Showtime’s “The Affair” has proven itself to be an intriguing character study for three seasons now — but it’s time to stop pretending that it’s an ensemble drama.
When the Golden Globe-winning series began in Season 1, its daring approach to splitting the characters’ points-of-view created a unique approach to drama, opening itself up to plenty of discussion about subjective versus objective truth, especially when it comes to how men and women might see things differently.
Over the course of the first season, as viewers followed the story of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), the series very much felt split down the middle, with equal balance between the show’s dual perspectives. However, this left other supporting characters out of the mix. When Season 2 began introducing the perspectives of Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson), it felt like a natural slide to the show really leaning into the talents of its ensemble cast.
Helen and Cole, as Noah’s and Alison’s former partners, added additional insight into the nuances of these relationships while also pursuing their own stories. Then came Season 3, which offered up a brand new voice in the form of Juliette (Irene Jacob), a French professor who entered Noah’s life after his release from prison.
But in retrospect, the decision to add additional perspectives had a completely different result, due entirely to narrative choices made by the writers. For perspective on this, we crunched the numbers.
There is something fascinating to the fact that “The Affair” made it explicitly easy to know how much of the story is devoted to each character: The breakdown of each episode into parts focusing on individuals. First, we tallied up how many half-episodes — AKA “parts” — each character has had over the past 32 episodes…
Noah: 26.5 parts
Alison: 20.5 parts
Helen: 8.5 parts
Cole: 6.5 parts
Juliette: 2 parts
Note: Episode 209, in an aberration from format, was split between Noah, Alison, Helen, and Cole (hence the .5 parts). Episode 301, featuring Noah exclusively, counts for two parts.
Based on the above, we get the following visual key to how much of the show is devoted to each character:
But here’s what happens when you look at it season-by-season:
When you look at the progression over the seasons, Noah’s slice of the pie did get somewhat smaller. But by the numbers, it’s Alison’s role in the show that has significantly declined — in fact, by the end of Season 3 she and Helen had parity. In comparison, Noah remained the dominant character of the show.
And here’s the problem: Noah’s kinda the worst. He’s done irreparable damage to his children. He’s continually shown bad judgement when it comes to hedonistic pleasures. He has multiple times shown, at best, a very poor understanding of what consent means. And although he’s depicted as a celebrated author, he may not even be that great a writer, per creator Sarah Treem herself.
Season 3, which devoted a great deal of time to delving into the roots of his dysfunction, suffered from this attention to him. We learned a great deal over these 10 episodes, especially about the circumstances surrounding Noah’s mother’s death: To the show’s credit, it never tried to justify his bad behavior with his past tragedies, but it did make Noah’s inner torture the overarching theme of the season. His perspective overwhelmed everything.
Meanwhile, Alison had a small scene in Episode 9 and no presence in Episode 10, which was given over largely to Noah and Juliette’s adventures in Paris. Her struggle to rebuild her life got completely sidelined by these other stories; by comparison, Helen and Cole seemed to get more of a complete arc to their stories. And Alison began as one of the show’s two lead characters! Which, when you consider the immense talents of Ruth Wilson, feels like a genuine waste.
The show’s Season 3 finale offered Noah some redemption, but also cemented his position as the show’s primary focus, for better and for worse. For better, in that now we know exactly who exactly matters most to “The Affair.” For worse, in that it’s the wrong person. If Noah is truly the main character on “The Affair,” that dampens our excitement for Season 4.