TV Performer of the Week has been hiatus for awhile, not because there haven’t been a ton of great performances, but because I’ve been doing a lot of TV catchup during the fall premiere glut. But after bingeing a few recent episodes of The Affair, there can be no better person to kick this feature back off with than Ruth Wilson. In the second season’s fifth episode, her portrayal of Alison Bailey was more affecting than ever.
What makes The Affair unique is its “he-said-she-said” narrative focus, splitting episodes into points of view from Alison, Noah (Dominic West), and now in Season 2, their spouses Helen (Maura Tierney), and Cole (Joshua Jackson). What makes The Affair good, though, is its raw portrait of broken marriages, and the complicated emotions that drive these difficult decisions.
The Affair sometimes goes a little overboard in differentiating its competing narratives, but because of that, it’s significant when they match — and even more so if they don’t overlap at all. In this season’s 4th episode, Helen and Noah’s perspectives on what happened in the camp parking lot that day differed quite a bit, but in Episode 5, there are no overlaps between Alison and Cole’s stories. In fact, there almost never is. They seem to see each other just as they are.
In Noah’s point of view narratives, Alison is often portrayed as a brassy seductress, whereas in her own stories, Wilson plays Alison as far more reserved, filled with uncertainty, even retreating. That seems to be how Cole sees her as well, as Alison was essentially the same in both halves of the story this week. That proves, more than anything, that this version is the truth. And it’s even more heartbreaking given what Alison is struggling with in Noah’s description of her in his book — the same thing that makes Yvonne (Joanna Gleason) turn her away coldly.
“I guess you have this effect on men,” Robert (Peter Friedman) says to her with a verbal shrug after getting hard listening to her describe falling in love with Noah. Alison doesn’t see herself as a sexualized creature at all, and yet, that’s all those around her seem to value her as (either as a muse or, as she puts it, a slut). Both are a kind of fantasy projection, and Alison suddenly worries that this means she hasn’t amounted to anything, or that she even matters to anyone.
Episode 5 saw Alison go from being uncertain to confused to angry to wounded, and also being all of things at once. Wilson imbues such intense empathy into her character that one should want to, like Cole, assure her that she does matter. By the time Alison reached Helen’s doorstep — a terrible misstep — she’s extremely disheveled. She has no confidence, and instead tries to apologize for being with Noah. But when Helen drops some hard truths about Noah’s unfortunate character flaws, Alison doesn’t know where to retreat except to her old home. And there, when Cole finds her, she seems so tiny and fragile. “You look exhausted,” he tells her. She does. This new life, this escape from the void of losing her son, is turning into its own black hole, and she doesn’t know where to turn.
What’s amazing is that this is the same person who, in Noah’s version of events, becomes a sexual ingenue, and it’s to Wilson’s credit that it all comes together as well as it does. She can be mournful, but more often she’s rueful, with a watchful eye. The only unfortunate part of all of this is that because of the flash forwards, we know that Alison and Noah end up together (at least, for now), when so much more drama could be wrought from these relationships that are still, in the present-day timeline, in flux. That is especially true with Alison and Cole, where it is clearly conveyed that they still love each other, they just (or Alison, at least, cannot) find a way to reconcile that with the pain of losing Gabriel.
The Affair makes it hard to like anyone — every character’s flaws are on display through someone else’s eyes. But Wilson’s portrayal of Alison has always been one that’s easy to connect with no matter whose version she’s showing us. And in Alison’s own narratives, Wilson projects such incredible vulnerability, which is what makes scenes like the ones she shares with Robert (when she opens up about her life) all the more fantastic, and all the more heartbreaking when they have to come to an end. As Robert tells her, she was never meant to be somebody’s assistant, and it’s easy to add that she was also never meant to be a mistress. She matters, and thanks to Wilson’s soulful take on her character coupled with a mesmerizing, even haunting performance, she matters to us, too.
The Affair airs Sunday nights on Showtime. You can also read about more TV Performers of the Week here.