[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the first three episodes of The Affair Season 5. Read at your own risk!]
The central character list might be a bit slimmer, but the suffering is still the same in The Affair‘s fifth and final season.
Whatever happened to precipitate the exit of Ruth Wilson, and then Joshua Jackson, Alison’s shocking death at the end of Season 4 makes hers the trickiest arc of the series’ final stretch. Judging by the first three episodes of Season 5 that were screened for critics, we’re going to be taking the long route to get to Answertown about what happened to her — if we arrive at that destination at all. Rather than approaching the matter in real-time, with a more generic did-he-or-didn’t-he-style whodunnit focusing on Ben (Ramon Rodriguez), we journey far into the future as her daughter, Joanie (portrayed by Anna Paquin), nears the age Alison was at the time of her death. The closer she gets to that milestone, she feels the weight of her mother’s life and loss.
This vision of the future contained in Joanie’s timeline is eerie enough for its showcase of the encroachment of tech — a toilet that automatically tests your, erm, deposits doesn’t sit well — but the toll climate change has taken is even more unsettling. Sea level rise has rendered Montauk an actual shadow of its former self. Joanie’s job takes her to several seaside communities that have been leveled by floods, and Montauk is one of the former hotspots that has become a ghost town in the wake of the rising water, as the former paradise has literally lost its power and its tourism. Desolate and depressing or not, Joanie’s drawn to the assignment, and during her stay there, she reveals a certain desire that might be the clue to Alison’s fate .. or at least her daughter’s understanding of it.
Her journey to revisit the site of so much childhood turmoil is sure to be revelatory for her, and her myriad parents by extension, but her piece of the season’s plot is tiny compared to what we’re seeing of Noah (Dominic West) and Helen’s (Maura Tierney) journey.
The former spouses have remained inextricably linked through their children this whole time, of course, but Noah’s new compulsion to be involved with Helen’s life so often is particularly disarming.
In the dramatization of his perspective, Noah feels the need to support Helen as she grapples with grief and familial stress, but from hers, he had the chance to be there for her and threw it away a long time ago. The death of Vik (Omar Metwally) takes an even larger toll on Helen than she expected it to, but, at the same time, she recognizes that she has yet another opportunity to redefine her identity now. Constantly spending time with Noah isn’t exactly what she has in mind — and his split focus is certainly not going to satisfy Janelle (Sanaa Lathan), who abandons her post as his girlfriend-slash-sounding board and ghosts him for her own ex. And even as Noah and her parents try to cajole her into moving back east again in Vik’s wake, she doesn’t want to go back to that life either.
Helen isn’t hostile to Noah, of course. It’s more like she’s apathetic to him and completely disengaged from his minor efforts to redeem himself by cleaning the dishes and such. She is equally as ambivalent about seeing Noah’s novel Descent being adapted to film. The past is what it is, so what difference does it make if Noah makes a few bucks off of that pain?
The project is being spearheaded by a very famous actor: Sasha Mann (Claes Bang). Sasha is known to millions, but it took Noah’s book for Sasha to recognize himself. He’s passionate about the prospect of adapting the novel to screen, but he repeatedly questions Noah’s decision to leave Helen during their brainstorming sessions. To him, the wife he’s read so much about seems like a dream, and he’s not afraid to say as much. Noah’s offense to that assessment hampers his excitement over getting to this career height, but he’s too vainglorious about going Hollywood to pull the plug or contradict Sasha.
It’s not until Sasha takes a heightened interest in the real-life version of Helen that Noah begins to snipe at Sasha. During a brief visit to the set, Helen is asked to offer notes on the dailies of a scene The Affair fans will remember all too well from the Solloways’ marital collapse. While she’s complimentary of his portrayal of Noah’s character, she’s less impressed by the woman playing her on-screen. She basically reiterates a fact that this show has been making plain since its inception: perspective is everything. Her version of that day looked a lot different than Noah’s, even if she never committed it to paper. Sasha is fascinated.
Once Sasha and the newly-single Helen prove to enjoy each other’s company quite a bit away from the production site as well, there’s an almost imperceptible shift in the way Noah sees Sasha. Ordinarily, Sasha is an aging and somewhat sloppier version of himself, but once he observes the guy with Helen’s gaze as guidance, he sees a younger, savvier, and more alluring version of Sasha. This is now someone who could take his method acting too far by getting close to the woman he loved — loves? Helen’s also been rather humorless since Vik’s death, but it’s Sasha who can make her smile. At the same time, he’s now gaining a new lens on Helen as the cool, hip, honorable wife that even a major movie star has eyes for. Noah’s always been teetering on possessive with people, but he probably never expected Helen to be the object of so much desire. Watching his version of the story being elevated through the scripts and daily footage was immensely satisfying, but now he’s losing control over the story and the characters.
These feelings are all bound to get even more complicated as the season progresses, but from everything we’ve seen so far, this final stretch won’t be sugar-coating anything about the continued fall-out from Noah’s affair with Alison. Their fling was long ago, and yet, to paraphrase the show’s Fiona Apple-sung theme song, the echoes they created outlasted her last breath.
Noah and Helen are still, and always will be, figuring out what to do with one another, and even their kids and the kids who surround their family tree will be left asking questions long after they and the place that it all happened are gone. Such is the avalanche.
The Affair returns for its fifth and final season on Sunday, Aug. 25 at 9/8c on Showtime.
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