Fiona Apple’s song ‘Container’ opens Showtime’s The Affair, which is in its 4th season.
My voice it made an avalanche/ and buried a man I never knew/
And when he died his widowed bride/ met your daddy and they made you.
The show itself riffs on that avalanche we can start by carelessly kicking a few stones. Serial blunderer Noah (Dominic West) falls in love with tragic waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson). The gravel starts a tumble into an impusive affair, divorces, babies, stunning success, stunning fall from grace, the destruction of careers and families, blackmail, perjury, disappearance, mental deterioration, stalking and death.
Maybe not the best advert for frustrated teachers chatting up waitresses.
Whilst series 1 was glued together by the romance and a vaguely crimey mystery set in bleakly beautiful Montauk, it settled into more soapy territory in series 2 and 3. Like true soap characters, Noah, Alison and their erstwhile spouses Helen and Cole are predisposed to make bad choices. At times I’ve come to not caring anymore; sort yourselves out guys! It could have been happy(ish) ever after in series 1, certainly in series 2, but no this is TV dramaland. Nobody lives happily ever after.
There is quality in the well-crafted dialogue, character study and the superb cinematography. Daringly there are extended scenes filling a whole inter-advert block with a single conversation or therapy session. Best of all is that season one employs two strong POV: his and hers, and they are not telling the same story. In ‘his’ segments, Noah is frustrated and clumsy whilst Alison is the free spirit; a muse for the wannabe novellist. In ‘her’ segments, he’s the solid, assured one whilst she’s an ill-dressed emotional mess. If re-telling the same scene twice in one episode has its unsurprising aspects, it turns both our characters into unreliable narrators. People wear different clothes, drink different drinks, use different words. Perhaps it is too extreme played back -to – back but it represents the patchy way two people recall the same incident and modify it in their own minds. We, the viewer, don’t actually know where the truth lies.
The trick tires once S2 turns it into a four-way POV, and especially if we don’t care about that scene in take #1, to see it again with the swearing reversed or a bigger horse becomes hard work. However, it has certainly influenced my own writing of PoV characters. From Glint onwards I’m favouring the strong, limited, PoV that brings out a character’s thoughts and prejudices rather than allowing us into the head of every train guard and passer-by we meet.
And that avalanche of small decisions having dramatic consequences? A great starter for any mystery.