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The Affair’s latest, greatest episode holds a difficult irony at its core

The Showtime drama hits a new level with a grim but beautiful hour. But the reason for the episode’s existence casts a pall.

The Affair
Ben and Alison share a romantic moment in an episode that questions whether such moments are even possible.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 12 through 18 is “409,” the ninth episode of the fourth season of Showtime’s The Affair.

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes one singular episode of a show changes how I feel about that show entirely.

Usually, that episode is in the first season, often late in the game, and it shows me that a series I had written off as shallow has other depths buried somewhere within it. The example I almost always point to is how the penultimate episode of Halt and Catch Fire’s first season played a marvelous trick on the characters and audience, revealing the long game the series was playing. But it can arrive in the second season occasionally — as when Buffy the Vampire Slayer went from a show I enjoyed to one I was obsessed with thanks to a memorable second season twist.

And, of course, it’s possible for affections to travel in the opposite direction as well. I remember quite clearly the second episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived, ill-fated attempt to follow up The West Wing with a series about a late-night sketch comedy show) rudely informing me how few clothes this well-reviewed emperor was wearing.

But airing an episode that completely changes how I think about a series in the fourth season? I don’t know that I can think of another example of a show that did this — at least until Showtime’s The Affair.

“409” is a brilliant use of The Affair’s chief storytelling device against itself

The Affair
Ben is two very different people in this episode. But that’s the point.

The Affair is one of those shows I halfheartedly follow. I loved the pilot, found season one to feature diminishing returns, then largely abandoned the show somewhere in early season three, when I felt like it had completely run out of story to tell. I still read recaps for episodes people were wild about, but I didn’t watch myself.

Then, early in season four, the handful of people I trust who still watch this show had such wildly divergent opinions on the season — some loving it and some hating it — that I decided to keep up, as best I could. I haven’t seen every episode, and the show still does many of the things that annoy me (about which more in a second), but count me closer to the “love it” camp than the “hate it” one. And in the season’s ninth episode, the entire series finally crystallized for me, in a way it just hadn’t before.

Viewers enter the episode knowing (from the end of episode eight) that the show’s female lead, Alison (the brilliant Ruth Wilson), has died, apparently of suicide. She drowned in the ocean waves near her home, and both of her ex-husbands, Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Noah (Dominic West), identify her body at the morgue.

Yet viewers know much of the season has been told out of sequence, meaning there’s ample room to leap back in the timeline just far enough to show Alison’s final moments. And thanks to The Affair’s central storytelling device — almost all episodes are split in half and told from two different characters’ point-of-view, exposing contradictions and differences in how they see the world — such a flashback would be even easier to pull off.

That brings us to “409,” which brilliantly upends the device, using it against the audience and the show itself. Both halves of the episode are told from Alison’s point-of-view, depicting her final moments alive. The only other actor featured is Ramon Rodriguez, who plays her new boyfriend, Ben. Alison has discovered Ben is married, and not wanting to repeat her mistakes with Noah (the affair that gives the show its title), she tries to break things off with him.

The first half of the episode plays as a romantic fantasy. It’s Ben who comes clean about his marriage, though he says it’s over and he wants only to be with Alison now. When she asks him to go, he acquiesces, though a dripping faucet (which he fixes) and an offer of dinner keep him around just long enough for the two to fall into each other’s arms after they confess their darkest secrets to each other. (Ben killed a child when he was a Marine on a tour in Iraq; Alison blames herself for the death of her son, which happened before the series began.) It is a lovely dream of acceptance, but it ends with the hint that Alison is still contemplating suicide.

Then the second half of the episode arrives. Here, Ben is angry. He lies when Alison asks him if he has a wife. He says he killed the Iraqi child intentionally, even though he knew the RPG the kid held was nonfunctional, because what else do you do with “vermin”? He’s weepy and needy and desperate, falling off the wagon back into alcoholism, and when Alison finally confronts him about his wife, he shoves her against the wall, then throws her so she cracks her head on a table. He takes her outside and deposits her in the waves, her body sinking to the ocean floor.

Yet I don’t think The Affair is doing anything so simple as, “Which story is true?” Yeah, you can play that game. The first version lines up with what the police tell Noah and Cole, but the second feels more true, in some barely perceptible way. (It does, after all, end with Alison plunging beneath the waves, where the first doesn’t.) But there’s more going on here. Alison’s final voiceover, which she speaks as Ben carries her barely conscious body out into the sea, underlines the cruelest part of Alison’s death: It ends her story, allowing others to define it for her. In part, she says:

I have been in pain my entire life. And maybe that’s what makes people think that I’m weak. And maybe that makes people treat me like some sort of receptacle for all their grief and rage and disappointment. But I am fucking sick of it. I just want to live a different life. I want to live a different story.

It’s a brilliant statement of purpose that made me rethink how I watch the show.

For the most part, The Affair is not a series where we fear for the characters’ lives, but “409’s” script (by co-creator and showrunner Sarah Treem) underlines how death robs us of what agency we have in telling our own stories. Perhaps Alison will live again, getting to tell some newer, happier story. Or maybe she will be resurrected as herself, doomed to live out these events over and over. But in this life, this incarnation as Alison, she no longer can try to define how the world sees her. On a show defined by point-of-view, hers is now a void.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room.

“409” changed how I see The Affair. So did the conversation around “409.”

The Affair
Goodbye, Ruth Wilson.

When I initially saw “409,” I was gobsmacked by the way it felt as if it had been a planned story turn from the very earliest days of the show. When Showtime picked the series up for a fifth season, it announced that the show would be ending with that fifth season, and the death of Alison, perhaps the series’ most integral character, seemed as good a catalyst as any to bring the show’s characters back together for one last storyline.

If I have had an overriding complaint about the series, it has always been that Wilson was so good and Alison so potent a character that together they threw into relief just how weak much of the rest of the show could be, despite its blockbuster cast. Alison is coping with the heaviness of trying to live her life under the shadow of crippling depression, and the other characters are dealing with serious but mostly manageable problems. That caused the series to occasionally spin its wheels or descend into unmotivated melodrama. But the death of Alison is good melodrama, in that it feels deeply rooted in her character and should give everybody else on the show something to play.

And then I started reading more.

I had not realized that Wilson earlier this year pointed out the pay discrepancy between her and West. She said that she understood the disparity at the start of the series (when he was a much more established star), but that it no longer made sense. By that point in the series, Alison had become the most pivotal character, and it was long after Wilson had won a Golden Globe for the role. The discussion and resulting controversy was mostly relegated to The Affair fandom, so if you missed it (as I did), there’s an easy explanation for doing so.

But more news has come out about Wilson’s departure from the show. Treem said that Wilson requested to leave, and Wilson said at an event promoting her new movie, The Little Stranger, that she’s not allowed to talk about why she left The Affair, implying some sort of nondisclosure agreement was signed. That’s hardly typical for an actor leaving a TV show; usually everybody involved comes up with as good a cover story as they can muster, or tells some version of the truth. And it led many to wonder if the pay disparity was a big part of why Wilson left the series.

We likely won’t know for several years, when those involved in the show finally decide enough time has passed to come clean (though who knows how many Affair questions will be asked of them once the series is over). But for as much as I thought “409” was brilliant television, I can’t deny that the shady circumstances that led to its creation cast a pall over it, all the same.

This, I suppose, is the irony of an episode that depicts a woman trying to seize agency in her own life, trying to take control of her story, only to discover someone else may be able to snuff that story out (if you believe that’s what “really” happened in the show). The set-up seems to have come into existence because the actress playing that woman tried to grab hold of her own sense of agency. Was she rebuffed? Cast out? Made to believe she was a thorn in the show’s side? We may never know.

But I do know that “409” is terrific, and Wilson is terrific in it. And as Alison sinks beneath the waves, wondering if she might live a life with less pain, The Affair finally becomes what I hoped it could be all along: a meditation on how little control we have over our own stories when others are involved, on how frustrating it can be to realize that you will always be defined by others’ eyes. That this lesson applies both to Alison and the woman playing her is a cruel irony, but still a necessary one.

The Affair airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Showtime. Catch up with all previous episodes on the network’s streaming platforms.

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