Breaking the Waves

water affair

The Affair has relied heavily on drowning and ocean metaphors since its pilot in 2014. Its moody opening credit footage of crashing water fit the rustic landscape of Montauk and set the mood to think about the capricious and overwhelming nature of lust and love. In its four seasons, almost every character has cheated or imploded their relationships in some way, but When Fiona Apple sang “there’s only one thing I can do and that’s be the wave that I am/and then sink back into the ocean” I always had the sense that those lines, or maybe the song in general, were about Alison. Alison who starts the story defined by a literal drowning – the death of her toddler son. A woman who is afraid of the ocean, but is treated as a siren by most of the men in her life. I started watching The Affair to pass time, and because I’m drawn to stories and discussions of infidelity. I wasn’t expecting to be so moved or feel so seen by a character, but Alison has come to be very special to me.

**spoilers for the latest season of The Affair**

I just finished the fourth and latest season and while it expanded far beyond the actions of its original affair and into overly soapy territory, I couldn’t look away. Even at its worst the disastrous orbit of these characters – the “main” couple but also betrayed spouses, children, and new relationships – was bleakly addictive. Most importantly for me, Alison remained the emotional heart of the story. Her extreme choices and darkest turns never felt contrived and campy so much as tragic. No main character hated themselves more or tried harder to have a purpose; to be understood, loved, and chosen. As you may have seen in entertainment headlines lately, Ruth Wilson has left the cast. In the show, this meant the fourth season climaxed in Alison’s death. She never got to rewrite her narrative as she wanted. Her story, in her own words at least, is now over, but I imagine she’ll be on my mind for a long time.

Episode 101The first glimpse of Alison is through the eyes of a man. The camera pans up her legs and kitschy diner uniform as Noah, the 45-year-old married man she’s about to get into a Whole Thing with, sizes her up. In their second meeting, she’s an inscrutable small town vixen, flirting and adjusting her sundress straps. We even watch her get screwed against a car, a scene that from Noah’s perspective appears to be for his benefit. Then the screen flashes “Part 2 – Alison” and a very different story plays out. I actually started watching this show without knowing about its multiple perspective conceit. But the internal lives and mistakenly universalized angst of middle aged men and the younger women who get swept up in their stories is so commonplace and canonized that you can’t blame me for assuming Noah’s point of view was the point of view.

two alisons

Alison’s version of events show a woman who is far from a free spirit. Depressed, guilty, and grieving the death of a child, she’s chained up in herself. She doesn’t notice Noah so much as his family and a version of a future that’s already been taken from her. On the beach, she’s not coy or suggestive. It’s Noah who intrudes on her solitude and she looks bedraggled, that sexy sundress covered up by a blanket. Ruth Wilson is heartbreaking even when her character has no lines. Her resting pout face (look, real recognize real) and enormous, expressive eyes are convincing as the temptress men want to see, but as “Alison’s Alison,” she has such a deep and worn-in sadness that she often looks like she’s going to collapse on herself. The often brilliant trick of The Affair is that it rarely gives any external confirmation that one character’s point of view is more true than another’s. Alison’s is just as warped by her own experience and self-understanding as Noah’s, and it’s my bias that I immediately felt her perspective was more honest.

When I watch TV shows, even if I’m years behind, I like to read recaps and reviews. It was sad, but not surprising, to see people in old AV Club comment sections call Alison a slut. Many kinder reactions were still unsympathetic: people didn’t like how passive she was, how dependent she appeared to be on victimhood. It seemed she was often neck and neck with Noah for most-disliked character. Noah is plenty sad, but he’s always the actor in his own tragedy. In both Alison’s and other character’s POV chapters, it’s striking how quiet she is. Even if she’s the cornerstone of a given episode, she hovers on the edge of most scenes. She rarely talks about herself or her own feelings. Again, it’s a testament to Ruth Wilson’s acting that Alison is so touching and compelling as a character even when she spends so much of the plot afraid of her own life. When she does speak up, or heaven forbid get a brief moment of happiness, we see a woman who is much wider, brighter, and more real than the people around her think she is.

It’s a cruel irony that Alison’s death came right as she seemed to have reached a turning point. For seasons she returned again and again to Cole, her first husband and father of her late-son and young daughter. Cole, the fan favorite character, clearly and genuinely loves Alison, but they both realize that they were dependent on a dynamic that kept her as the weak or broken partner. For Noah, she was always a wild and enchanting idea but not someone he could grasp or appreciate as a real person. After she learns that her latest love interest, veteran and PTSD counselor Ben, has lied about being married, Alison has a breakdown and is determined to break the cycle. Noah’s first wife Helen gives it to her straight. “If you don’t like the way men are treating you…play a different character.” She seems hopeful and empowered. Two episodes later, we learn that her body has been found.

rakuThe drowning motif of the opening credits reminded me of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju and the character Miyokichi. Like Alison, Miyokichi often came across as willfully weak and dependent. For her, the heartbreak and abuse she suffered led her to internalize that being what men needed her to be was the only way to survive. Only the afterlife gives her a sense of empowerment and relief. She, too, was a misunderstood and disliked character. And there’s a lot of Revolutionary Girl Utena‘s Anthy in Alison: a person who has been boxed in, idealized, and commodified for so long that she can’t see past others’ labels. I wanted so badly for Alison to get her Anthyesque moment of breaking free and walking into a new, independent life.

And then there’s a lot of me in Alison. I’m lucky to be in a place right now where I don’t feel caught in the cycle of trauma and learned-helplessness that led me too many times to roll over and be as weak as people thought I was, or as bad as I thought I was. It’s still rare to see such a stark and accurate portrayal of how I’m prone to dealing with things. I don’t have the moral high ground of someone like Cole or the galvanizing indignation of someone like Helen. The Affair has been renewed for a fifth and final season, and I’ll watch as they, and even Noah, make sense of their own narratives. But I wish Alison was part of that.


In a gut wrenching funeral scene that focuses on Cole’s grief, his mother comforts him, telling him he’s strong and resilient. She praises Alison’s “sensitive soul” and spirit, but describes her as being ultimately too ephemeral of a person. It’s a mischaracterization that has imprisoned her entire arc. One episode earlier we did, finally, get to hear Alison’s words. In a voice-over during her death scene, she admitted that she was tired of being seen by men as “some sort of receptacle for all their grief and rage and disappointment.” As she sinks back into the ocean, she narrates, “I just want to live a different life. I want to live a different story. I’m still young. I can be someone else. Someone who deserves love. Someone who can be happy.” I wish we could have seen a version of Alison that let her be more than a wave, that let her fully inhabit her own story. I bet she could have been pretty strong, too.

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