8:00pm PT by Bryn Elise Sandberg
'The Affair' Creator on the Finale's Big Reveal
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the season-one finale, Episode 10, of Showtime's The Affair.]
The Affair is heating up.
The answer to one of the show's most highly anticipated questions — whether Noah and Alison leave their respective spouses to be with each other — was revealed in the Showtime series' finale Sunday night. But just because the two extramarital lovers end up together doesn't mean the titular affair is over, says series creator Sarah Treem.
Though the focus of the split-perspective drama's first season has been the forbidden romance between grief-stricken Hamptons waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson) and bored novelist and father of four Noah (Dominic West), the series intends to go beyond their amour. "The affair just becomes a larger landscape in the second season," says the former In Treatment and House of Cards writer. "It goes beyond a literal affair into a different kind of world."
The couple's relationship is only further complicated by the murder of Alison's brother-in-law, Scotty (Colin Donnell), who was revealed in the season's penultimate episode to be the father of Noah's daughter's (Julia Goldani Telles) baby. Also disclosed in the finale was the prime suspect of the crime. When Noah is arrested by Detective Jeffries (Victor Williams) in the final scene, it opens up next season to a whole new set of possibilities.
Hot off three Golden Globe nominations — one for leading lady Wilson; her onscreen lover, West; and another for the series — the critically acclaimed drama is gaining recognition for its freshman run. "I was hoping that Ruth and/or Dominic would be nominated because they both did such good work," show creator Treem told The Hollywood Reporter, "but the triple threat was a total surprise."
Here, Treem breaks down the finale, responds to the biggest criticism she's gotten from fans and reveals whose perspectives we will see the story told from next season (hint: it won't be just Noah and Alison anymore.)
The big reveal in the last scene of the finale is that Noah and Alison are together, but we don't quite see how they get to that point. Will we see the narrative catch up to the present-day detective storyline this coming season?
Yes. The way I've always conceived of the show is what I think of as an epic story structure, where the action starts in the middle of the story and then goes back to the past and shows you how they got to that place before it continues through that middle section into the future. Next season the past will catch up to the present, and then we'll move through the present into the future.
What's the one question you keep getting from fans about the finale?
One question that I've gotten from people is "Why would Helen (Maura Tierney) take him back or even want to take him back?" People are irate about that. I want to say to them "Guys, they have four children, and they've been married for 25 years." Most people don't end their marriages if they can help it. Helen loves them, and she loves their life, and she wants to make it work. That's much more realistic to me than somebody just kicking their husband of 25 years out and saying, "I never want to see you again."
People react to characters differently than they react to human beings in their life sometimes. We want characters to do the things that we ourselves cannot do. I think that's why sometimes watching television is exciting because we invest in these characters, who are perhaps braver than we are or more wild that we are or more self-destructive than we are. But we've been trying to write a show where the characters behave in very, very human ways. That was definitely the philosophy behind the last scene with Helen. It felt very true to her character that she wanted above all else to preserve this marriage.
In future episodes, can we expect to see the story told from the perspectives of any of the other characters besides Noah and Alison?
Yes, we're definitely going to expand to more perspectives in the new season. We haven't exactly decided how many new perspectives we're going to have, but we'll definitely see Helen's and Cole's at least. Because if Noah and Alison are now together, they are not as mysterious and unknown to each other in that scenario — but the Noah-Helen relationship, for example, all of a sudden becomes more interesting because they're not together. They don't understand each other, and they don't experience each other as naturally. We're always trying to keep in mind in any given scenario which character will see it most differently because therein the conflict lies.
Between Alison and Noah, whose perspective do you find viewers identify with more?
Now the viewers hate both of them, which I find pretty funny. People are uniformly against Noah, and people still have some sympathy for Alison because of what she's going through — but still, they're not particularly pleased with her either. The longer the characters stay in the affair, the less sympathy people have for them. People really want marriages to work, which I think is great.
And what about you? Are you more comfortable writing for one or the other?
I've kind of internalized them both after a certain point and just felt that they were both sides of my own experience and the experiences that I've gleaned from talking to other people. I don't really have a preference for one character or another. I actually love both of them. The Alison character is, of course, easier for me to identify with because I'm female, but in terms of writing the Noah character — I have a lot of men in my life, and I have a lot of conversations and experiences that I'm eager to put onto the page. It's been nice for me to think about relationships from both genders because a lot of times when we are in relationships, our gender plays a big part in how we perceive what's happening. So being able to put myself into the head of a man has been very exciting and also very relieving to see it from the other side. When you get into the head of somebody else, you get to realize that everybody is real, and therefore actions and consequences are not as black and white as they seem. There aren't necessarily good guys and bad guys in the world, and I actually find that comforting.
You got married earlier this year. Has the show affected your own marriage?
What's been most exciting to me about this show is writing people blowing up their lives. It's really scary to think about how and why that happens. When we all enter our marriages, we want to believe that it will never happen to us — or we hope to God that it will never happen to us — though it does happen to a lot of people. So getting to write that has been a way to project my own anxiety onto the page. It's very cathartic to me to write this show because then I get to go back to my own marriage and feel good.
How have you struck the balance with Noah and Alison to where viewers still retain some sympathy for them despite their immoral behavior?
We tried very hard to explain where they're coming from. What I didn't want to do is give people an easy answer for their actions, like that they were just in a bad marriage. We presented Noah as a character whose life seems perfect from the inside, and then when you get deeper inside it, you realize that he's incredibly dissatisfied — and part of that is because the people in his life don't necessarily take him seriously, or he doesn't have as much influence over his own life as he'd like, but also because he is dissatisfied. He hasn't become the man that he wanted to be. For Alison, she has lived through this intense tragedy [of losing her 4-year-old son] and that has a tremendous amount of bearing on the choices she's making right now. But I don't think that's all of it — she also has been very reactionary her whole life, trying not to lead her mother's life, and has been trying to please the people around her. Now she's realizing that that's perhaps not the road toward the person that she's wanted to be.
I'm trying to get people comfortable with the idea that sometimes making the right choices in life is not the way to feel self-actualized. I just wanted to make it pretty messy. We can go back through our lives and explain to other people why we did the things we did and try to stack the deck so that it seems like our choices were the right ones, but we all have hurt people unintentionally in order to save ourselves. I think if we were all to go back and examine the choices we made through the lens of somebody else's perspective, we would see ourselves as the villain, and that's hard. It's a very uncomfortable place to be, but it's really necessary to understand our place in the universe.
What do you hope viewers take away from the season on the topics of marriage and infidelity?
I want people to take away the idea that being a human is hard, that we really have very little business judging each other's lives. We are all trying to live as well as we can, but people hurt each other a lot. This is not a public service announcement of any kind, but I think that we could all perhaps benefit from a little less judgment in terms of how other people live because I don't think any of us are saints. We're all trying our best.
You've said before that you plan to take Noah and Alison's affair beyond its literal implications, so how will it manifest itself in season two?
You see at the end of season one that Noah and Alison are together in the future, turning that "affair" into something else. Season two is going to show how the past catches up to the present. It goes beyond a literal affair into a different kind of world. What I can say for sure is that characters like Helen and Cole don't go away when Noah and Alison start a life together. When people leave their spouses, their spouses don't disappear and their families don't disappear. We like to think of our romantic lives as very black and white. This is my chosen person. I am his wife and he is my husband, and that is the totality of my relationship. But it's not, and it's really not if you've already had a first marriage.
How much of the new season have you mapped out?
I wouldn't say we have a whole season locked up, but we have a bunch of different arcs already in mind. It's nice because we purposely kept this first season very intimate — and maybe even a little claustrophobic — because we thought that that sentiment reflected the experience of being in an affair, but now we feel like we can branch out and broaden the world of the show without diluting the intensity.
In that larger landscape, which character's story are you most eager to expand?
One of the things I'm really interested in as a writer is what happens to Helen after her marriage falls apart, because this is a woman who has defined herself for a long time by this marriage. She's been a good girl to a certain extent — she really has been everyone's favorite daughter, friend and wife. When a person like that loses the framework of their world, who is that character? I just feel personally that I've been through that experience, and this is the thing that I always wanted The Affair to address.
As people, we are all kind of infinite. We have the possibility to lead many, many different lives and behave in many, many different types of ways. But we make some choices that end up defining us, and then we act in a way that reinforces that character that we've created. At a certain point, usually through crisis, that character is revealed to us as something that has been constructed to a certain expect. Then all of the sudden, we are limitless. I'm just really excited to see who Helen becomes. From both her and Cole, we're going to see some really radical departures from the characters we thought we knew.
A lot of married couples say they find it uncomfortable to watch the show with their spouse. What do you make of that?
I actually have a friend who says that he watches The Affair, and his wife watches him watching The Affair. I love that. It wasn't something that I anticipated, but I think it means we're getting at something very real because people feel threatened by the experience of watching the show and that it could possibly be their own marriage. I'm sorry that people are having a hard time watching it with their spouse though! I wonder if that somehow affects our ratings, but I am glad for it as well because I think it means that we're tapping into something true.
How did you settle on the careful pacing of the series?
You learn a lot in the editing room. It's the first season of the show, so we're kind of making up the rhythms of it as we go along. Classically in television, the idea is just to move it along. If a scene is starting to feel at all lengthy, cut it and move. I don't actually think that's how this show works best. I think the show works best in those long silences and in those scenes that just play out, play out, play out. That was something that I had to learn and that will be knowledge that I take into season two. This show has its own geometry, and it had to tell us what it was.
What's the biggest criticism you've gotten from fans, and what's your response to it?
People's responses to this show have been so intense and personal that I feel very responsible to both the fans and critics. If I could answer one predominant question, it would be something along the lines of "Why isn't this show following my expectations!" Some people are bored by the slow-moving, intimate stuff, and some people feel betrayed by the fast-moving, pulpy stuff. Almost everyone is upset that the characters don't act nobly, and many people seem uncomfortable when the structure of the narrative keeps shifting. I understand that — it's frustrating to watch a show where the rules keep changing on you. But my feeling has always been that that's how life works. Just when you think you've gotten a handle on what story you're living through, it completely changes. You're a new character, the pace is radically different, the old rules are gone and you have to adjust.