When Showtime’s The Affair began, it made its rules and structure pretty clear: a he said/she said story, with plenty of grey area between the two sides — a grey area in which somewhere, maybe, existed the truth. And to the show’s credit, one of the things that kept it vibrant, even when the series experienced an unfortunate dip in quality in Season Three, was that it was never afraid to explode that concept, even when the results proved frustrating. Season Five, which premieres this Sunday, remains true to that spirit—bold, fearless storytelling that occasionally makes you want to slam your head against a wall. The Affair has always been a fascinating show to watch because much like its characters, it has never feared following its instincts down the wildest paths possible, even if those instincts lead to some terrible choices.
Since the first season, the series has broadened its focus beyond the complicated lives of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson), whose initial affair during a moody Montauk summer kicked off a chain of events which includes vehicular homicide, drug dealing, a “you’re not the father” storyline worthy of Maury Povich, jail time, an interlude in Paris, Brendan Fraser, the shocking death of a key protagonist, and, of course, so many more affairs than the singular nature of the title would indicate.
Creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi have taken us on a helluva ride, and watching the “previously on” for the Season Five premiere, which recaps four seasons worth of bad behavior and terrible choices, is a bit exhausting. (It’s also not short, clocking in at nearly five minutes — and it doesn’t even include the Brendan Fraser stuff!) But in coming to the first three episodes of what will be the final season, there’s also a touch of exhilaration, as we prepare for whatever bonkers twists the writers plan to throw at us.
The biggest twist so far has been common knowledge for a while, ever since the announcement that Anna Paquin would be joining the cast in the role of Joanie Lockhart—Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Alison’s grown-up daughter—meaning that at least one section of the show would take place decades from the present day. The first three episodes only begin to ease us into the future world in which Joanie lives, where the technology is advanced but the climate is on the brink of collapse, and there’s clearly more to come as Joanie returns to Montauk to explore her past. But in these early appearances, Paquin’s performance fits perfectly into the show’s emotionally raw vibe, communicating the same existential dissatisfaction that does, in fact, echo the mother she never got to grow up knowing. And so far, the production design and near-future details dropped into the background have just the right degree of subtlety to not overwhelm the human drama in play.
Meanwhile, the beginning of the season is comparatively tame, all things considered, as two key threads from previous seasons draw a lot of attention. First, there’s Vik (Omar Metwally), whose diagnosis with terminal cancer coincided with a one-night-stand who got pregnant—because it’s not enough for Noah’s ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney) to face losing her longtime partner; life and death need to collide in an even clearer fashion. Tierney won that Golden Globe for a damn good reason, and one of the best aspects of Season Five is the fact that with the departure of Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson from the regular cast, she gets a lot more screen time, as well as some of the most compelling material (which shall go unspoiled here).
Then, there’s the ongoing story of Descent, the “novel” Noah wrote about what happened in Montauk that first summer, which was a big enough bestseller to get Hollywood interested in adapting it for the screen. Noah’s been taking meetings and discussing this possibility since literally Season Two, but as anyone who’s ever tried to make a movie will tell you, it doesn’t often happen fast, so I guess it’s plausible that it’s taken approximately 8 to 10 years for production on the film to finally roll… and more importantly, for the film to find its star.
Played by The Square’s Claes Bang, Sasha Mann isn’t just a charming British actor working hard to suppress his original accent while playing the character of “Daniel” (the decision to have Bang do a British accent feels like a deliberate nod to West’s real-life nationality). Behind the scenes, his interactions with both Noah and Helen are deliberately designed to cast light on how Noah chose to write about what happened in his novel—and concurrently, reveal just how little he might understand about those events, as well as himself.
The full potential of this meta element feels a bit pending as of writing, mostly because (like many of The Affair’s choices) it’ll either prove to be the perfect amount of spice for the stew of human emotions cooking here, or it’ll make the dish inedible. But it does mean there’s a real opportunity for Noah to confront the many ways in which his decisions have hurt others, which is good news for anyone whose chief frustration with the show has been Noah as a character, given his narcissism, white savior complex, and moral looseness. (As Jean-Ralphio would say, “He’s the woooooooooooorrrrst!”)
The Affair began as a murder mystery (“who killed Scotty Lockhart?”) that took two seasons to fully reveal itself and then be resolved; the show only has one season to reveal the truth about Alison’s death…that is, if the viewer is willing to believe it. Ruth Wilson’s final episode features two versions of what happened to Alison the night she died—one implying suicide, the other explicitly showing her get killed—and many interpret the latter to be the truth.
To be fair, the fact that the “previously on” segments tend to include the moment when Alison hits her head lend credence to that argument. But with watching four seasons of this show, and readying to see its final chapters, comes a reminder of the only true thing this show believes in: there is no such thing as the truth. It’s an undercurrent which can sweep you away into an ocean of uncertainty; hopefully, this final season of The Affair finds a way to remain true to that ethos, while also delivering an ending that may not reveal all, but still proves satisfying. Based on the first three episodes, that possibility is real.
The Affair Season Five premieres Sunday, August 25th on Showtime.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.