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As The Affair heads into its second season, the cast and creators of the Golden Globe-winning drama found themselves in the hot seat Tuesday at the Television Critics Association semi-annual conference. At issue: the plausibility of the series’ Rashomon structure.
The rising sophomore drama, which stars Ruth Wilson, Dominic West, Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson as a web of past and present lovers, divides each of its episodes in two, devoting the first part to one characters’ point of view and the second half to another character’s perspective. But rather than focus on the forthcoming season and other queries about the plot, much of their half hour before the press focused on the characters’ divergent points of view, an aspect of the show that certain viewers (and critics) found improbable — or at the very least, confusing.
But as she’s immersed in the writing process, creator Sarah Treem acknowledged she isn’t particularly concerned with the possibility of confusing her audience. “We’re not doing it to make sure that everybody understands it perfectly. It was always going to be that people remember things differently, so we are okay if people start to think, ‘Wow, those memories are so divergent, I can’t understand how they’re about the same event,’ ” she said from stage, noting that in situations that are stressful, people’s accounts start to diverge.
“And they’re choosing to recollect it in a certain way — and that’s the thing about memory, it keeps compounding itself,” she continued. “So when you’re telling a memory, you’re actually not really telling what happened. You’re telling a retelling of the last memory that you had or the last time you retold the story. That’s the premise of the show. That’s why we write it. That’s why we’re interested in it.”
As the panel carried on, Treem’s cast members took turns defending the show’s conceit — and Jackson, who had the least screen time during the series’ first season, emerged the series’ strongest spokesperson. He reached deep into his own past, employing his parents’ divorce to make the case for subjectivity. “The event is true: my parents are divorced,” he said, but then noted that his mother and father’s recollection of that event differed immensely. “The recollection around [something like that] is completely discrete and unique … An event can happen, but everything associated with it is still subjective to the perspective of the person who’s telling it.”
Wilson noted that the dual-narrative structure creates an important discussion surrounding the show, with Jackson echoing her point: “The discomfort around combining the two stories and trying to figure out where the truth is, that’s the essential mission of the show … It denies objective truth.” West also acknowledged that the the conceit allows the actors the opportunity to play two extremes of their characters — “almost two different characters” — which is something he relishes.
Looking ahead, the show’s second season will showcase more than simply Alison (Wilson) and Noah’s (West) POVs; also included are the vantage points of both ex-spouses Cole (Jackson) and Helen (Tierney) — an organic evolution of the show. Which is not to say the expansion doesn’t present a host of challenges, including the ongoing one about how to keep four characters in contact with each other without the plot becoming overly soapy. “The question is how to keep them in relation with each other with integrity and filling the original concept of the show, which is about POV and storytelling and the multiple selves within any one character,” said Treem.
Season two’s expansion was a welcome change for Jackson and Tierney, who now have the chance to explore new sides of their characters. “By allowing Cole to have an interior life, it allows me to show him in a way that Noah or Allison’s recollections just don’t. It’s opened up for me an entirely different world for this character,” he told the room. Tierney, too, said that as she no longer viewed her character through the eyes of Noah, she began to see Helen differently — and perhaps a bit more responsible for the demise of their marriage.
For her part, Treem revealed that she has a loose plan for the entire series, though it’s subject to change, and that the crime mystery that’s been woven into the main storyline will come to a close at the conclusion of season two. (The drama will have to employ time-jumps in order to catch up to that future time.) The end point, Treem said, will be highly contingent on when the writers feel they’ve fully explored the idea of paradox: “When we feel like we’ve reached the end of that exploration, then the show is over,” she said. “Happily, we’re exploring some complicated questions … so we’ll see.”
Season two of The Affair premieres Sunday, October 4 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.
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