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The Affair Refresher: Eight Storylines to Remember

What you need to know ahead of this week's Season 5 premiere.
  • Dominic West plays Noah Solloway in The Affair (Showtime)
    Dominic West plays Noah Solloway in The Affair (Showtime)

    Playing spot-the-difference was a big part of The Affair's general conceit when it debuted on Showtime in 2014. In taking a Rashomon approach to this story of infidelity, showrunner Sarah Treem asked audiences to consider contradictory recollections and memory bias. Changes could be as small as a different color dress, or as big as who stepped in to save a choking child. As the couple embroiled in this romantic entanglement, each episode was originally split into two parts, showing events from the perspective of Alison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West). The following season opened this up to their deceived spouses, giving Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Helen (Maura Tierney) an opportunity to step in from the narrative sidelines.

    The show's trademark storytelling device has shifted over time, and the final season will turn it on its head once again. The present day (now 10 years after the events of the first season) will play alongside flashes forward to at least twenty years in the future. Anna Paquin has been cast as Joanie, Alison and Cole's now-adult daughter as she grapples with events from her childhood.

    Even with early awards recognition, The Affair has struggled to find its place in the crowded Peak TV landscape. Its first season won Best Drama and Best Actress (for Wilson) at the 2015 Golden Globes, and Maura Tierney won in the supporting category the following year. Yet Emmy voters all but ignored the show, with only Tierney racking up a nomination in 2016. Strong performances couldn't make up for some questionable narrative choices and outlandish storylines. However, when The Affair is firing on all cylinders, it's incredibly compelling viewing, and this final season's dual timeline is certainly intriguing.

    If you're returning to The Affair after a long time away, or you simply can't remember who slept with whom, here's your pre-Season 5 briefing:

    Alison

    The death of Alison's young son Gabriel is a specter hanging over the entire series. A potent mix of grief, guilt, and rage drew her to Noah Solloway, starting the titular liaison. In Season 4, the events of that fateful day at the beach were shown, including why she ultimately blamed Cole (he was flirting instead of watching the kids). The past has always had a grip on Alison, but in her work as a grief counselor she finally found a sense of purpose. She also experienced some semblance of happiness... for a time. Needing a kidney transplant, her biological dad came knocking. However, this family reunion was rocked by the revelation that he raped her mother, Athena (Deirdre O'Connell).

    Structurally, The Affair plays with perspective, but each season also incorporates a new mystery. In Season 4, it was Alison's disappearance anchoring the action. Killing off a lead is often unexpected, and in an Affair first, the two perspectives leading up to her death were both Alison's. After complicated relationships with Cole and Noah, Alison started dating Ben (Ramón Rodríguez), a veteran suffering from PTSD, who she met at work. Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, she broke it off when she found out he was still married. In the idealized version of events, Ben leaves her very much alive, while  in the other, he kills her in a moment of rage. Alison's death looks like suicide, but she was actually murdered. When and how this information will come to light remains to be seen.

    Wilson is not returning for this final season and in fact, her departure last year created headlines when she told CBS This Morning, "I did want to leave, but I'm not allowed to talk about why." This is one mystery that is yet to be solved, although Showtime insists there is nothing cloak-and-dagger about her exit. With these two dueling perspectives, it almost sounds like something from... The Affair.

    Noah

    A mid-life crisis blew up Noah Solloway's family, but it gave himthe  material to write a best-seller. At the start of the series, Noah was a struggling novelist. then he met Alison. He hated holidaying in Montauk because it reminded him of failure and the fact that his wife, Helen, was from a wealthy family. Since that fateful summer, his writing career got a boost, but was quickly cut short when he took the fall for a crime he did not commit. After serving time in prison, he returned to teaching and moved to California to be closer to his now ex-wife Helen and their kids.

    Having a Dangerous Minds-leaning moment, he turned his attention to Anton (Christopher Meyer) in Season 4. Anton was a student with untapped writing talent. Noah also happened to be sleeping with Anton's mother Janelle (Sanna Lathan). Apparently, there is no woman on this show who can escape his charms. After volunteering to take Anton on a tour of Princeton, the trip was derailed by the disappearance of Alison, which meant the teen also had to endure the acrimonious relationship between Noah and Cole. It ended in tragedy, but it gave Anton plenty of material for his college admissions essay.

    Helen

    Helen moved to LA with hot doctor Vik (Omar Metwally), but this dream turned into a nightmare in Season 4, as Vik was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Vik wanted kids so he could carry on his legacy, but Helen thought that part of her life was over (she already had four children). Ultimately, Vik got his wish, as the hot neighbor he slept with became pregnant with his baby. Helen also hooked up with Sierra (Emily Browning) when they went to a retreat in the desert, making for a potentially awkward dynamic. Helen has always struggled for control in her relationships and what she wants to do with her life. Will she finally figure it all out in the final season?

    Cole

    In Season 4, Cole took a trip across the country to 'find himself,' and in so doing, learned some truths about his alcoholic father (who killed himself when Cole was a child). He was dancing around his feelings for his ex all season, but this revelation spurred him to declare his love for Alison. Before he had the chance to make this overture, however, she died -- seemingly by her own hand, sending Cole into a tailspin. At Alison's memorial service, he hijacked her ashes and fled to their son's graveside.

    Cole was going to break up with his wife, Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), but decided to stick it out so she could get citizenship, and so his daughter, Joanie, would have a mother figure. Joshua Jackson is also, sadly, not returning for the final season, which will instead focus on how adult Joanie was impacted by these events.

    Four other things to remember...

    Joanie's Parentage

    Joanie is Alison and Cole's daughter, but for the first two years of her life, Noah thought he was her father. Noah was also sleeping with his publicist when Alison was pregnant (when he thought it was his baby). This dude really can't keep it in his pants. The repercussions of grief is a big theme of The Affair, and the cyclical nature of the Lockhart family trauma will be a focus. Now that Joanie is the same age her mother was when she died, will she learn the truth of what happened that night?

    Noah's Best-Selling Book

    This show insists Noah is a great writer, which would be fine if his best-seller, Descent, didn't include this description of Alison's proxy: "She was sex, the very definition of it. She was the reason the word was invented… no marriage, no matter how strong, could survive her. This is what it meant to fall." Every eye-roll ever should be directed at this literary "masterpiece." Noah's had a lot of ups and downs when it comes to his writing career, but in Season 5, his novel will get the Hollywood treatment. And his ex-wife will get the ultimate revenge by hooking up with the movie star version of him.

    Noah's Crime

    In Season 2, flashes forward showed Noah on trial for the hit-and-run murder of Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell). Noah went to prison for this crime, but it was actually Helen who was behind the wheel. Unbeknownst to them, the reason Scotty was even on the road is because Alison pushed him away after he tried to assault her. Jail did a big number on Noah, which resulted in him believing a correctional officer (played by Brendan Fraser) was stalking him,  but it was Noah that stabbed himself.

    Whitney

    Noah and Helen's oldest daughter only briefly appeared in Season 4, but she'll feature heavily in the final season. In the early days, Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) fulfilled the role of annoying wayward teen, dating Cole's brother Scotty. There was also the time Noah was so wasted at a party in Season 2 that he hit on his daughter (and the girl she was kissing in a hot tub), so she probably has a reason for being insufferable. With only one more season to go, we're demanding it: Give us the Whitney perspective episode we deserve!

    People are talking about The Affair in the forums. Join the conversation.

    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: The Affair, Anna Paquin, Dominic West, Maura Tierney, Ruth Wilson