Showtime assures us that this fifth season will be the last, but every season of “The Affair” had a way of feeling like a final season — such was the show’s mastery of ambiguity and distance. Constructed in a way as to always leave the objective truth in doubt, the series returns Sunday doing what it does best: offering wildly different perspectives on the same events, depending on which character’s viewpoint we’re watching.
We rejoin this unhappy bunch where we left them last year, in beachy Southern California, as an emotionally and physically exhausted Helen Solloway (Maura Tierney) endures the funeral and reception for her now-deceased second husband, Vik Ullah (Omar Metwally), while also nobly accepting the fact that their dopey, doe-eyed, next-door neighbor, Sierra (Emily Browning), has just given birth to Vik’s son, the result of yet another affair.
If nothing else, “The Affair” is extra-accomodating to the notion that we all struggle as monogamous beings — animals caged in confining moral codes. This show was never just about one affair, or even a singular kind of cheating. At its most tantalizing, “The Affair” was about sex, but at its most consistent points, it was about emotional deceit.
It all comes full circle here, and it would take too long to recap four previous seasons. “The Affair” is certainly worth watching from the beginning (again or for the first time), but if you start here, it will probably look mainly like fan service. The first three episodes, made available for this review, are fine as they are, even if the loss of two of the show’s best characters and cast members (Ruth Wilson as Alison Bailey and Joshua Jackson as Cole Lockhart) is difficult to overcome. It’s hard for me to get interested in an “Affair” that no longer offers Jackson’s hotly hotheaded Cole. Somehow I’ll muddle through.
Noah Solloway (Dominic West), once regarded as the show’s vital erogenous zone, just grows more pathetic as the story moves on. In addition to teaching English at a school in South L.A., he’s on yet another ego trip, serving as the on-set writer/consultant to a movie adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel (“Descent”), which recounts the affair that ruined his marriage to Helen. (The novel also became a wedge in Noah’s second marriage, to Alison.)
Showbiz gives Noah precisely the kind of attention a guy like him doesn’t need, even if it puts him in the shadow of a far larger egomaniac, Sasha Mann (Claes Bang), a franchise-movie megastar who sees in Noah’s novel the chance to direct and star in a serious film. It isn’t long before Sasha, in the name of method research, starts coming on to a still-grieving Helen. In classic “Affair” form, an episode is split between Noah’s and Helen’s perspective on these events. Whatever healing had occurred between them unravels.
As always, it takes “The Affair” several episodes to warm up — particularly as it fusses over extraneous characters from previous seasons, such as Janelle (Sanaa Lathan), the school principal with whom Noah began a relationship; or Bruce and Margaret Butler (John Doman and Kathleen Chalfant), Helen’s hideously snooty (and now financially strapped) parents. Also there’s the matter of all of Noah and Helen’s kids — it seems a constant threat that the show will once more turn its gaze to their oldest and brattiest, Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles), who inherited a combination of her parents’ worst traits.
Yet, to be entirely honest, I’d probably follow these characters (even Whitney) for an indefinite number of seasons — partly because of the sucker that I am, but also because “The Affair” can never be completely considered down for the count.
On that note, the show cleverly takes a narrative detour that sends us a few decades into the future, where Joanie (Anna Paquin), the adult daughter of Cole and Alison, travels to a flood-ravaged and all but abandoned Montauk (thanks, climate change) to try to learn more about her mother’s mysterious death. It’s such an odd yet intriguing swerve, much in keeping with “The Affair’s” willingness to mess around.
The Affair (one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.