The Rashomon effect: contradictory interpretations of the same event by different people. (Derived from the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, where the accounts of the witnesses, suspects, and victims of a heinous crime are all different).
This past weekend I did what any self-respective creative does with the rare opportunity of a free weekend matched with a towering to-do list of jobs looming over their every move: I procrastinated wildly. More specifically, I binge watched season 1 of The Affair in its entirety. That’s 10 hours that I spent in its emotionally draining, chaotically polarised narratives, my poor boyfriend playing Battlefield next to me plagued by the howling sex scenes roaring out of my laptop besides him.
‘Are they having sex again?!’ he’d laugh, horrified, as sex-noises screeched out into the chasm of our living room loud enough to drown out the bullets and bombs of his game. And yes. Of course they were. Sex in The Affair is as ready to go as a pre-packed burrito from a fast food chain. Our mutually destructive lovers lock eyes, lock lips, unbuckle pants and delve in without worrying about snapping anything (that’s a thing that happens you guys!). It is all plunge and no foreplay. But who ever remembers foreplay, right? When you win a race you don’t recount the warm up, but simply how terrifically you crossed the finish line.
And this is a crucial element of the genius that is The Affair: it’s all about the distortion of memory, the inconstancies of perspective and most importantly, stories. Stories that we retell, stories that we create, stories that we cling to and stories that could in some way inform our innocence in the role of a crucial, terrible event (or many of them).
The Affair is a narrative marvel in that it sets up a basic, contrived plot line (A lascivious affair, you say? Mid-life crisis, you mutter? Surely not!) and not only frames it within an as yet unforeseen murder mystery but also projects it from a series of unreliable narrators where no character is quite as guilty or as innocent as they may seem.
Season 1 deals with these unreliable versions of events by splitting each episode, and the events of each episode, into two. We see the same story from the perspectives of Noah (the self-important writer struggling to project his desired identity onto his actual life) and Alison (the troubled waitress, struggling to survive beneath the weight of financial troubles, marital woes and the death of her 4 year old son) and in doing so the standard form of TV narration is wonderfully subverted so we can experience the story through both the male and the female gaze.
When Noah is retelling his version of events, Alison appears as a beacon of sexually predatory vigour. She’s always impeccably put together with beyond beautiful hair which is never a strand out of place and her body appears as only a mere prop for his salacious desires. She bends over in tiny skirts, she flexes her bare legs seductively whilst sat on a beach, she serves him his drink of choice without him even after to ask for it and she strips off without warning. Alison, in Noah’s story, is a woman who is waiting for any man to swoop in and nail her, as though dick has a medicinal property that is the only cure for her sickness, and as such she is dressed and acts accordingly to his troubling observation of her.
In Alison’s version of events, she is coy and distraught, an eternal victim of life and of the World. Her clothes always look like whatever she found clean on the floor of her house and her hair is usually forced up away from her face, limp yet chaotic (FYI this is also my work ‘look’ of choice). Noah appears to her as a white knight of experience, a big shot from the city and a potential vehicle to sweep her away from the apparent nightmare she’s living in Montauk.
In Alison’s version of events she is always the innocent party, a driftwood caught up in a vicious tide and she is never the instigator. Sex, to Alison, is a violent catharsis as essential to her healing as the blades she rips across her thighs to feel better. Her body is a conduit for expressing the chaos and grief of her inner life, and little else. Everything terrible that happens to Alison begins as an accident that has the opportunity to be caught mid-consequence but which spirals into a legitimate problem when she fails to act on the initial warning signs (such as her dead son who could have been saved had she just taken him to the hospital straight after he almost drowned or Noah who she could have just stopped having wild monkey sex with in lieu of fixing her own life for herself, which is clearly all she needed to do).
But ego is a terrible thing, and the characters of The Affair all think they know best by serving their own interests before anyone else’s. To the ego, everyone is merely a supporting character to their own crucial narrative, and in The Affair consequences spiral off and impact a wide set of this ‘supporting cast’ of little significance to those that it doesn’t effect.
When Noah tells his oldest daughter, Whitney: ‘Your words and your actions have consequences. You’re not the only person who’s real!’ he is pretty much relaying the extended mantra of all of the shows characters who are quick to criticise others but fail to accept responsibility for playing a part in whatever failure they’re critiquing them for.
This is especially interesting in how Cole, Alison’s long suffering husband, is represented in both sides of the main couple’s narrative. Alison sees him as a dead weight, a physical embodiment of a noose which tightens the more she tries to get away from him. He is a man who is literally killing her with kindness (as Cole mentions in her version of events in the season 1 finale: ‘She sure as shit doesn’t respond to kindness’), when what she appears to dearly want is a man who will fight back or push her away and finally reward her with the freedom to abandon herself in whatever way she requires to survive.
Cole, however, is essentially absent in Noah’s narrative, existing only to re-affirm Noah’s opinion of himself as being a good man and a goddamned Prince taking Alison away from a life of abject misery. In fact, the first time Noah sees Cole is when he is fucking Alison up against a car in a grim voyeuristic display that looks a lot like rape (in Alison’s version she rejects Cole’s invitation to have loving sex inside the house, intimating that what she really wants is a rough, ugly shag up against the car. Ah, romance). He comes off as being abusive and controlling, but most of all he is presented as being less than real, a cipher with little to say for himself, he instigates drama and antagonism but has no life of his own.
TheAffair is all about fantasy, rather than love. The central ‘love’ story is unconvincing because the main couple do not act as though they’re in love or even present each other in their versions of themselves as someone that the other truly does love. It’s a superficial relationship with few foundations in reality (but then, aren’t they both using each other to avoid their own realities?). The versions of each other that they represent in their own versions of events are completely polarised to how they actually represent themselves.
Whilst The Affair is stunning in it’s depiction of gender politics and heteronormative relationships, it’s also terrific in it’s insight into human nature and how we all rely on stories, memory and fantasy in confirming our own identities, relationships, love affairs and existence in spite of the unreliable nature of their sources.
We can see it in Alison’s grandmother with her deteriorating mind, failing to recognise her own daughter but acknowledging her granddaughter. We see it in the history of Montauk itself with it’s long standing family feuds and bootlegging enterprises spilling out into the present. We see it in how Alison’s boss Oscar clings on to the one time he got to fuck her as a teenager (‘I popped her cherry’ he brags to Noah at one point) and uses it as agency for some crude ownership he thinks he’s entitled to have over her. And we see it in the horrifically heartbreaking sequences in which the events which led to the death of Cole and Alison’s son are continually brought up as emotional bartering tools with the blame firing from one parent to the other, but neither truly capable of distinguishing the true event from the version of it they each have in their head.
As a story about stories in which a main character is (in all likelihood) writing a book based on said stories, The Affair is a piece of unbridled meta TV drama which is beguiling in it’s portrayal of the delusions, fantasies and lies which stab at the heart of all of human existence but also in it’s awareness of standard contemporary television tropes, structures and characterisation with an aping of the use of male and female gaze in modern programming.
From a writing perspective, the show carefully deconstructs the complexities of each character by engaging with them from different perspectives. The psychology of each character is laid bare, and in any usual show – even an ensemble one – we’ll always rely on one main character from which to designate a core perspective. In The Affair, the writers have gotten directly into the minds of each character and keep pushing whatever buttons they have for implosion, and if you look closely enough you can see the strings that they’re pulling to make each character move.
With the first episode of Season 2 having just aired it’ll be interesting to see which track the show chooses to take next and which characters we’ll be allowed to probe the minds of next. One things for sure, you won’t be able to believe a single word of it. And that’s the most honest story there is.
Amy Roberts (a.k.a Alabama Roxanne) is a writer, blogger and multidisciplinary artist based in Liverpool, UK. She’s published internationally, in print and online, and recently had a guest editorship at Queen of the Track zine. Her poetry explores the mythologies of the Final Girl, which is the basis of her collection-in-progress. She was featured on a panel of David Lynch experts at a Northern Film & Media event in early 2015, and is the bassist for crust-punk band Aüralskit. Her blog ‘I Never Knew You Were Such A Monster‘, fiction and non-fiction about the horrors of everyday life, was shortlisted in the Blog North Awards two years running. She’s interested in illustration, photography, go-go dancing and Timothy Olyphant. She is vehemently, batshit insanely, Team Catalano.