“Sink back into the ocean” The Affair (2014-2019) as Dystopian Parable

The opening credit sequence to Showtime’s The Affair (2014-2019) features Fiona Apple’s haunting original song “The Container.” The lyrics and the imagery portend a woman’s death as she “sinks back into the ocean.” The ocean is more than just a picturesque backdrop for this relationship drama set in the Hamptons town of Montauk; it is associated with the unrelenting grief and sorrow of its protagonists and the rapid decline of civilization itself.  The Affair explores the far-reaching consequences of an affair between Noah Solloway (Dominic West), a frustrated writer summering in Montauk with his in-laws, and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), a local waitress tormented by her son’s drowning death. What begins as a moment of passion and connection between two damaged souls profoundly alters the lives of their families for generations. From the painful consequences of divorce and second marriages to the more extreme scenarios of manslaughter, imprisonment, and even murder, The Affair expands its universe of suffering and family drama with each season, culminating in a final season partially set decades after Noah and Alison first meet.

I have no interest in relating all of The Affair’s twists and turns over the course of five seasons. I am trying to be as spoiler-free as possible, but I do want to highlight the ways in which the series connects the destructive aftermath of Noah and Alison’s extramarital relationship to a dystopian future characterized by chronic environmental disasters like wildfires and, of course, the coasts sinking “back into the ocean.” It is telling that The Affair was plagued by its own drama, specifically Ruth Wilson’s mysterious sudden departure from the cast after season four. Wilson later claimed the set was a “hostile environment” where she was pressured into uncomfortable sex scenes and excessive nudity. Her character’s violent death seems disturbingly personal on the part of the showrunners. Alison is assaulted by a love interest who finishes the job by, you guessed it, drowning her in the ocean. Her death ruled a suicide, which no one has a problem believing, Alison leaves a daughter, Joanie, who was conceived with her ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson).

Noah and Alison begin an affair with far-reaching consequences.

Season five is a story of redemption for Noah, who reconciles with his ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and his estranged children. The second storyline concerns an adult Joanie (Anna Paquin) traveling to Montauk and discovering the truth about her mother’s murder. Although separated by thirty years, Noah and Joanie come to grips with their demons amid environmental disaster. It is as if the disintegration of these families is mirrored by the humanity’s own self-destructive spiral. Joanie contends with her own existential despair working as a coastal engineer and grappling with her issues as a disinterested mother and wife. Joanie is watching the planet die, as her visit to Montauk proves. Once a beautiful locale for the rich, Montauk is now a gloomy and eerie wasteland surrendering to global warming. The scenes with Joanie remind me of dystopian 70s sci-fi films and at first seem strangely out of place with the rest of the series. But what if this wrenching drama was really about the end of the world all along?  

Joanie Lockhart returns to dying Montauk as a coastal engineer in The Affair’s final season.

Noah’s storyline begins in contemporary Los Angeles. His moment of truth occurs during one of the many raging wildfires consuming California every season like clockwork. Noah and Helen negotiate fiery highways, scorched hills and burning neighborhoods, barely escaping death while watching others meet theirs. The two make amends after Noah admits all his failures stemming from the fateful affair. The story comes full circle at their daughter’s wedding in Montauk, but the final scenes bring together a very old Noah and his one-time step daughter Joanie. It seems Noah bought the Lobster Roll, the restaurant where everything started in The Affair, and still operates it despite Montauk being a wasteland. The two characters sit at the same table Noah first met Alison and tell their tales. Noah helps bring Joanie some kind of closure and maybe a chance for happiness.  Noah is a widower now, but his children are back in his life and flourishing. In the final scene Noah remembers the wedding where he reconciles with Helen and does a little dance to Fiona Apple’s happier “The Whole of the Moon” on the site of his in-laws’ old house, now swallowed by the ocean. It is bitter-sweet.

Noah Solloway dances amid the ruins of the once mighty Montauk coastline .

Many people gave up on The Affair after Ruth Wilson’s departure, and I get that, but I was moved by the last season and its admittedly muddled subtext. Just because the world is a disaster doesn’t mean you can’t extract some joy out of life before its all over. After all, we all sink back into the ocean.

Published by Brian E. Crim

Brian Crim is professor of history at the University of Lynchburg and author of Planet Auschwitz: Holocaust Representation in Science Fiction and Horror Film and Television. Other books include Our Germans: Project Paperclip and the National Security State and Antisemitism in the German Military Community and the Jewish Response, 1914-1938.

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