The end of The Affair: Maura Tierney and creator Sarah Treem look back at 5 seasons of the Showtime drama
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Sunday’s series finale of The Affair.
The time to end the relationship has come. After five seasons, countless romantic entanglements, two coasts, and the murder of one of its protagonists, The Affair has come to an end — and it’s almost time to move on.
Saying goodbye to a show is never easy, especially one that’s put us through the emotional wringer pretty consistently for years as we’ve become deeply involved in its characters’ lives through their conflicting perspectives. Over the course of five seasons, we’ve watched as the ripple effects of the affair Noah (Dominic West) embarked on with Alison (Ruth Wilson) upended the lives of, not only their former partners Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson), but also their children, other lovers, friends, and family from coast to coast.
In Sunday’s series finale, against all odds, Noah and Helen found their way back to one another in a conclusion that ultimately felt fitting, if not entirely deserved for the philandering self-centered cad of a writer — though, perhaps thanks to a #MeToo movement, Noah did manage to obtain some self-awareness by the end. In a show where varying points of views explored the same narrative arcs, it took Noah years of relentlessly telling his version of the story to finally take pause and see it from someone else’s perspective. That in itself is a pretty rewarding ending for fans who have watched this man implode his own life over and over again by repeating the same habits and mistakes.
The series may now sink back into the ocean where it all began, but since there are still questions bobbing to the surface, we talked to Tierney and show creator Sarah Treem about that final reunion, inherited trauma, and dancing on cliffs.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Noah and Helen’s story ended on a reasonably happy note with them finding their way back together. Sarah, when you started writing this story five seasons ago, did you ever envision it could end like that?
SARAH TREEM: I think I had been avoiding that ending for a long time because it felt too sentimental and I’m so terrible with sentimental stuff. I was pretty resistant to it, but then it just felt right for the characters at a certain point. I think what Helen says to Noah at the end: ‘I know what people would say if I was here but maybe I just want to be with you and maybe that’s all there is left to it. If we’re going to die and not come back together what point does that serve?” That was how I was feeling as I was listening to them. I think as a writer with a long-term television series, at a certain point you have to let the characters take over and take your own Svengali puppet master impulses out and just see what they’re saying. That seemed to be the way we were headed. That couple has a tremendous amount of chemistry and a really, mature deep-seated one, so it just felt right.
Maura, were you surprised when you first read the script?
MAURA TIERNEY: There was a lot of discussion about [it]; it was an ongoing process. Even at the beginning of the season, they weren’t sure what was going to happen. So it wasn’t a surprise to me because Sarah would just talk to me throughout the process of figuring out where she wanted it to land. I liked what she chose, but it could’ve gone a number of different ways. I feel like, whether or not it’s the right thing, through the four seasons Helen was kind of a buffer for Noah. When he needed her, she always showed up and maybe that was annoying or not annoying or stupid of her or subordinate — you could name it a million things — but I just feel like that’s the way it played out over the course of four seasons, from how they were writing it, to how Dom and I were playing it. I just think she just fell for him and never un-fell for him.
Helen says in that motel scene that everything she’s been through has made her stronger. Is that something you were conscious of when acting — making her approach scenarios differently than she would’ve, say, back in season 1?
TIERNEY: For sure, she’s a lot less innocent of a person. She committed a crime.
I almost forgot about that!
We sort of stopped talking about it, but it was mentioned this season by Dom’s character. She’s certainly a lot more flawed, but I think these characters change really incrementally like real people do. It’s hard to change. So with the arc this season, we see that Helen has to realize she can’t fix everything for everybody. We touch on that but I don’t think that changes. I don’t think that’s where she ended up. To always keep trying isn’t something that’s a bad thing.
In a lot of ways, this final season really felt like Helen’s season. She finally gets to fully realize who she is and what she wants. Sarah, was that something that felt particularly important for you to get to cover in this final season?
TREEM: Yes. I think you’ve kind of hit the nail on the head. Helen is a character who has put other people’s needs ahead of herself for as long as she can remember. I think she was trained that way as a young child because she was the only child of two incredibly narcissistic parents so she was taught to feed their needs before her own and she continues it into her marriage and with her children. She’s a character that doesn’t even necessarily know what she wants or is uncomfortable saying what she wants because it’s hard for her. A lot of her arc this season was just getting her to a place where she can start to say what she wants, even if it’s not a popular opinion or the quote-unquote right one. She says that line with Noah in episode 10: “I wasn’t even a person at that point; I was a performance of a person and all I wanted was someone to save me from Bruce and Margaret.” What she understands is that so much of her life has been a performance. So it was really important to me that she comes to understand who she is at the end and to make a choice that’s for herself and for herself alone which is what she does in the finale.
It feels like Helen and Noah could never have arrived in a good place if they hadn’t been left no choice but to really talk it out in the penultimate episode when they’re hiking away from the wildfires, though.
TREEM: Oh, Helen and Noah had to speak. I always thought the thing that Helen would really want from Noah — more than any explanation about why he did what he did — was just to listen to her for a moment. When forgiveness happens, it really happens because someone gets to tell their side of the story and Noah has been a character who has been telling his side of the story over, and over, and over and has written multiple books about it. He loves to tell his side of the story. So I thought for this character to really evolve and for these characters to come back together, he was just going to have to listen and hear her. Part of it was that he listens to Alison’s tapes first and starts to all of a sudden understand Alison, not as a woman who was some kind of sexpot that lured him away from his marriage, but was actually a woman who was in grief herself and struggling with the loss of her child. Instead of seeing himself as the victim in that situation, he suddenly sees himself as a man who basically took this woman away from a struggling marriage and took advantage of a situation. He didn’t see it then. He couldn’t. He didn’t know. But he does now, he gets it. By seeing that, by going through that with those tapes, that’s what allows him to, later on, ask Helen what was it like for her. This character has changed, he’s become a different man and that felt important to me going into the finale.
And he ends it all by dancing on a cliff! I just want to touch briefly on the final scene. Where did that idea come from and why did it feel like a fitting way to end the whole series?
TREEM: I knew that I wanted to end the show with Montauk because Montauk has always been a silent character in the show. I wanted the last image to be of Montauk and I liked that the camera pulls back and back until you can no longer even see Noah, just the island. Everybody kept saying in terms of feedback for the season, haven’t you put Noah through enough? Just give the man a break. And I kept saying in my head, no, you don’t understand, he’s the only one that lives. He survives everyone. He can go through all this because he’s the last one standing. I always knew I wanted that for him. As a character, he’s the one that’s had the most to learn and the biggest evolution to go through. I wanted him to be at peace at the end, content with his life. So this idea that he goes to the top of this bluff and dances to music that’s actually in his head seemed to me to be an indication of that contentment.
Is there anything you would’ve liked to have done differently in the end if you had more time or if Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson had been available?
TREEM: We had 14 days to shoot the finale so it was a race. It was amazing. We were freezing and the cast and crew were exhausted. I was flying back to Los Angeles every weekend to be with my kids so it was just a lot. But the effort that everyone put forward to make the finale work in Montauk was extraordinary; an experience I’ll never forget. In terms of anything I wish I could’ve done differently, I have a lot of regrets because I think when you do something over five years, you’re just going to have regrets. There are decisions that you make that you wish you hadn’t; there are pieces that I took out in editing that I think maybe I should’ve left that in; there’s scenes that I didn’t write that I think maybe I should’ve. You can always look back and think I wish I’d done that differently, if you’re a self-critical person, which I very much am. But I’m pretty satisfied. I’m really proud of what happened at the end. Losing certain characters was hard but it also created a challenge and focused the narrative to this place in the end that I actually think was really good for us. I think a lot of times obstacles provide opportunities and I was forced to figure out what is this show about and how can I serve all these characters given what I’ve got.
This season was a lot about how parents’ choices and traumas impact their children which meant we got to see things from a grownup Joanie’s (Anna Paquin) perspective and also Whitney’s (Julia Goldani Telles). Maura, for you, that adds another “character” to play: Helen as seen by her daughter. How was that experience?
TIERNEY: That was my favorite one and I think we’ve done six. First of all, I thought it was funny because no one ever addresses that Helen drinks all the time. I was under the impression that Helen was supposed to be really together and then the writers were like no, she’s completely unhinged. She’s this completely needy, nervous wreck which is really fun to play and I can see how Whitney views her that way. In the MeToo episode where Helen’s like it’s (the accusations of sexual misconduct against Noah) my fault, it makes sense that Whitney would see her as someone who just wanted to keep the family together at all costs. I really loved that. I haven’t watched the show much this season, but I did read the recaps from some of the critics and sometimes I feel like that people are sometimes forgetting that the show is about P.O.V. Helen’s saying “It’s all my fault” is from Whitney’s perspective. I felt like in some of the reviews they were just losing that. I think it was strongly written that it was from the P.O.V. of a 22-year-old and that was her seeing her middle-aged mother throwing herself on the cross for it. I don’t think that necessarily means that’s what my character was doing.
Speaking of the #MeToo episode, did you always plan for the way Noah treated women over the years to come back and bite him in the ass?
TREEM: I was always conscious of it having an effect on his daughter. I think that there’s this idea that a lot of us have in marriages that we can shield our children from the compromises that we’re making, but that’s not how this works. Your children learn from you. They learn from the dynamics that you’re representing. What we had said really early on when we were talking about Whitney’s storyline this year was that the way that a parent understands how they have parented, what mistakes they have made, is not in how their children treat them, but in how their children treat themselves. So when you see a relationship that your child has to themselves suddenly you understand what you’ve taught them. That felt very chilling to me when I thought about it so it was very important to me that we see Whitney treat herself badly and that, when she realizes why she’s treated herself badly, she gets incredibly angry at her parents because she’s hurt herself. She’s put herself in places of intense danger and she’s destroyed relationships that mean something to her all because she’s been following a model, unconsciously, that was really flawed. So when she confronts Helen (in the #MeToo episode) she’s confronting the mother character in her life and she doesn’t see her mother very clearly. For such a long time your parents are just figures and archetypes in your life and your own journey. That’s who we see Helen as in Whitney’s perspective because she’s only young and then we come back to Helen’s perspective and we see the same scene again and we realize she’s not taking responsibility for this at all she just wants Whitney to calm down. She’s just trying to solve a crisis — put water on a fire which is what Helen’s always trying to do. I’m glad that Maura spoke to that.
This idea that children carry their parents’ trauma forward with them is fascinating. Can you talk about why you wanted to explore the parent-child relationship in that way this season?
TREEM: So much of this show is about how we see other people and how we’re all trapped in the prisms of our own perspectives so we can only really see other people through a limited scope by which we see ourselves. We’re never really seeing the totality of another person. I’ve looked at that truth in many different circumstances over the course of this show but one place that I had still left to go was the relationships between parents and children. Those relationships are so intimate and sacred to us. We don’t see our parents clearly and they don’t see us clearly and that is really the final frontier for this idea of exploring perspectives. I knew that I wanted Alison’s daughter to be in the show and I knew that I wanted her daughter to have this misinterpretation of what had happened to her mother. In that misinterpretation, she had actually developed an identity that was a reaction to the idea that her mother had killed herself and left her because she didn’t care enough. It was all false but sometimes that’s all of we’ve got to go on; we’ve only got the stories that we’ve been told. I knew that I wanted the final season to be about Joanie un-peeling that and realizing that what she knew was actually wrong and having to face what that meant about her and her choices. Could she change? Could she stop a cycle of trauma now that she had that gift of awareness?
And it’s all a ripple effect of the original affair.
TREEM: Yes. It felt to me really important that this seemingly inconsequential act between these two people ends up having consequences that go so far beyond. We see it in Whitney and in Joanie and we’re understanding that both of them carry the effect of what happened between their parents. Both of these women have ended up constructing identities based on that and then have had to overcome or transcend their expectations for themselves in order to be happy.
What will you miss the most about working on this show and with these characters?
TIERNEY: I will really miss the hair and makeup trailer in the morning. I mean the writing and the work on that show was really fulfilling and a great experience for me personally and professionally, but in the morning in the makeup trailer, Dom West is so funny — and especially when it was all four of us (Jackson and Wilson too). As dark of a show it is, we just had such a good time and we would just be laughing our heads off in the makeup trailer and then have to go do some scene with someone dying or something. So I’ll miss that.
TREEM: I will miss a lot. I obviously love the actors. Maura and Dom are just the height of their craft. They’re unbelievable. I do not have enough superlatives to talk about how good they are. You never see them work — they’re obviously working, but I never see it. They just come to set, they know all their lines. Dominic sometimes is learning his lines at rehearsal and then the camera’s rolling and it feels like everything is there and has been studied for a hundred years. Maura Tierney can do more in three seconds with her face than some other people I’ve seen do over three hours. They’re so skilled. I will definitely miss them as individuals and I’ll miss their dynamic with each other because they really enjoyed working with each other. I will miss the cast and crew. A lot of them are old friends of mine — our costume designer and I went to college together. I will most of all miss our writers’ room. The people I’m writing this show just became such a family by the end of it. Usually, the thing about TV writers’ rooms is that everybody is forced to stay until midnight and they just want to go home. In our room, no one wanted to go home. I will definitely miss that group telling this story. My feeling about this final season is that we left it all on the field. For me, there wasn’t that much left to say. I felt like I said and did everything I wanted to so I do feel in that way like I’ll be able to move on.