'The Affair' co-creator Sarah Treem on the pilot and 'Peter Pan'
In the first half of the pilot Showtime’s The Affair, Alison (Ruth Wilson), one-half of the couple set to engage in the act that gives the show its title, tells Noah (Dominic West) that her favorite book is Peter Pan. He quotes it back to her, and they flirtatiously talk about how though it’s meant to be a children’s book it’s actually “terrifying.” In the second half, told from Alison’s perspective, Alison reads the book at the grave of her child.
If co-creator Sarah Treem had it her way, characters would constantly be quoting Peter Pan.
Treem hones in on the sadness J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of the boy who doesn’t grow up, and uses it as a link between the two characters at the center of the story together. (Alison also wears a Captain Hook Band-Aid.) The moment also explains how the show functions: The audience gets to hear the story of Noah and Alison’s affair from each of their sides as they recount it to a detective, but their perspectives drastically alter the tone of the story.
EW talked to Sarah Treem, who created the show with Hagai Levi, about the pilot.
EW: How did you decide to structure the show?
SARAH TREEM: We knew we needed a framing device, just because we thought shows work the best when they’ve got a very strong motor. We had a couple of different ideas. We thought, well maybe they’re talking to sex researchers? I think that was before Masters of Sex came out. Then we thought maybe they’re talking to a therapist, but it felt like, been there done that. We kind of came to this conclusion that the show is really about the search for truth and whether there literally is such a thing as an objective truth, so we thought it would be interesting to create a character who is actually looking for the truth, and that’s what a detective is responsible for. The question even in the detective character, which will become more robust as we go, is, does that man have any objective information? Or is he himself influenced by their perspective and therefore is it impossible for him to know all of what happened at the end of the day?
How important did you want the mystery to be going forward?
It’s not unimportant, but we weren’t trying to create a crime show. It is definitely our way in which to tell a story. I think in the first season the investigation takes a backseat to what happens between these two people. It’s not that it doesn’t get resolved to a certain extent; it does, but it’s not the focus. I think as we move forward, if we get subsequent seasons, the show is designed—as the past encroaches on the present—for the investigation to take more of the attention, as we kind of get closer to the crime itself. Something will be resolved by the end of the first season, but not everything.
What were your some of your inspirations, and what specifically did you want to explore about the male-female dichotomy?
It’s always been a fascination of mine. It didn’t start with this show. I think a lot of my work has been concentrated on the different narratives that men and women have for their lives and how they conflict and quite often cause a lot of misunderstanding and pain. Hagai and I watched Scenes from a Marriage, the Bergman film; we watched Rashomon. We are of different genders ourselves, so even just kind of talking about our own love affairs was interesting just in terms of his perspective on the events of my life and my perspective on the events of his life.
I was talking to my husband at some point during this process—he wasn’t my husband at that point—but I said, do you remember what I was wearing when you met me? He was like, Oh yeah, absolutely. And he described an outfit that was not what I was wearing, or at least in my mind completely different than what I was wearing. But he was so confident about it. I think it was a conglomeration of a lot of different experiences that made me think, you know, especially in love affairs when so much of the memory is influenced by your emotions you just don’t see the whole story. Nobody does. Even if this was a love affair of people of the same gender, I think they would have radically different accounts of what had happened. What was fun about it being two different genders is we really got to explore each gender stereotype and assumptions that men have about women and women have about men and unpack them from the inside out.
Noah perspective sexualizes Alison as a temptress, whereas when you see her perspective you realize she’s going through something that is so far removed from that. As a woman, I’m inclined to side with Alison, seeing her story and the way she’s portrayed in his mind. I was wondering if that was something you wanted to play with and if perspectives will shift going forward.
You have your sympathies with Alison, which I absolutely understand, and then I’ve read many reviews written by men who think that Alison’s actually the unreliable narrator, because she seems more fragile. She seems more unstable. Josh Jackson has said that when he first read the script when he got to Alison’s side, he said, “Why is she lying?”
Some people see Alison’s half as the corrective half, meaning Noah was lying and now she’s going to tell the truth, and some people see Alison’s half as a lie. In terms of the writing, we tried very, very hard to make it really even handed. So I don’t myself believe that either side is telling the truth. I think both sides are telling the truth and both sides are lying. In terms of the way that that Noah perceives Alison and the way he quote-unquote misinterprets her, I do think there is a certain kind of man who can fantasize or maybe even fetishize damage in women—the idea of she is really fragile, but she’s also kind of impulsive and kind of wild. She’s sort of consequenceless. There’s a kind of trope of femininity we were really actively leaning into with his imagination of her.
And then what’s kind of fun about the show is that you see the other side of it and you see she is grieving and that her grief is severe and significant and not at all fabricated for flirtation. There’s a moment much later in the season—more than halfway through—where they both see the other side of the person, the side that perhaps this other person has been hiding. That was really exciting episode to write, because all of a sudden it looks to Noah like Alison’s a completely different person than he thought he knew. And he’s shocked by it. It’s not that she’s different, it’s that people have many, many different sides to their personality. I don’t think we’re trying to be duplicitous—I think that’s just the nature of being alive. You show you’re operating with a different face in different situations.
Will the viewpoints start to coalesce?
I think there’s an ebb and a flow to how similar their narratives, and it is often directly tied to how close the characters are in the moment. But it’s never the same. We’re operating under the principle that no matter much time you spend with somebody, no matter how much you love somebody, no matter how intimate you get with somebody, you are never privy to what’s happening in their head.
Why did you want to pause their stories with that scene of Alison and her husband Cole (Joshua Jackson) having sex on the car?
What I think is interesting about that final scene is it looks like a rape from one perspective, it’s not from the other. I wanted to honestly end with something kind of shocking, but I didn’t want the characters to sleep together in the first episode. How do we create a climax that seems somewhat reasonable without having an affair actually start in the pilot which doesn’t seem realistic to me. I guess the idea behind that scene was nobody really knows what’s going on inside anybody else’s relationship. It’s sort of that old trope, nobody knows what’s happening inside anyone else’s marriage; you don’t get to judge anyone else’s marriage. I think that kind of is the point of that scene, when you come back around on Cole and Alison and you understand the depth of their grief and how unable they are to connect to each other in any way other than sex. It’s still violent, but you understand the violence. You understand why she needs it or why she’s asking for it.
Does the fact that Noah is a writer factor into your concept of the unreliable narrator?
I think absolutely it does. It factors into the idea of an unreliable narrator. It also helped with this concept that the character was perhaps more passive when we first meet him. He is not a fighter. He’s a writer. We were trying to create a deeply thoughtful character. He’s also a public school teacher; he believes in service, he has a really important image of himself as a good person, a genuine person, a sensitive person. When this starts to happen, all of those ideas he has about his own character are brought into question and not necessarily by the other people around him, but by he himself, which I think is the most interesting conflict that arises. When you have to look at yourself and go, who the hell am I?
Alison’s perspective has to do with the loss of a child. Noah has all of these children, and problems with his children. What did the loss of a child mean to you and mean to her story when you were coming up with it?
When I was first writing the pilot I was pregnant with my first child. I really didn’t quite understand what I was getting that character into to be perfectly honest, and after I had my son I actually tried to get out of that specific choice. I was like, this is too dark, I can’t go here as a writer. It’s too much. And the network said, basically, no. That is everything about that character when we meet her. All of her decisions, everything she does is directly connected to what happened. Honestly, the combination of those circumstances and the incredible range of the actress who is playing the part, have created one of the richest, most devastating, most triumphant performances I’ve ever seen on television. For as much as I wanted to get rid of that given circumstance, in the end it’s kind of what the whole first season boils down to. How does this woman either recover or not from what’s happened to her?
There are also Peter Pan references, which feed into the atmosphere of a summer away and the notion that people engaging an affair are getting away from their grownup lives. Did you always have Peter Pan in mind?
Yeah, I did. If it was up to me we would be quoting Peter Pan voraciously, but no one actually want to see you quote books on television. It’s not as interesting to see as it is to write. But yeah, this idea of the boy who never grew up, this idea of being at a place where it’s both wonderful but also deeply tragic. The loss of a child is everywhere in Peter Pan. It starts off with the idea that the Lost Boys themselves are boys that fell out of their prams, and basically disappeared. You think, what does that actually mean? That actually means that all of these children had mothers and fathers who have lost them. There’s something very dark. The cost of Never Never Land, the cost of that fantasy and eternal youth is so high. You don’t really see it as a child when you’re reading a book, but when you go back and read it as an adult it’s just gut wrenching. It seems very much like a book that united their two characters in an extraordinary way.
What was you reaction to the True Detective comparisons?
The shows were developed concurrently. I hadn’t seen True Detective when we were developing the show. I was a little bummed actually when True Detective came out because I was like, Oh no, that’s our structure. But I think sometimes this happens. There’s something in the zeitgeist, and there very much is right now, about split perspectives. It’s not just True Detective, it’s a couple of movies. I think you just have to kind of ride that wave and appreciate there’s clearly a concept that many people have been grasping with recently, which means that it’s relevant.
Two marriages collide when a tragedy brings an affair to light; the Showtime original series stars Joshua Jackson and Maura Tierney.