There were a couple new story elements and plot revelations in the fourth hour of The Affair, but like the third episode this one didn’t have nearly the same degree of crackle-and-pop as the opening segments. Let’s hope that’s not a new trend, and let’s dive right into episode four.
I’m somewhat surprised it’s taken me this long to mention any parallels to True Detective, as the structure alone is pretty much identical to that of The Affair – future-set interrogations framing a series of flashbacks that may or may not be true, an overbearing sense that the past and the present are linked by something we viewers just can’t grasp yet, etc. Now, though, the comparison is both unavoidable and deeper than the structure. The fifth episode of that first season (“The Secret Fate of All Life”) is the first time that the verbal recounting of the old case by Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle is in direct conflict with what we’re actually seeing. Likewise, the memories of Noah and Alison are now starting to seem more and more dubious (or are they? Dun dun dun).
You could argue that True Detective lost some of its edge once the flashback sequences were jettisoned and the action began to take place entirely in the future, which is both unavoidably true and partially just nitpicky. True Detective handled the transition as best it could. The Affair will likely reach this point or a point like it someday, and it could even be someday soon — Noah and Alison seem like they’re on the verge of leaving in their respective flash-forward scenes. Hopefully they’ll find a fresh way to keep the show engaging once the familiar structure shifts.
Anyway: Noah and Alison make the beast with two backs. This is the first revelation, one that’s been dangling in front of us for three-point-five hours and definitely going to happen sooner or later, because an affair without sex would be…well, probably the first ever affair without sex. Now it’s done and there is, as they say, no turning back. As usual, Noah and Alison remember the encounter differently. Noah’s account is soft, sensual, tender, loving. Alison’s is a little more (ahem) turbulent. For some reason the wallpaper in their hotel room is different from Noah’s scene to Alison’s scene, and for some reason this really bugged me. Is that important? How could the wallpaper in the hotel room possibly be important? Is it changed to keep us viewers anchored? Doesn’t the fact that they’re making love in the first retelling and f*cking in the second provide enough indication that there’s a difference here?
Anyway, anyway: the second revelation is a structural one, and it comes from the fact that Alison’s account takes place immediately after Noah’s, rather than running alongside it and showing a different version of the same thing. The first revelation — sex, love, f*cking, whatever it actually was — is the pivot point, concluding Noah’s half and starting Alison’s. This I like: that even the intriguing structure of The Affair is malleable, keeping us on our toes, keeping us guessing. This comes only four episodes in, and it’s not extremely show-stopping or transformative in the grand scheme of things. But it does open up countless possibilities for The Affair, and the showrunners need only take advantage of the fact that they have a solid foundation that’s hardly nailed down at all (in a good way).
Lastly, apart from far-reaching structural brilliance, the best standalone scenes in The Affair are those that are truest to what a relationship actually looks like in the early stages. Noah talks and talks about lighthouses and other random shit which a lesser screenwriter would probably have cut from the script; but it’s important to show Noah getting carried away with the stupid little things that excite him, and to show Alison unable to hide a little smile as he does. When the lovers dent a bureau in their hotel room, Noah orchestrates a swap with another bureau in another room that the maid is cleaning (which, coincidentally, Dominic West did with a desklamp in the London play Butley). It’s a simple little thing that just requires the two of them to push the bureaus up and down the hall — but for that one minute it’s Ocean’s Eleven, it’s a master heist where the stakes are inexplicably sky-high, and it’s a true-to-life experience that the two of them share.