The return of “The Affair” for its fourth season continues depicting the characters we’ve come to know well over the years, but also transplants some of them into whole new worlds — specifically, Los Angeles, as well as other California locations.
It was a creative choice that showrunner Sarah Treem said was an element of stress in bringing back the Golden Globe-winning drama, which began as the story of two married couples whose lives become intertwined during a chaotic and adulterous summer in Montauk, New York.
“I felt that the elemental nature of the show is that it really is very place-specific and relies on a ‘cinematographic connection’ to the elements, in order to help us tell our story,” Treem told IndieWire. “I wanted to make sure that we weren’t gonna lose that agenda when we came to Los Angeles. We watched all the greatest hits of L.A. to see how other people had shot this town.”
In addition, Treem wanted to make sure that whatever they were doing was true to the nature of the show, and stood out from what came before.
“Steve [Fierberg], our DP who’s a real genius, came up with this really gorgeous opening shot for Noah driving in the beginning of Season 4, this drone shot. When we first got to the editing room the editor hadn’t used it and I was like, ‘Hey, what happened to that shot?’ And he said, ‘I didn’t think you wanted it because it really doesn’t look like L.A., it looks like Northern California or something.’ And I was like, ‘No no no, that’s the point.’ We’re not trying to show L.A. in the way that everyone’s always shown L.A.”
Los Angeles is a central point of the new season, following the relocation of Helen (Maura Tierney) with her children and new partner Vic (Omar Metwally). In order to spend time with his kids, Noah (Dominic West), also has to make the move as well. Meanwhile, Alison (Ruth Wilson) and her ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) continue to navigate their complicated relationship in Montauk, as co-parents as well as co-owners of the Lobster Roll.
Treem and the writing staff took their time coming back to writing Season 4, spending almost six months on the scripts before filming began, for a number of reasons. “The third season had been really tough for me for a lot of reasons, some of which are personal,” she said. “I had a young daughter, I had a baby during the third season basically. So, partially it was just really nice to have some time to be a mom and not have a ticking clock over my head. I really was grateful for that. But I also think that at the end of the third season we needed a break and we needed some time to think, ‘Okay, where do we want to go from here and where would these characters be going from here?’ And sometimes that just takes time. It’s the thing that happens when you just let your mind clear for a second and let the experiences go from an intellectual whatever to a deeper level.”
Added Treem, “Having that time actually gave us a lot more space to find story more organically. The television cycle can be nuts where you’re finishing post and then you’re back in the writers room a couple of weeks later and you don’t really have a chance to just let your brain settle for a sec and think about how the previous season was received. This was like a gift.”
When it comes to the show’s core quartet of characters, Treem acknowledged that the balance has gone back and forth over the years. “I would say that there are a lot of checks and balances among the relationships between the four characters. When one voice rises, some others fall away and that seems to happen every year,” she said. “And I wouldn’t even necessarily say it’s a conscious choice of ours at the beginning of the year, but if a certain character’s story is somehow emerging as stronger we let it take the lead.”
Of all the characters, Noah has always invited the most discussion, which Treem acknowledged: “What’s been interesting watching Noah over the years is that as his relationship with Helen has changed and she’s becoming stronger — which I think you can really see in this season — he is a character adjusting. And part of that is time and circumstance. I don’t necessarily think people change, but people manifest different parts of themselves as they go through their lives.”
That means that Noah Solloway may never change on a fundamental level, but is also a character in flux. “We met Noah in a marriage, we took him through an affair. Then he went through a nervous breakdown and now he’s basically at this place where he’s trying to put all that behind him and just be,” she said. “I don’t think as a character this year he even particularly wants anything specific when we meet him. He just wants to be OK, and he wants a relationship with his kids, and he wants to live without chaos for a bit.”
That mode of being, she felt, was very different from the character we met at the beginning of the series, “who I think was actually seeking chaos and trying to break out of an existence that felt really mundane and oppressive to him. So, the character has changed a lot, but in a lot of ways, he’s also the same guy that we’ve known for four years. And will be his whole life.”
That’s right: Noah might be capable of change, but not a lot of it. “I don’t think a leopard changes its spots. I don’t see Noah becoming an enlightened millennial over the course of this show. What the show does do, is try to consciously create friction between his worldview and other peoples’ worldview,” she said.
And this is a big deal when you consider that Noah, as IndieWire said to Treem, is often the definition of the middle-aged straight white man. “I would agree with you, that he’s very straight, and he’s very white, and he’s very male,” she said, “and sometimes that worldview serves him really well. And sometimes people respond really well to it and he’s gotten away with a lot because of it. And sometimes he actually comes up against some people who believe something else and he has to kind of come to terms with it. But again, he’s going to come to terms with it in a ‘Noah way.'”
Treem’s ultimate take on him as a character? “He thinks of himself as a good man, he’s trying hard, but there’s so much that he understands and there’s a lot that he’s blind to. And so the way that I think change happens is not overnight. It’s two steps forward, three steps back, one step forward, four steps… It’s a push and pull. My sense is that Noah is evolving through the years but not in a miraculous way — in a very real way.”
“The Affair” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.