TV Review: ‘The Affair’ Sinks Back Into the Ocean for Its Final Season

“The Affair” has taken its viewers on quite a ride over the course of five seasons. What started as a tawdry, beach-side romance has featured drug smuggling, murder, a vengeful prison guard and, most recently, the death of one of its main characters. The show’s fifth and final season has plenty more tricks up its sleeve. Like many of the aforementioned tricks, most of them are completely ludicrous. Still, there’s something insanely watchable about “The Affair,” tricks and all.

The main trick of this season is how meta it gets. Seasons ago, Noah Solloway (Dominic West) turned the events of season one into a quasi-fiction novel named “Descent.” This season, “Descent” gets turned into a movie, with Noah acting as a screenwriter. As if we didn’t get enough perspectives of the titular affair between married, rich author Noah and grieving waitress Allison (Ruth Wilson), now we get the perspective of celebrity director Sasha Mann (Claes Bang) on the season one events. At one point, Sasha implores Noah to pick a perspective. “I shot [the scene] both ways,” Sasha says. “But I’m not going to shoot the whole fucking movie like that.” It may feel tiresome to re-litigate the affair that started it all, but the book to movie conceit gives us Sasha, who proves to be a fun wrench in the series.

Show-runner Sarah Treem plays with these characters like Sims. She gives them fabulous houses, grand lives and insatiable drama. She also has a death wish for each of the characters, torturing them from the vantage point of multiple perspectives. Last season, we saw Allison (Ruth Wilson) brutally murdered at the hands of a date. This season, neither her or her jilted ex, Cole (Joshua Jackson) are back at all, despite being day one main characters. Out of sight and out of mind, the show has tossed the only non-1% characters out of the narrative like old toys. Turns out, the remaining Solloway’s are the most fun to play with.

There are few things the show knows more about than white-woman grief. Luckily, no one plays this better than Maura Tierney. The show opens with the funeral of Helen’s (Tierney) longtime boyfriend, Vic (Omar Metwally). Naturally, his funeral causes lots of bickering between Helen and Vic’s parents about his final wishes. While this provides a good amount of drama, Helen’s best moments early on come when the show doubles back to Vic’s last days. Tierney understands that Helen began her mourning even before Vic officially died. Just reading her face, one understands the overwhelming grief that’s weighing her down. One might think this could read as exhausting or one note. Luckily, Tierney finds a lightness to Helen. In losing her latest love, Helen also loses all shame and finds a freedom in choosing what direction the next phase of her life will take.

This loss also makes Helen, most importantly, even more blunt than ever before. Maura Tierney has tremendous fun throwing shade at a near constant level. Having her on-set for “Descent’s” filming, Helen relives the confrontations that ended her and Noah’s marriage. On a visit to Sasha’s goofily sparse Malibu estate, Helen reveals how much she hates her ex-husband’s lauded book. Quite frankly, she just doesn’t think its well-written or any good. Sasha chuckles and mentions how many people love the book. Helen quips back “Yes, but I’m not sure that they’re very smart.” Tierney never overplays her hand, but always makes Helen the most interesting person in the room.

It helps that West continues to lean further into Noah’s histrionics. He growls through every line with the tact and grace of a bull in a china shop. The show continues to act as if it’s a revelation that Noah is a cad. It wants to tease that Noah has the possibility to change or earn forgiveness. Whenever it poses this question to the audience, my reply back continues to be a resounding, “Who cares?” The show would work better if it stopped its multiple-perspectives hook and just became about Helen’s search for a new chapter in life.

The show attempts to broaden itself outside Noah and Helen. However, it does so with particular unease. Episode two starts out from the perspective of Janelle (Sanaa Latham), Noah’s new girlfriend and principal of the school he works at. As the lone POC perspective this season, she gives us a fresh look at these characters we know and (maybe) love. Through Janelle’s perspective, we see the many micro-aggressions that these rich WASPs throw out like confetti. While this aspect of Janelle’s perspective is interesting, the second half of her arc involves an endless scene between her and her ex-husband (Russell Hornsby) who, spoiler alert, once also had an affair. The show gives her a perspective, but never a character. Even as we explore her life further, the show runs out of things for her to do.

So many threads like this suffer from the same problem. They seem like great ideas in theory, but haven’t been fully worked out. Helen’s new-age neighbor, Sierra (Emily Browning), feels like another idea the writers were once passionate about in season four, but almost forgot now. Though she is pregnant with Vic’s baby, she exists mostly as a scene partner to give Helen something wacky to stress about. Sierra’s natural birthing ceremony feels ripped from the broadest of SNL sketches. 

The most high profile addition to this season is likely Anna Paquin. The Oscar winning actress stars as Joanie Lockhart, the daughter of Cole and Allison. All of her scenes take place roughly 20-30 years in the future, the world ravaged by climate change. Every scene is decorated with bits of technology and dour headlines that wouldn’t feel out of place in “Years and Years” on HBO. After three episodes, Joanie’s journey still hasn’t quite proven its relevancy to the story. Yet, Paquin gives the role a mystifying sadness that feels quite compelling. It’s almost as if the pain Allison felt in her life was passed down to Joanie through osmosis.

Whatever reveals come Joanie’s way will likely be ludicrous, bombastic and, quite possibly, dumb. However, the show makes me want to keep going to find out. What happens on screen is often not objectively good. Most of the time, it’s ridiculous. However, there’s still a lot of juice in this pulpy harlequin paperback of a show. The show has always been the best when it leaned into its true star, Maura Tierney. With Paquin and Bang joining the cast, there’s a new strong second string of actors who are incredibly watchable. If you’ve come this far on the show, there’s no point in backing out now. Enjoy the ride right up to the finale.

“The Affair” Season Five premieres on Showtime on Sunday, August 25th. Three episodes were screened for review.

GRADE: (★½)

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