started the season. Which is why there’s this cycle happening with Vik dying, and Sierra having his baby at the same time. And Helen bearing witness to both events, which is important for her character in terms of the journey that she’s going to take this season.
DEADLINE: Noah continues to be this scoundrel, and the worse it gets for him because of his original infidelity, the happier it makes me for some reason. Now, he actually sees his wife Helen, and what he has lost. It is magnified through Sasha Mann, the actor who’s directing and playing Noah in a movie based on Noah’s tell-all novel sensation, Descent. He seems to be a mirror into Noah, and Noah seems uncomfortable with that from the moment they discuss the project at breakfast and Sasha seems to be copying his every movement.
TREEM: Claes Bang, I had seen him in The Square. I love that movie, saw it three times and I am a bit of a groupie for that director, Ruben Ostlund.
DEADLINE: Dominic West is in that movie, too.
TREEM: I thought, who the F is this actor, who emerges fully formed in his 50s and is just so good. I was dying to work with him. We had this idea of a character who comes into Helen’s life and is kind of perfect. Who is beyond her wildest dreams as a partner. He’s incredibly rich. Very successful, but he’s also such a good man who does these things for charity and he’s undeniable. It has become a little hard at this point to out-Alpha Dominic West. He’s pretty Alpha, and always The Man in these scenes. It was a challenge; could we create a character who was more Alpha than Noah? And we thought, of course, we can, if he’s a movie star. Who’s the character who is more Noah than Noah? So we created Sasha Mann. I think what we will find about Sasha, and what Helen will find about him, is that he’s really not who he seems to be. What we’re working on this year, and have been working on through the series, is the idea that there really is no such thing as heroes, and the more that somebody tries to convince you they are, the more they are probably covering up some real darkness. We were trying to create a classic Hollywood hero, and thought, well why not just make him an actual Hollywood hero. And you’ll see what happens.
DEADLINE: You mentioned creating the perfect guy. In many ways, Vik was that. Sure, he kept his emotions inside, and when he knew he was dying from pancreatic cancer, he bought a fast car and slept with and impregnated his neighbor Sierra (Emily Browning) because he wanted to leave behind something of himself. But he was a brilliant surgeon who was reliable when Noah was not, who became a father to Helen’s children. And then I thought that Ben seemed a perfectly decent guy when he came into Alison’s life, and boy was I wrong about that one. Or I think I was wrong; I think he killed Alison, but we saw two different versions, one where she committed suicide…
TREEM: You’ll find out the truth about that this season, for sure…
DEADLINE: The bridge from the first to the second season carried a whodunit about the death of Cole’s brother Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell). Did you want to carry that strategy over into the final season, where the question of whether Alison took her own life or was murdered?
TREEM: I think the show does well when it has that motor. We haven’t had it every year but it has always been the platonic ideal of the show, that there is a mystery that threads underneath. So yes, the idea of, would Alison’s death ever be discovered and understood, would the truth ever come out? That is the guiding principle of this fifth season.
DEADLINE: The relationship between Sasha and Noah starts in this episode, but maybe it isn’t too much to reveal the things Noah tells him, including how he and Helen made love to a Springsteen song, will come back to bite Noah as we go along.
DEADLINE: The biggest surprise here is the decision to establish as a main character Joanie, the daughter of Alison and Cole. You set it in the future when she’s an adult and a mother herself. There is technology that we don’t yet have. Explain why you chose Anna Paquin and where you were going with that storyline?
TREEM: It was the idea that there would be a future generation still impacted by the affair would be through the lives of the children, was always something I wanted to do. That idea of ripples, that you think it lives and dies within your lifetime but sometimes it doesn’t. Your children have to pay the consequences. There are parallels between the Whitney storyline and the Joanie storyline. The daughters of Alison and Noah, but obviously Whitney is older. Joanie, I always knew I wanted to meet Joanie as an adult. The question was, how old would she be when the crisis of what happened with her mother really come home to roost for her. To be totally honest, as a woman with children, and a lot of the woman on my staff have children, what I understand is, you don’t really start to go back and unpack what happens until you have children and you start to realize how much more complicated it is than you originally thought. You can skate by, thinking this is the story of your parents, for a very long time, and it’s really not until you have your own children that you really have strife in both your relationships with them and in your marriage. And it hits you that you think, is the story I knew about my parents really true or not? It became clear that in order for Joanie to investigate what happened to her mother, she was going to have to be a mother and a wife herself and face that conflict. That’s why we chose to put Joanie the age she was, which is 38, and the age that Alison died. In terms of Anna Paquin, I’ve been a fan for years and actually think she looks a bit like Ruth. She was funny. She said she was binge-ing The Affair, to see if it was a part she wanted to take. And she was watching at her house and her 5-year old son walked in and looked at Alison and asked if that was her. We felt that was a fun synchronicity. I think Anna is a unique and brave actress and unusual in that she’s not afraid of darkness and going full hog into that kind of a world. She just seemed like a spiritual fit for the show and I think she would say the same. I wanted Anna Paquin from the beginning when we started the character arc, so it was a lucky thing she said yes.
In terms of depicting the future, that was an interesting thing. We talked to a bunch of literal futurists, in terms of what would the technology look like in the future. We talked to a lot of environmental futurists and climate change scientists. What we found about putting the future on television, was that a little future goes a long way. When we shot the first scenes, we used holodecks. Apparently, that’s coming. We’ll be able to telecommunicate into meetings and our likenesses will be projected. And all the futurists say that’s coming. But when you put it onscreen, it looks ridiculous and distracting. So we had to pull back and reshoot stuff because there was too much future in it. And it’s coming to a point where we may be wearing wristbands and there will be some form of projection on our wrists. So instead of typing on a keyboard, we might be typing on our own skin. We tried something like that, and thought, it looks too weird, too different. You think about going 30 years backwards, into the 80s, and a lot has changed. The internet didn’t exist, or cell phones. There have been huge innovations and you can’t actually conceived that as a child of the ‘80s. It was interesting looking forward and trying to fit it into the world of The Affair, which is a naturalistic and natural world.
DEADLINE: Based on what I saw, the future for the east end of Long Island isn’t looking good…
TREEM: I knew that Montauk had to be ravaged by climate change. That seems like it is coming and the more research we did, the more we realized that these coastal communities are just not going to survive. That’s something that seemed like an apt metaphor for the show which is that nothing lasts forever. Not in relationships and not in nature. Also, in the same way you can’t abuse a relationship and expect it to stand, you can’t abuse your planet and expect it to stand. Everything has consequences. The more we got into that, with the climate metaphor, the more excited we got.
DEADLINE: We’ll see Joanie do some desperate things, including when she gets to Montauk. What is her mindset and why is she so desperate, which we see right away as she takes an excess of pills to harm herself.
TREEM: We were very interested in the narrative we have about our parents, and how so often, it’s not true. We formulate our lives around these stories of our past. Some of us have more access to the truth about our parents and some have less but so much of who we become as people is conditioned by a projection of our parents lives and who they said they were. One of my favorite plays is Richard Greenberg’s Three Days Of Rain, a play about these three children who are trying to figure out what happened to their parents, in some will dispute. The play goes back and the three are their parents and a friend of their parents and what you realize is the story these kids have about what happened to their parents, it’s entirely wrong. Their parents had a different story. I think that’s true, tragic and interesting. In thinking about Joanie, her mother dies when she is seven years old, everybody thinks it’s a suicide, and her father basically drives her out of Montauk a few days after the funeral and he can’t talk about it because he loved his dead ex-wife so much. He’s a pretty reserved person, and we think he would not be the guy who would open up and tell his daughter all the craziness that happened. He would try to keep the veneer of nobility over the past. So the truth is that everything she knows about that past, is wrong. It’s that principle that if there’s a secret in the family, it’s corrupt and you think you’re protecting them by keeping that secret, but it’s wrong. A lie is more hurtful and injurious to children than the truth. What you’re seeing with Joanie is this darkness she carries with her. She has this idea that her mother left her and that she didn’t care enough about her to live. She has formulated her entire identity toward being someone who is not Alison. She has incredible pain because of that experience and nobody talked to her about it. It’s all coming out right now.
DEADLINE: But Joanie seems nothing more than to want to do the same thing to her two daughters.
TREEM: Yes, that’s entirely right, it’s a cycle that’s continuing because it hasn’t been addressed. That’s exactly the principle we were working on. I’m kind of happy you picked up on that. She’s doing exactly the same thing to her daughters that her mother did to her. Slowly. Because she is a child of abandonment.
DEADLINE: You mention the parallel to Whitney, the oldest daughter of Helen and Noah. She started the series being uncontrollable and promiscuous and rebellious. She now has to make a living and seems to be more appreciative of the road her mother went through. She has become a major character in this final season.
TREEM: She certainly has. When we met Whitney, she was 16, a teenager, pretty, privileged New York teenager. I think there is something that happens to women between 16 and 20 and now 25, as she is now. There has been an evolution. She has grown up a lot, and she’s in the working world and she’s struggling. She’s in an experience I recall in my own life, as a young woman in my early 20s, where there was so much I wanted to do with my life, and so much I wanted to say, and so much ambition, and I just wanted somebody to take me seriously. And nobody did. I don’t know if young women still go through this, but it was a very specific developmental experience, and a slightly traumatic experience to go through at that age. To feel, was I crazy? Was it me? Was it sexism? What was happening? I couldn’t figure out why, when I spoke, no one was listening to me. I had these male colleagues who came out of Yale Drama School, when I was 25, and I was like, why isn’t anyone taking my writing as seriously as they are taking these guys? I wanted Whitney to be at that age, where you have so much that you want to do, and you don’t know how you are ever going to get there because it seems like nobody is listening to you. I also wanted, when we came into Whitney’s perspective for the first time, that the bratty-ness, the self-absorption that her parents had seen all these years, was to a certain extent a projection. That’s not how she sees herself and that’s not the way she moves through the world. So when you see Whitney with her mother, you see Helen in episode four, when Helen is such a mess. Whitney with Helen is just the best. Maura is just a master of character who had to create many variations of this woman and she had to do it again this season when we saw Helen from Whitney’s eyes. She had this idea Helen was going to be a disaster in Whitney’s eyes, who was very dependent on Whitney. Which was such a great reversal of how you think you understand the Whitney-Helen relationship. But the most important thing about Whitney’s existence this season is that she has become her father’s daughter. In episode five something happens, that sets the tone for the rest of the season, and it’s a surprise but it’s a little bit like the chickens coming home to roost. And Whitney gets caught in the middle of it and ends up asking herself, what’s wrong with me? Why did I do this, and basically, why do I keep putting myself into all these self-destructive experiences she puts herself into? And it’s because of her father, and the relationship she saw modeled.
DEADLINE: She makes terrible choices in men. Vik, in his posthumous speech, says he like Colin, her fiancée. But he seems like a deadbeat artist who is with her to keep himself from being deported, and Whitney marrying him will allow him to stay in America. And that Furcat artist guy…
TREEM: Furcat is like Noah, on steroids. The worst version of that male. Colin I think is going to surprise you. He’s more than he seems at the beginning of the season.
DEADLINE: Well, even though Vik should have gone for treatment for his pancreatic cancer when there was time, instead of defiantly pronouncing he had no chance to live and regretting it, he seemed a shrewd judge of people, accurate in his assessments. You mention these relationship dynamics, and these women not recognized for their abilities, and that brings us to another character whose perspective is in these early episodes. That is Janelle (Sanaa Lathan), the mother of the prodigy student Anton (Christopher Meyer), who Noah helps get into an Ivy League school. One of the interesting ways that the show evolved from just telling stories from the viewpoint of the four main characters is you’ve broadened the storytelling possibilities by using the perspective of a wider swath of characters. Janelle’s experience at the funeral of Vik, when Helen’s mentally failing father asks her to fetch him another drink, and Noah just stands by and lets it happen, that was incredibly demeaning. She is a very interesting character, and when it becomes possible she might go back with her husband, it feels right somehow. Noah remains a narcissist and a trainwreck.
TREEM: That’s how we felt, too. I love the scenes between her and Russell (Hornsby, her ex-husband Carl), because you can feel that maybe they belong together, that maybe they are on a long journey back to each other. In the way everything happens for a reason, the experiences she had with Noah might send her back to a sense of home, and somebody who understands her. At the end of the day, that’s what we’re all looking for, someone who understands us, and sees us. And Noah couldn’t see her.
DEADLINE: Noah seems to be having a similar realization about the fabulousness of his own wife Helen, whom he cheated on often before meeting Alison. Is there a chance for Noah and Helen?
TREEM: That is definitely the big question of this fifth season. I love Noah and Helen together, but I think they’ve hurt each other tremendously. That’s the question we’d ask ourselves in the Writers Room. When you’ve hurt each other so badly, is there ever a way back? If there is, what would it look like? There is no amount of good father Noah could do that would undo the betrayal in the lives around him. You see at the beginning of the season, him trying just to be there for her, and them, as a father figure and just shoulder some of this stuff. Helen just starts to take off and Noah turns up to shoulder some of the load with the kids. But I don’t know that that can ever be enough. The question, well, what would be enough, that’s something we wrestled with in the Writers Room a lot.
DEADLINE: We watched Alison get betrayed by every man she met, except for her husband Cole, and we watch all that Noah has done, and it is somehow delightful to see Noah continue to take his turn in the barrel through the first four episodes. I don’t know how he can redeem himself when he continues to make the worst decisions and lead with his libido.
TREEM: There’s a lot of season ahead, but Dominic West does such incredible work this season, and he ends up in a place that is just extraordinary. I don’t want to ruin it. But the work he does in the end, it’s just mind blowing. He is just such a good actor.
DEADLINE: You mention the ripples of an affair. Not all of them are bad and this feels like the season of Helen. Her experiences with Vik, that seemed like real love from a man who was everything Noah is not. That scene where he feels the breath of his newborn child before he dies is so touching and I’m sure Helen does not regret any of that.
TREEM: I don’t think she regrets that. The theme of this season is, people just coming home to themselves, learning, accepting and just making peace with who they actually are and what they really want. That is a hard thing to do in your life without real trials, and really going through difficult things that force you to ask, in the end, who do you want to be?