"The Affair” Advances Hollywood's Heated War-Between-The-Sexes Conversation
The new Showtime drama joins movies Gone Girl and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby in its exploration of gender wars, a topic that’s currently heating up the pop culture landscape. Warning: Minor spoilers for both films and the series ahead.
While we can attempt to empathize, it's impossible to truly ever know every crevice of someone's psyche, whether it's the stranger you pass in the street or your own spouse. Other people are innately unknowable.
Gone Girl, whose gender politics have been hotly debated, takes this notion to an operatic and hyper-intense place as the audience is forced to contend with the unreliability of two narrators — Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), the seemingly perfect husband with a quick and easy smile, and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a Cool Girl with her sharp nails very much intact. The plot of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl and the subsequent film adaptation, also written by Flynn and directed by David Fincher, toys with the preconceptions of the viewer, jumping back and forth between male and female perspective, between past and present, between fact and fiction, in a tantalizing and telling way, though it never attempts to capture the realities of everyday marriage. The more realistic film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them presents the complete breakdown of the marriage between Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) and Connor Ludlow (James McAvoy), flitting between his and her viewpoints as they attempt to regain their equilibrium in the face of searing loss. It's the grounded and ultimately gut-wrenching counterpoint to Gone Girl, depicting both sides of their struggle with poignancy and grit. If Gone Girl is the cinematic equivalent of a head-on collision, Eleanor Rigby is more like a glancing blow that nonetheless ends up destroying you.
In their own ways, neither film is easy to watch as they portray the vast chasm of perception between the male and female characters — and each is structured in a way that borrows from the mystery format: Did Nick kill Amy? Just what are Eleanor and Connor running from? They achieve their ends in very different ways, however: Gone Girl builds to a Grand Guignol crescendo of horror, while Eleanor Rigby ultimately parcels out the central issue between the estranged couple, posing the question of whether two people, having fallen apart, can ever grow back together. Eleanor Rigby, as a result, becomes a film of two halves — his and hers — as it shifts between the female and male views of the couple. The couple here is far more reliable than Amy and Nick, and Eleanor Rigby director Ned Benson goes to lengths so that neither appears wholly responsible for the breakdown in their marriage — they're both relatable and relatably flawed. The director actually created three films out of the material that he shot on the project: Them and Him and Her, which are being released in select theaters this weekend, showing the extremes of perspective that unfold over the course of their plots.
Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck in Gone Girl; Ruth Wilson and Dominic West in Showtime's The Affair; James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them.
Interestingly, both films opened within a month of each other and coincide with the launch of Showtime's own his-and-her-story: the sophisticated drama The Affair (which begins Sunday, Oct. 12, though it is already available to stream online), from former In Treatment writer Sarah Treem. If Gone Girl and Eleanor Rigby represent the two poles in terms of their treatment of the concept, The Affair lingers intriguingly somewhere in between. Like its cinematic cohorts, The Affair offers up dueling perspectives from the male and female POVs, but it adds another significant layer of complexity to the equation, one that makes The Affair more than mere steamy extramarital drama.
In the new series, the viewer is introduced to aging family man Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and soulful Alison Bailey (Luther's Ruth Wilson), who initially cross paths at a Hamptons diner where she is waiting tables and he is visiting with his wife (a dynamic Maura Tierney) and their unruly brood of children. Despite the differences in their situation, Noah and Alison wind up embarking on an affair together and…something terrible happens. We're not quite sure what that thing is (I have a theory), but in the future, the duo is interviewed, separately, by detectives at a police precinct in a Damages-like structure that makes the viewer weigh what they've seen and judge whether it is true, false, or exists in the hazy gray territory of in-between.
Each episode of The Affair is split in two parts, one from Noah's perspective, and the other from Alison's as they recount their first meeting and initial impressions of one another. And here's where The Affair enters provocative territory as their recollections — seen through both the prism of time and that of their respective genders — makes each interaction entirely different, depending on who is recounting the story. And by different, I mean just that: Scenes play out in a myriad of unexpected and dissimilar — at times contradictory — ways.
The cast of The Affair: Joshua Jackson as rancher Cole Lockhart; Dominic West as novelist Noah Solloway and and Ruth Wilson as grieving waitress Alison Lockhart; Maura Tierney as Helen Solloway, Noah's successful wife.
Noah and Alison's attitudes, their clothes, expressions, and even intentions brutally shift depending on which of them is the storyteller. In Noah's version, Alison is a sultry temptress, luring him into an outdoor shower with a crooked finger before taking her clothes off. She's a home-wrecker and a seductress who wants to make him forget about his sleeping wife back at the house. Alison holds all of the power, sexually speaking, and Noah's male desire all too easily succumbs to the corporeal offer she's making him. In Alison's version, however, she is emotionally fragile, grieving for a dead child, and married to a rancher — an exceptionally well-cast Joshua Jackson, whose initial appearance here is utterly unforgettable — who doesn't understand her in the least. (She's a soul sister of Eleanor Rigby for many of these reasons.) It's Noah who is pursuing her, it's Noah whose advances are unwanted and make her uncomfortable, and Noah who catches her in a compromising position that he clearly does not understand.
That Gone Girl, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and The Affair are being released within a month of one another seems coincidental, even if their impact is not: What The Affair and its gender-war siblings want to get at is the way that gender informs — and sometimes betrays — our perspectives. In an era of #YesAllMen and #NotAllMen and of gender-specific readings of Gone Girl, these projects don't display the similarities between men and women so much as they do ferociously stab at the way that we are inherently unalike, in the way in which we construct our personas — Cool Girls and Flailing Guys — and in which we view our interactions, connections, and disentanglements.
With The Affair, Noah and Alison's inherent biases are clear from the start, and the show plays with them in alluring ways, forcing each of them to recount something intimate and personal at the distance of time. Memory is a fragile thing — we know that eyewitnesses can be notoriously unreliable — but The Affair adds to that complexity by forcing them to recount these "facts" from a vantage point in the future. Neither Noah nor Alison are reliable narrators of their own shared story but the police investigation complicates things far more greatly, just as it does for Nick in Gone Girl: Under the glaring light of an interrogation room, we might all change our stories, present the best versions of ourselves, and subtly shade the truth even just a little bit to present ourselves as less culpable.
Showtime's The Affair might be the closest yet that television comes to depicting the shifting, combative, and contentious war between the sexes. The result of which makes for compelling — if at times, deeply uncomfortable — viewing, a truly adult drama from which, like a certain encounter between Alison and Noah, it's often impossible to look away.