31 Aug ‘The Affair’ Season Four Gets Real with Diversity and Social Commentary
*Spoiler alerts for seasons one through four of The Affair. Content warning for discussions of trauma, suicide, domestic violence, and murder.*
Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson) and Cole Lockhart lost their toddler in an accidental drowning in their home of Montauk. Cole closes off emotionally, forcing Alison to deal with both of their grief and trauma. Another near-death situation of a child leads Alison into writer Noah Solloway’s (Dominic West) life, along with his wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and their four children. Alison is grieving and Noah is bored, and their affair effectively blows up not just Noah’s family, but also Alison’s and Cole’s respectively.
The outward ripples of Alison and Noah’s liaison in seasons one through three of The Affair propel their entire social orbit into various stages of explosion, including more affairs and the accidental death of Cole’s brother in a hit and run caused by Helen and Alison. Noah covers for his ex-wife and new one, spending years in jail for manslaughter. While Noah is away Helen remarries a successful surgeon, Vik Ullah (Omar Metwally), and Alison divorces him. Cole remarries Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who helps raise Cole and Alison’s new child—one conceived in yet another affair. Upon Noah’s release, he has a psychotic break that forces him to deal with his involvement in his mother’s death, a breakdown that very nearly kills him. By the end of the third season, we see a more honest set of characters ready to move forward.
Which they do in the recently concluded fourth season of The Affair. Helen and Vik live in Los Angeles, and Noah moved there to be closer to his two children who will still talk to him. Luisa and Cole are trying to sort out her undocumented immigration status. And Alison is blissfully single, focusing on her career as a grief counselor and daughter until she meets enigmatic Ben Cruz (Ramon Rodriguez). But as is the case with these folks, there is always trouble in paradise. Season four of The Affair begins with Alison missing, and foul play suspected.
Even though I’ve been watching The Affair since it began, it wasn’t for the plot or these hot-mess characters. What’s fascinating about the show is its unique narrative structure that shifts from each character’s perspective, often showing conflicting versions of the same events. As the seasons roll on, we get to see the perspectives of more than just the two who began the entire sordid affair (pun intended). And as the story unfolds, the showrunners and writers also begin toying with their presentation of time, often jumping back and forth between events that took place years from each other.
Once the perspectives of Alison’s ex Cole and Noah’s ex Helen enter the narrative picture, it opens up the story to demonstrate just how complicated perceived relationships can be, and how small misunderstandings and miscommunications can further unravel the tapestry of a family. The story might not be all that interesting, but the way the writers have chosen to tell it absolutely is. It often reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, including the driving themes of sex, obsession, betrayal, and murder.
But it’s not until the fourth season of The Affair that the narrative expands exponentially to include a supporting cast of almost entirely people of color portrayed three-dimensionally, instead of ancillary.
Luisa Leon (Catalina Sandino Moreno), Cole’s undocumented wife personifies all the precarity that comes with being Brown in a post-Trump America. At one point a cop pulls Luisa over, only letting her go without checking her ID because of his friendship with the Lockharts. Luisa’s undocumented status isn’t the only cause of stress in her life: she suspects her husband is still in love with his ex Alison, and Luisa even concocts a plan to throw Alison under the bus for her postpartum depression in order to facilitate getting her American citizenship. Luisa may be married to Cole now, but because of her legal status she has limited power and agency to craft her own narrative. Luisa perfectly demonstrates how being undocumented curbs one’s choices into all rocks and hard places.
Vik Ullah (Omar Metwally), Helen’s new husband, has an almost textbook South Asian immigrant experience including the variety of complications that drove him to get where he is (*cough* guilt-tripping parents *cough cough*) as a successful and sought-after specialized surgeon. I couldn’t help but think of Piyali Bhatcharya’s Good Girls Marry Doctors: South Asian American Daughters on Obedience and Rebellion and how so much of that Desi experience ends up subverted in The Affair’s fourth season with Vik marrying a white woman who already has her own brood of children. Vik’s mother Priya, beautifully played by Zenobia Schroff, stole every scene she was in. My favorite was when Priya gave Helen a Desi aunty’s deadly side-eye as she filled Helen’s vanilla fridge with Tupperware of homemade Indian food. That shade was spicy.
While Principal Janelle Wilson (Sanaa Lathan) and her son Anton Gatewood (Christopher Meyer) may be dysfunctional in their way, it is refreshing that the one Black family heavily featured in The Affair would be among the most functional out of everyone. More epic shade was thrown when Anton’s dad Carl (Russel Hornsby) has to be the one who reminds Noah over and over that he does actually have another—his own—family, and maybe that’s where he should be focusing. Anton echoes this sentiment in his goodbye to Noah.
Also, a prominent Black family brings into stark relief how Noah’s criminal past won’t affect his white privilege and ability to bounce back in a way that Anton, Carl, and others will never have as Black men. “Do you have to be white to move through the world like that, with such indifference?” Anton writes about Noah. “A kind of sociopathy maybe?” Noah isn’t even remotely aware of his privilege until Anton and his family point it out. Repeatedly.
Alison’s new love interest Ben is a charming ex-marine almost through with his first year of sobriety. Ben is also a PTSD counselor for veterans and civilians, and finds a kindred tortured soul in Alison. Until she finds out he is married with children and a new hell breaks loose.
While it’s a win having such three-dimensional characters of color, they, unfortunately, each get shafted by the end. Luisa becomes a bitter, abandoned woman whipped into a corner by her undocumented status and the fact her husband loves someone else. Ben murders again—this time outside of a war zone—and spirals back into a gruesome cycle of addiction and violence. Vik dies of pancreatic cancer at not even 50. Only Janelle, Anton, and even her ex-partner Carl escape the curse of being a person of color on this show. Then again, it kind of feels like all the characters in this show have their own personal curses, most of which they can’t escape.
For several weeks before the fourth season conclusion, The Affair hinted that Alison Bailey’s death was by her own hand, a socially relevant plot twist that mirrors so many unexpected celebrity suicides just this year alone. But it was a fake-out, and Alison was murdered in a horrific bout of intimate partner violence. Ben killed her to make sure she’d never tell his wife about their affair, and dumped her body in the ocean. I’ve honestly never so much wished that a character had actually killed themselves than how they actually died. Alison wasn’t perfect, but she deserved a better ending than Ben.
But then again, intimate partner violence is a huge problem not just in this country but everywhere in the world, and takes so many women’s lives daily. Yet, domestic violence continues to be a taboo topic. The tragedy of this particular partner death is that Alison, in trying to stand up for herself and shift her narrative like Helen recommended, put herself in a dangerous position that did turn deadly. It reminded me of old-school Diane Keaton film Looking for Mr. Goodbar, which back in its day was a warning to sexually liberated women that one wrong man in your home might end with your murder. Even more heartbreaking when Helen says to Alison just days before her murder: “You have so much time left.” She didn’t.
The Affair isn’t a plot I would follow anywhere else. Each cliffhanger season ending was worse and darker than the one before. And yet as the story picked back up and plopped us further down The Affair’s rabbit holes in unexpected ways I did indeed find myself more and more entangled in all the variety of experiences portrayed. All of this is really a testament to the phenomenal writers and stunning performances that drove a painful and uncomfortable narrative into territory I never imagined it would end up. The Affair should be required viewing and reading for any screenwriting and visual storytelling class. What they have created here is singular and I’d love to see more films and television playing with narrative structures and perspectives the way The Affair has done.
And unlike every other season of the show which had me playing the role of detached observer and writer studying their craft of storytelling, my season four affair moved me to tears with every single episode. The love exorcism described by Nan (Amy Irving) in episode five went straight into my heart and now lives there permanently.
I’ve been stunned by the ending for days. For the first time, The Affair’s fourth season actually concluded on a positive note that, in spite of everything terrible that happened, and gives me hope for the future of these remaining characters I’ve weirdly come to love. I cannot wait to see the matriarchy, headed by Vik’s incredible mom Priya, that will inevitably emerge in the show’s final season as they come together to raise the child that was Vik’s dying wish.
After four years of watching this show, I am finally and officially a fan. I hope their push toward diversity, inclusion, and relevant social commentary continues in The Affair’s final season next year. I also hope there will be justice for Alison as a proxy for all the women murdered by their partners who never receive it.