[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Affair” Season 4, Episode 8.]
There’s something legitimately stunning about what just happened on “The Affair,” which is nearing the end of a fourth season that up until now has seemed relatively tame, especially for a series that in the past has been fraught with sex, violence, and family drama (often all mixed together).
Sure, Vic (Omar Metwally) received a cancer diagnosis that pushed him into some extreme behavior, and other characters have also engaged in the show’s trademark self-destructive decision making. But the writers’ decision to, as far as we can tell, flat-out kill Alison (Ruth Wilson) in Episode 8 is a shocker that changes the entire nature of the series to a massive degree, especially given the fact that the series was recently renewed for a fifth and final season.
Savvy viewers know that death on television is rarely as permanent as death in real life, but in Sunday’s episode, “The Affair” put some serious elbow grease into trying to convince us that Alison is truly gone. From the heartbreaking trip to the morgue (where we only saw the body from a distance, but did witness Noah’s reaction to seeing its face) to our old friend Detective Jeffries (Victor Williams) taking us to the site where she was found, it seems hard to deny that whether the cause of death be foul play or suicide, in this case, dead is dead.
When the season began, we knew that Alison had gone missing at some point in time, courtesy of the show’s fractured approach to timelines, but for the series, with two episodes left before the end of the season, to take this step is fascinating. This isn’t like “Game of Thrones” killing off some lord from a foreign land. From the beginning, Alison has always felt like the show’s most essential character. Her meeting with Noah in the first episode was essentially the inciting incident that led to seasons’ worth of drama. Whether she was seen as a seductive temptress of married men or a deeply broken woman whose personal tragedies had left her too damaged for this world, in many ways she was the show’s beating heart (even when Noah’s own journey took on more of the show’s focus).
Thus, the way this episode exposed Alison’s alleged fate was truly shocking, given its off-screen nature. Nevertheless, it felt very true to the experience of what really does happen when a loved one is lost; it’s an event more often than not that comes as a shock, that doesn’t feel real for some time, without clear evidence.
This is part of why it’s so important that the entire episode was told from the point of view of Cole (Joshua Jackson), whom we first see in a hopeful state of mind, having driven halfway across the country to reunite with Alison and try to win her back. Much of “The Affair” has been focused on Noah and Alison’s relationship’s ups and downs, but the decision here to keep Cole at the center of events for nearly the full hour felt like the proof needed to believe that Alison was really gone. As the man who’d loved her for years, her passing would affect him the most. The raw nature of Jackson’s performance here cannot be undersold, as he literally staggers under the weight of the grief and rage triggered by Alison’s death. It’s heartbreaking to see him so stripped down, and truly sells the reality of what’s just happened.
(The fact that this development occurs mere minutes after we witnessed the farce that was Noah and Cole pretending to be a married couple to keep Noah’s student Anton (Christopher Meyer) from getting murdered by a redneck motel manager with a cute daughter was the sort of odd tonal shift that has always been a signature of this show, yet — given the heavy nature of what came next — the levity was appreciated.)
Noah did get a brief coda of his own, breaking down after a redheaded waitress in a diner reminded him of that chance encounter, years ago, that completely uprooted his life. It’s clear that both men believe she’s dead and will have to move forward with that knowledge — even while they try to figure out what actually happened to her.
Because of the same blending of timelines that continue to drag the past into the present, it seems more than likely that we haven’t seen the last of Ruth Wilson onscreen. In fact, it definitely feels like the show plans to deliver at least one final point-of-view segment, featuring her final days. And while Alison’s mental state may have been fractured, the possibility that her death is not as simple as a depressed woman dying by suicide is very real.
After all, “The Affair” is a show that’s always had a mystery component to it, and so finding out what exactly happened to Alison that night is likely to be a major aspect of what comes next. Whether that mystery extends into Season 5 is unclear, as this series does have a track record for stretching out its reveals. Remember that it took two full seasons for the first big secret, what happened to Scotty Lockhart, to be fully explained.
But while we wait to learn the truth about Alison’s fate, the real obsession becomes what this means for the show as a whole, going forward. Wilson, for the record, is listed on Variety Insight (a site which tracks the careers of those working within the industry) as currently in production as a series regular on the BBC’s upcoming series adaptation of “His Dark Materials,” alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda, James McAvoy, and Clarke Peters. She is also still listed as a series regular for “The Affair” Season 5, according to Variety Insight, though the press release announcing the Season 5 renewal did not specify which actors would be returning for the final year.
Ultimately, we wait to see whether Alison’s death is the shock to the system that will make this series unmissable for the rest of its run, or if losing Wilson as a performer and Alison as a character will be too much for the show to survive. Either way it goes, there’s one undeniable truth: This is a choice that is not playing it safe.
“The Affair” airs Sundays on Showtime.