The Affair is not an easy show to watch, nor has it ever wanted to be. It started with the dissolution of two marriages in the pursuit of what seemed like true love, but there’s never a happily ever after — the series dives deep into the psyches of four wounded individuals, who continue to wound each other whether they ultimately mean to or not. It’s messy yet engrossing and even sexy, as the four work through their anger, grief, and passion.
The problem has been that The Affair (or maybe Showtime) doesn’t trust that character-driven storytelling, and so it tried to spice up Seasons 1 and 2 with a murder plot that never felt anything more than tacked on to the real drama. The non-linear storytelling also hasn’t added a great deal to the revelations of the characters; instead, we’re just catching up in one timeline to the continued misery in the other. The show’s creator, Sarah Treem, was also a producer on HBO’s In Treatment, which was another series that asked you to care deeply about the often small, dark problems of strangers. Like that series, The Affair has a very specific structure — in this case, an increasing number of POVs — that serve to augment the viewers’ experience through the eyes of each major character. It’s not about the plot, it’s about the experience.
And in many ways, the experience of watching The Affair is without issue. It’s gorgeously directed, wonderfully acted, and purposefully playful in the way it juxtaposes memories to show that it’s impossible to find an objective truth in experience. But where that has dimmed as the show has progressed is when it comes to the question of what point these dueling timelines and shoehorned mysteries serve. And why must it all be so incredibly dour?
These questions will weigh heavily on the minds of those who choose to dive into Season 3, which resets itself a little after the reveal of Scotty’s murderer and the result of the trial. Noah (Dominic West) is out of prison now and starting to rehabilitate his life while simultaneously fearing for it because of a mysterious threat. Helen (Maura Tierney) is figuring out how to move on, or if she should move on, with Vic, while Alison (Ruth Wilson) returns from having a breakdown and must start fighting her way back into her daughter’s life. Cole (Joshua Jackson) starts the season out on the fringe of the story, but will likely play an important role in the custody battle over Joanie that Alison is starting to enter into.
The problem with The Affair’s POV stories in Season 3 is that because the characters’ are so scattered, we have to seemingly take each story at face value, because we aren’t getting the doubling over of scenes like we did in previous season (or at least, not as much). The series also curiously adds a fifth point of view, that of professor Juliette Le Gall (Irene Jacob), who is a new love interest for Noah. She also brings with her a handful of exceptionally irritating students whose conversations feel like the show’s writers addressing their own critics with debates over rape, sex, and consent (specifically regarding scenes from “Decent” which, of course, are directly from the show). Getting meta and representing a debate happening outside of the show within it is never a good idea, and it’s one of the many scenes that makes The Affair’s new season exceptionally stuffy at times.
And yet, the series remains effective at ripping open the emotional wounds of its characters and letting that pain flow over viewers. Alison’s struggles with Cole over the future of their daughter is heart-wrenching, especially given everything we’ve seen the fragile Alison go through over the years. Helen’s love and loyalty to Noah is also difficult to watch given how unbelievably dickish he continues to be towards her constantly, and the way he represents her in his POV stories as a meddlesome shrew is hard to stomach. And while Juliette’s POV brings about more Noah (typically Affair viewers’ least favorite character), she also mixes in her own painful story with the others, showing … what, exactly? Everybody hurts? If you don’t already know that about the world of The Affair I don’t know what you’ve been doing.
As for this season’s sketchy mystery, it’s built around an unstable prison guard who seems obsessed with Noah. He’s played, rather inspiringly, by a barely recognizable Brendan Fraser. But here is where The Affair gets to be at both its best and most irritating. The stories of this guard and of Juliette are fantastic vignettes when taken on their own. But because they are swallowed up in Noah’s story — one that has always struggled to be even remotely compelling — they feel out of place at best and gimmicky at worst, especially when we have the stories of three other people (Cole, Alison, and Helen) that are wonderful to watch.
The Affair Season 3 does at least feel like a new chapter, kicking off with yet another time jump and a new set of challenges for its leads. Its emotionally twists are still devastatingly rendered, and its dour atmosphere settles over all of its characters with pessimistic certainty that things won’t really get better. But occasionally clearing through that fog are glittering moments of hope, and that’s what keeps some of us watching. It just may not ultimately be enough to continue for much longer.
Rating: ★★ Fair
The Affair premieres Sunday, November 20th on Showtime.