Into the Canyon
by ALEX CARNEVALE
creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi
The concept of a trigger warning was invented by the ancient Greeks, who placed cautionary notices before the most disturbing of Sophocles’ plays. For the past 100 years white males who never served in the military have not required advanced warning of the flashbacks brought on by the consumption of descriptions or portrayals of traumatic acts.
Then came Noah Solloway (Dominic West), whose life is every white man’s nightmare. Despite being married to an exciting, sexy woman named Helen (Maura Tierney) who had an ample trust find and creating four not-so-wonderful children with her, Noah was unhappy. He started up with a waitress named Alison (Ruth Wilson). The first season of The Affair largely consisted of the sex he had with her and how mediocre Alison’s own marriage with Cody (Joshua Jackson) seemed in comparison to the intercourse. The first season ended with everything exposed and Noah wanting to be with his mistress full-time.
The second season of The Affair finds Noah and Alison living at a guest house secured by the publisher of his forthcoming book. As with the first season, The Affair reviews the same events from the different perspectives of each character. The first season limited this to Noah and Alison’s viewpoints during their infidelity, but the second season includes their spurned partners in the story, Helen and Cody.
Tierney became well-known in the 1990s through roles on the sitcom Newsradio and ER. She was great as Noah’s wife in season one, but we had trouble understanding who exactly she was, what she did that made it so easy for Noah to dump her for a younger, more sensual paramour. This season Helen Solloway has emerged as the signature star of The Affair, a performance that culminated in a masterful episode where she drank to excess, took a “pot lozenge”, and accidentally crashed a car with her young children inside.
Amazingly, Helen came out of all this even more sympathetic than she has before. The Affair does a perfect job describing a phenomenon that has never before been accurately portrayed in the television medium: how something ostensibly good can be terrible, and something awful on the surface might actually be for the best.
Here is what I mean: in the wake of his separation from Helen, Noah seems to be doing everything right. He has finally finished his long-awaited second novel, Descent, and he is in a love relationship that actually pleases him. Due to Helen’s accident and arrest, full co-custody of his children is granted to Noah, and his soon-to-be ex-wife is even paying his attorney’s fees to defend him from a vehicular homicide charge. Things could not be going better for him.
Yet on the inside, Noah is corrupt. He goes to visit Alison at a yuppie retreat and fucks her up against a tree in an abrasive scene that rubs up against sexual violence in a disturbing way. When we aren’t right in our love relationship, The Affair seems to be suggesting, everything else is destined to fall apart. Being white, rich and gorgeous, guys like Noah usually get away with his crimes, but watching The Affair, we know better. His punishment is his life.
As Alison, Ruth Wilson was a bit out of place in season one. She was so clearly not from Long Island that it was a bit silly to see her as a native Montauk girl. In season two, the show’s writers have been able to dig a bit deeper into who she is, and Wilson has responded by massively improving her own acting. Because of the loss of her son (to secondary drowning) Alison was already the show’s most sympathetic character, but she suffers even further here. The rich couple she works for treats her horribly, and Noah is barely better. She has not made the best choices, but plenty were made for her.
Dominic West also has been astonishing this season. He was always great at anguish, but here his Noah is often spare and repressed. When he becomes angry he is frightening, but we are not scared simply by the depth of his rage. Rather, it is more at his ability to manage his anger, to integrate it seemlessly into who he is.
Noah’s friend Max pursues a relationship with his ex-wife without Noah’s knowledge, and gives him $50,000 in order to expedite the process of their divorce so that he can be with Helen. When she is filled in on the plan, she rejects the entire premise, and is drawn closer to her ex-husband through the sudden illness of their son Martin.
The scenes in which Noah and Helen meet with a mediator to settle the distribution of their assets are filled with tension and excitement. The Affair is most captivating when it focuses on the little horrors, when it completely avoids the soapy revelations of the Rimes-universe. Simple things like going out for lunch are fraught with a kind of dread that other serial dramas fail to approach in screaming denouements.
West found success with his portrayal of the morally solid cop at the heart of HBO’s The Wire, but in the role of Noah he has found something even more complex to sink into, to inhabit totally like a second skin. So many of the scenes where Noah discusses his view of writing are cringeworthy, but this is intentional — Noah is a semi-professional at everything, and there is no arena of his life where he feels completely at home.
Such a person — a fraud, but only sort of — is refreshing when we are used to seeing individuals at the peak of their powers. Even Don Draper, for being a distressing mess, did have some underlying speck of genius to salvage his life. Noah Solloway does not even have that.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
“Fields, No Body” – Matt Bauer (mp3)