[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “The Affair” Season 4, Episode 10.]
For a show that’s rarely been all that big on the concept of optimism, the Season 4 finale of “The Affair” seemed to feature its characters… well, not in a particularly happy place, but certainly committed to moving forward with their lives. The men who loved Alison (Ruth Wilson) begin to process their grief for her, while the woman who stands to lose her own love seems to come to terms with that.
The absence of Wilson will be a blow going forward for this series, as the alternate universe version of “The Affair” Season 4, a season which wasn’t built in part around Wilson’s departure, is interesting to imagine. Would Alison have continued to find her own footing as she rebuilds her life? Or would her ongoing struggles ultimately sabotage all of the progress she’d made?
Another interesting question to consider is this: If there was no Season 5, and the Season 4 finale was the last episode of the show, would the series as a whole hold together? Honestly, it feels like the answer is yes, especially when you consider it would make a fair amount of sense, and hold together to a degree. There are smaller questions which could be answered: Will Noah’s protégé Anton thrive in a university setting? Will the Lobster Roll ever become a global franchise? Will Whitney ever actually stop being the worst?
Those questions might get resolved in Season 5, but it would almost be antithetical to the nature of the show if the larger questions, like what really happened to Alison, were also answered. Because really, this was never really a show that thrived on the basis of its plotting. Instead, it was about characters and moments.
While theoretically, “The Affair” has been a show about relationships, this week’s points-of-view were split nearly equally between Noah (Dominic West), Cole (Joshua Jackson), and Helen (Maura Tierney), and each of their journeys in this episode felt very individual. Noah confronts a harsh truth about his writing and Cole processes Alison’s death as well as the end of his marriage to Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno). Helen comes to terms with her love for Vic (Omar Metwally), while also seemingly acknowledging that Sierra’s (Emily Browning) pregnancy (something which fulfills one of Vic’s ultimate desires) is something that will be a part of their lives going forward.
It’s a lot of emotion to process, with Cole’s section especially profound following his scene at Gabriel’s graveside, sobbing into his mother’s lap. But there’s a sense of grace that comes with all of the acceptance we see on screen, layered with one pervasive theme: Life is precious, each and every day of it.
Which is perhaps why, while last week’s episode seemed distinctly invested in keeping Alison’s ultimate fate vague, the “Previously On…” montage shown at the beginning of the episode featured the version of Episode 9 that included Ben’s violent attack, followed by Ben letting her body “sink right back into the ocean.” (Years from now, we will all still have Fiona Apple’s haunting theme song for this show stuck in our heads.) It’s a choice that comes dangerously close to establishing as fact the notion that Alison, at least in that moment, didn’t want to die — and thus emphasizing that commitment to life.
This simple theme serves as a sharp contrast to how chaotic this show has been at times; the plot developments that resulted in these tangled romantic lives — the vehicular homicides, drug dealing, jail time, French professors, immigration law, and more — were sometimes captivating mysteries and sometimes distractions from the interesting character work and great acting on hand. So there was something satisfying about this finale’s extreme focus on the characters and their real, true, honest emotions. Noah and Helen’s particularly lovely scene is both a powerful reminder of just how good both West and Tierney are as actors, and how complicated every love story can ultimately become.
Cole flashing back to one of the show’s earliest scenes — Alison asking him how many times they’d had sex — was a stark reminder of a simpler time for all of these people, and just how much has changed. In fact, if you go back and rewatch the very first episode of the series, it serves as a reminder that in its earliest days, “The Affair” was basically just a show about people who weren’t so much sex-crazed as they were desperate to escape their existential dread and pain, via any potential means. Sex just happened to be a way of achieving that.
Death Cab for Cutie’s “What Sarah Said,” the song which opens the Season 4 finale (in a cappella form) and also closes it, is a choice that lacks for subtlety when you consider the lyrics. But the weird power of this show is how it blends the subtle and the extreme to create intensely emotional scenarios. This final beat, with Helen seeming to find the joke in her life as Ben Gibbard sings “love is watching someone die,” lands like a punch.
Is that final message the closing of this chapter of the story, a hint as to what’s to come in Season 5? Or perhaps, like Helen, it’s a reminder that instead of overthinking this final scene, we should simply witness the Los Angeles skyline, the water glinting off the ocean, the stunning performance by Maura Tierney — and breathe it all in.
The first four seasons of “The Affair” are available now on Showtime. The fifth and final season has been greenlit.