A few years ago, when asked what I thought of Showtime’s The Affair, I referred to it as something of a piece of literature to Revenge’s trashy romance novel. After its contemplative and heady third season, I’m not so sure that comparison still applies. The drama, which began with the affair of Alison Lockhart and Noah Solloway, is still rich in atmosphere and sweating with subtext, but that subtext is starting to become a little heavy-handed. With the fourth season reportedly being its last, I genuinely have no clue where they can go from here.
This season of The Affair picked up three years from the events of Season 2 and saw the characters in much different places. Noah (Dominic West) attempted to rebuild his life after a traumatic experience in prison. Helen (Maura Tierney) became increasingly more desperate and obsessed with Noah, to the point of self-destruction. Alison (Ruth Wilson) struggled with proving her strength and ability to care for her daughter in the wake of yet another emotional breakdown. Cole (Joshua Jackson) tried, and largely failed, to be a good husband and family man. Juliette came to terms with her unhappy marriage to her ill husband and…oh, wait. Who’s Juliette?
For some reason, The Affair’s writers found it necessary to add a fifth main character to the already crowded cast of characters. Juliette, a sexually charged French literature professor who fell in love with Noah, was considered so important that half of the season finale was dedicated to her perspective. And for the most part, her story fell flat, as we had no reason to care about her or her supporting cast of pretentious academics.
Aside from the faux-art house academia film that was Juliette’s universe, the individual stories were quite good. Noah’s main scene partner this season was a prison guard played by an unrecognizable Brendan Fraser, who was disarming one moment and extremely intimidating the next. Noah had a deep, dark secret that would ultimately lead to his partial redemption. His secret—that he assisted his mother’s suicide as a teenager when she was terminally ill—was heartbreaking and powerful, but the way it all unfolded was a little silly, with increasingly over-the-top scenes of Noah hallucinating and snapping at people.
Alison and Cole had a much more straightforward story. Alison found a little inner strength while Cole’s stoic white knight persona began to crumble under pressure. The best story, though, was Helen’s, showing us a woman on the brink of ruining her entire life for a man who wants nothing to do with her. Watching Helen’s downward spiral—having an alarming confrontation with Noah’s sister Nina (Jennifer Esposito), seducing Max (Josh Stamberg) and rejecting him a moment later, pushing away nice guy Vik (Omar Metwally) and finally realizing she’d been carrying a man’s torch for all the wrong reasons—was riveting.
There were some fun subplots this season, too. One highlight was Whitney’s (Juliana Goldani Telles) relationship with much older artist Furkat (Jonathan Cake), which was both hilarious and horrifying. We still can’t believe Helen’s parents (John Doman and Kathleen Chalfant) were going to lock Helen in a panic room (and we’re still curious why a panic room locks from the OUTSIDE). And watching a clueless Noah eviscerate a vapid writing student’s (Sarah Ramos) work was cringe-worthy in the best way possible.
At this point, The Affair has brought its characters so far and told so many interesting stories, we’re surprised there’s going to be another season. Cracks are beginning to show in the lining—with five characters and five different perspectives, it’s beginning to spread a little thin. Like the taxi driver asked Noah in the finale, “Where we going?”