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In his 2014 book Difficult Men, journalist Brett Martin identifies bad-boy antiheroes as the defining feature of our current “Golden Age” of television. Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and The Wire‘s Omar Little dazzle with their multifaceted complexity: How deep the furrow in Tony’s troubled brow! How pensive the trail of smoke Don breathes out of his complicated mouth! How badass the scar etched across Omar’s brooding face!
Tony, Don, Omar, and their ilk (you’re familiar with the list: Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, The Shield‘s Vic Mackey, Deadwood‘s Al Swearengen, etc.) are indeed difficult. They are beholden to no one but themselves, even as they’re programmed to self-destruct. And yet these are extremely capable men, each with a genius that no one else around him seems to possess. Martin sees the characters in their creators, among them Davids Simon, Milch, and Chase, each a singular figure whom he likens to “a fireman setting blazes only he is capable of putting out, thus ensuring his own heroic indispensability.”
TV’s rottenest scoundrel had yet to hit the airwaves when Martin published his book, but he probably wouldn’t have been included alongside Tony, Don, et al., anyway. The Affair‘s Noah Solloway, played, ironically, by Dominic West — who also portrayed Jimmy McNulty, one of those bad boys who ran rampant throughout The Wire — is a true antihero, a character with so little to redeem him that even the actor has had to admit that “everyone hates Noah.”
In the first season of The Affair — the second is currently airing on Showtime — Noah; his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney); and their children spend the summer at Helen’s wealthy parents’ home in Montauk. There, Noah, a schoolteacher and a novelist, meets Alison (Ruth Wilson), a Montauk native and married waitress with whom he embarks upon an affair.
The Affair is about memory and perspective: Each episode is split into two halves, one telling the story from Noah’s point of view, the other from Alison’s. The second season adds two new perspectives to the mix, those of Helen and Alison’s husband, Cole (#TeamHelen, you guys). Helen and Cole both have ample reason to despise Noah, so much so that at this point it’s hard not to suspect that even the writers hate him. That Helen still harbors feelings for him is her worst trait; Noah is her weakness.
Right from the start, the show gives us little reason to sympathize with him. It’s easier to believe that Alison would stray: Her marriage is bound up in the death of the child she had with Cole (Joshua Jackson). But Helen and Noah’s relationship feels healthy from the start. They have regular sex that they both seem to enjoy, four children, and a well-appointed brownstone in Brooklyn (paid for by Helen’s parents, as they frequently remind Noah). Helen owns one of those big, bright stores filled with knickknacks (the kind of establishment that only survives on TV). In other words, the show doesn’t make excuses for Noah’s transgression.
Much has been written about the strange appeal of an unsympathetic protagonist. It takes chutzpah to put a murderer at the center of a TV show that is as much about family as it is about organized crime, or to introduce viewers to a benign science teacher with terminal cancer, only to morph him into the ultimate villain. But it’s possible to despise Tony Soprano and Walter White for their self-destructive drives and selfish urges and still admire their skills and smarts — their “heroic indispensability,” as Martin would have it. Noah’s got all of the former but none of the latter.
The show’s Rashomon device suggests that The Affair is intended as an immersion in Noah’s detestability. Through his eyes, Alison is forever outfitted in short, flirty dresses, her eyes sparkling with playful energy. Through hers, she’s usually dressed more conservatively, and her expression is often melancholy and flat, an indication that she’s struggling to move beyond her traumatic past — a past that Noah seems to have little interest in understanding.
From Noah’s perspective, everyone comes across a little bit worse. His wife is a nag, his kids are a pain, his in-laws unbearable. Somehow even Noah himself comes off as selfish, reckless, and thoughtless. Only Alison is a redeemable figure in his mind: his savior, an angelic figure who exists only to buoy his restless, Brooklyn-dad spirit.
I can’t help but notice that this antihero’s creator is not an ill-tempered David but a woman, Sarah Treem. It’s also hard to ignore that most of the series’ episodes to date have been written by women. (Treem co-created The Affair with penis-possessor Hagai Levi, but he hasn’t written an episode since the pilot.) Some of the most exciting new series of the past year have come from women: Jane the Virgin (Jennie Snyder Urman), Transparent (Jill Soloway), and UnREAL (Marti Noxon and Sarah Gertrude Shapiro). Half of Amazon’s new pilots this season were created by women. And I don’t need to remind you that Shonda Rhimes, noted woman, basically owns ABC.
The Affair‘s first season frustrated me: The storytelling device felt like a gimmick, and too often the series veered into melodrama. But now, particularly after the addition of Helen’s and Cole’s perspectives, I’m back on board, and beginning to suspect that Noah’s lack of redeemable qualities may be intentional. I don’t know if Treem, Levi, and the writers truly despise Noah. But they don’t seem to be in a rush to bestow any magical, tortured-genius qualities on him (writing a decent novel doesn’t count — sorry, tortured-genius novelists!). And that’s pretty great.
Because maybe Noah is payback for the scourge of irresistible antiheroes moping through sexy mid-life crises on our TV screens for the past fifteen years — and maybe this is a sign of a wider shift in a landscape that already seems to be moving past the glorification of complicated assholes. Noah’s not one of the Difficult Men; he’s just a difficult man, and there’s nothing heroic about that.
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