The Brilliant Final Episode of ‘The Affair’ Shocks With Its Biggest Twist: a Happy Ending

David Giesbrecht/Showtime
David Giesbrecht/Showtime

The final episode of Showtime’s The Affair began with a flashed quote on the screen, underlining (not for the first time) an emphasis on its desire to be a work of art about art, a work of fiction about fiction.

Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a writer, and the show distinguished itself by featuring the clashing perspectives of its characters showing just how subjective experience could be. What and who you believed over the last five seasons could be a pick-and-mix affair. In this final episode, Noah also suddenly became quite the Yoda—a little late, but still.

Just as much as The Affair liked its fancy prestige TV ivory tower, it was also a bonkers, wild, sometimes implausible soap opera, and the finale—written and directed by Sarah Treem, the show’s co-creator—also had to convincingly end a show featuring a bunch of frequently infuriating characters with a history of doing utterly insane things.

The series finale mostly did all this brilliantly (this hardcore fan laughed, cried, and cheered); and the things that fell short oddly echoed elements of the show that always fell short.

That opening quote came from Richard Wilbur’s poem, “The Writer.” “It is always a matter, my darling, / Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish / What I wished you before, but harder.”

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The lines are beautiful enough, but the whole poem is from the point of a view of a narrator addressing his or her daughter, who is also a writer. An injured bird is flying helplessly around a room, and then finally free, flies out into the air. This, as everything in The Affair tends to do, became significant as the final episode progressed.

The finale opened where The Affair began, in Montauk. Noah, banned from his daughter Whitney’s (Julia Goldani Telles) wedding, had been secretly planning it, beginning with a flashmob dance of close relatives set to The Waterboys’ 1985 hit, “The Whole of the Moon.”

The episode opened with Noah’s perspective, watching their joyful, silly rehearsal, with Noah’s other kids all involved, and smiling and getting along. But soon enough—phew, this was getting a little too Brady Bunch!—Helen (goddess Maura Tierney) was scowling. Trevor (the excellent Jadon Sand) told his father he didn’t hate him, just that he wished he had been around more. Oldest son Martin (welcome back, Jake Richard Siciliano) wondered why anyone would want to marry his sister.

Colin (Max Flower) has only been around the Solloways for a minute, but sure enough his father couldn’t make it to the wedding and his mother looked like a no-show. Noah stepped in, in his new guise of heroic sage, and paid for her ticket.

“When shit hits the fan, we show up,” Noah said of the Solloway clan.

This viewer laughed out loud at that; yes, that family does show up at such charged moments, to usually spray the shit of their lives over an even bigger area than necessary.

Sill, Noah was sweet to Bruce (John Doman), Helen’s awful dad, now brought low with dementia. He pretended to be Bruce’s dead brother to calm him down. Then Noah hid from Whitney, entering the house in her wedding dress to respect her wishes that he be absent—he still feels so ashamed that he cruised her, his own daughter, in a hot-tub years before having a same-sex pash.

A horrifically ostentatious flower display arrived from Sasha (Claes Bang), the film star not-really-boyfriend of Helen. It came with a card: “Life is the flower for which love is the honey,” and then a message to “Have a blessed day.” The quote was ascribed to Honoré de Balzac, but it was actually—as Noah sneered—“Victor Hugo, you asshole.” (You see: proof of Sasha’s villainy, as per The Affair’s measure of a person—he doesn’t know books.)

And so we first left Noah at the scuzzy-looking, but significantly named Memory Motel, alone with a mini-bottle of champagne.

Further into the future, in a climate-changed Montauk—this hint of apocalypse mostly seemed to mean really big puddles on roads—Joanie (Anna Paquin) was her usual miserable self as she went to The Lobster Roll. She really was her mother’s daughter: when in doubt, scowl.

Here we were, back at The Affair’s origin restaurant, where Alison, Joanie’s ill-fated mom, worked, and where Noah and Alison met right at the beginning, to kick off the show’s original “affair.” Before the court cases, sacrifices, jail time, insane Season 3, sadistic Brendan Fraser, Lockhart brothers, Descent, the movie of Descent, the other affairs, Dr. Vik (Omar Metwally; AND, YET AGAIN, LET US SAY THAT DR. VIK SHOULD HAVE LIVED), the L.A. fires, Juliette Le Gall (Irène Jacob)… Sadly, there was no final creepy cameo from Oscar (Darren Goldstein).

Noah was revealed as The Lobster Roll’s owner, now radically aged in quite terrible prosthetic make-up. Just as Alison had welcomed the Solloways to the diner at the beginning, he repeated to Joanie (not knowing who she was—his former lover’s daughter), “Welcome to the end of the world.”

Well, The Lobster Roll was once the end of all their worlds as they knew it; and now climate change had made it an even more literal site of apocalypse; although Noah said it with a twinkle. The Lobster Roll looked, like him, on its last legs. She was his only customer of the day.

Joanie revealed her mother had worked there, and Noah realized he was staring at Joanie. He went to fetch her scrambled eggs.

“Grandma, shut the fuck up”

Back at Whitney’s wedding day, Helen buttoned her dress. Mother and daughter are, as ever, in conflict. Helen asks her how she became so hard on people. (Well, durr, pot-kettle-Helen.) Why was she there, her mother asked. Optics, said Whitney, who thinks her mother saw marriage as a “big adventure.” She sees it differently.

Then, in walked Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant), Helen’s mother, to take a few chunks of Helen—Whitney looked so much better on her wedding day than Helen, she said.

“Grandma, shut the fuck up!” said Whitney, speaking for every viewer. “She’s a fucking monster,” she said to her mother.

“Yes, but she’s our monster,” said Helen.

“Gotcha,” Margaret said, as she kissed Helen unexpectedly. A mother and daughter’s love crystallized in a moment.

Stacey (Abigail Dylan Harrison) and Trevor led the mini-wedding procession. Whatever marriage did or did not mean, whatever had happened between them, Helen and Whitney held hands as they headed out to the ceremony. It was a beautiful moment. Helen first offered her arm, and it was Whitney who insisted on holding one another’s hands. Another moment of love.

To stop him walking off, Bruce was literally taped down to his chair. Martin was officiating: “Welcome to my sister’s wedding. Holy shit.”

The flashmob dance was really gorgeous, and the song playing, “Race You To The Light,” encouraged Helen to go to the Memory Motel, to finally be with Noah. Oh no, this viewer thought, please don’t let Noah be shagging another woman. But, miracle upon miracle, he wasn’t. He was reading American Pastoral—another neat literary touch, as The Affair has orbited similar themes to Philip Roth’s 1997 novel.

Helen and Noah shared Pringles and champagne (truly a feast of champions, and this made me love Noah and Helen more than anything they have ever done, and made me forgive them for almost everything else). Noah watched the wonderful flash mob dance on Helen’s phone.

Helen said she had never felt present anywhere; she was always in a state of anticipating problems and how to fix them. Things just happened to her. She knew people thought she was co-dependent. Say Noah had had the affair 50 years ago, Helen said she would have been congratulated for standing by him. Noah noted that the pattern of their recent history was that he was exiled, and she rescued him.

Oh no, you two, this viewer thought. Maybe what is about to happen—surely they’re about to have sex—is not such a great idea.

Noah heard my internal worry (OK, I said it to the television). “Even if we love each other, it doesn’t mean that we’re good for each other,” he said. Certain couples had hurt each other less. True, but certain couples have loved each other less, said Helen, who then, very Helen-ishly forecast all of our mental and physical decline as we age. She felt stronger now, post- their separation, but what binds them was also important.

Whitney and Colin’s vows included one to be nice to each other. That would keep them going for six months, Noah noted. Maybe they could catch their mistakes quicker than Noah and Helen had. Helen said that she used to know what Noah was thinking. Noah asked Helen “for old time’s sake” to guess again. “It looks like you want to kiss me.”

She was right. They kissed. Great!

Also: Oh no, here we go again!

How Noah Became Yoda

Back to the future at The Lobster Roll, Noah recommended Joanie (she not realizing who he is) “make the difficult choice.” She told him that Ben had killed Alison, a huge shock for Noah who believed his onetime love’s death to have been suicide. Joanie loaded a gun to kill Ben, and here The Affair’s final episode took a characteristically silly bent, making E.J. (Michael Braun), the guy Joanie had sex with a few weeks back, Eddie—the grown-up son of Sierra (Emily Browning) and Vik (HE SHOULD BE ALIVE).

Eddie explained the connections between him and Joanie: “My mother is your mother’s ex-husband’s ex-wife’s new partner’s lover.” He reassured her, as he advocated them having a relationship: “We could not be less related.”

He wanted to run away to Vienna with her. She really didn’t, but he did confirm Noah owns The Lobster Roll, which is where—after sweetly rejecting Eddie—she returns to. This was a needless curveball, but OK, Affair, we shall indulge you this final lap mischief.

Advancing age and impressively mountainous wrinkles really had conferred Yoda-ish wisdom upon Noah. He now had a 360-degree knowledge of apparently every character and plot twist and nuance of The Affair.

He told Joanie how loved she was by both her parents Alison and Cole; her father’s pain skewed his perspective, Noah said. Cole apparently told Joanie that Alison was “crazy,” which seems improbable. Noah told Joanie how much Alison fought to be with her (Joanie thought her mother had abandoned her).

Joanie said that she was a “coastal engineer, trying to save the world from drowning.” Drowning is what killed Alison and Cole’s first child, Gabriel. Alison was murdered, and then drowned. Fiona Apple’s theme song, the titles, all the characters actually, have ominous relationships with the sea—and so this job of Joanie’s has a symbolic significance too.

In line with that, Noah notes that Eddie, an epigeneticist, has noted how trauma can be passed down through generations. Maybe Joanie has also inherited Alison’s resilience, because whatever Joanie thinks Alison had not only chosen life (before she was killed), she was helping others who had endured the trauma she knew only too well.

Sometimes our children have to finish our journeys,” Noah-Yoda said. The temptation of running away, affairs, new lives, is reinvention; but what you are really running from is death, Noah said. Joanie may not want to go home to her husband and children, she may feel she cannot love, but it is there where the biggest challenge may lie—to extend and develop the love that Alison represented.

OK, fine. But then the worst climate change meets personal crisis bit of script erupted, echoing all those non-apocalyptic Montauk puddles: “You may not be able to save the earth, but you can be there for your children no matter what happens.”

Oh, Noah-Yoda, and Sarah Treem, we’ll allow you this for the finale. But really, that howler merits 10 free tubes of Pringles and two cases of champagne being sent to every devoted viewer.

Unsaid, and nullifying that hammy piece of writing: this was a fundamental moment of healing at The Lobster Roll, “the end of the world,” where the series began and where there was first rupture. This was where Noah met Alison, where all the damage began. And now: the very opposite of damage took place there. Healing. But where was Helen in this vision of the future? Did she benefit from Noah-Yoda’s new wisdom; the show’s agent of chaos had become the agent of calm and wisdom.

One more time, to the ocean

Back in the past at the wedding, Whitney’s siblings and Colin told her that Noah was responsible for all the lovely things at her wedding day. Whitney also danced with Bruce, who in a moment of clarity—his fog of dementia clearing momentarily—told her that being angry at people is easier than forgiving them.

It was a lovely moment, even if Whitney’s questions (how can we forgive the unforgivable?) resonated too. Bruce staged a fall into the pool so Whitney and siblings could dash away to see Noah at the motel. It was cute, lovely, and cheering to see them run off into the night together, Whitney crashing through Sasha’s hideous floral love heart. It was just as stirring seeing Margaret jump into the pool first to save her husband. (And Kathleen Chalfant danced up a storm in the flash-mob too.)

There then unfolded a perfect Affair moment, both beautifully written and directed: the kids (and Colin) got to the motel, and realized their parents were having sex inside the room. They were mortified, happy, and waited outside, eating cake, drinking champagne, and just sitting companionably together as their parents bumped and ground behind them in a pool of light. It was a Hopper portrait rendered perfectly for the show.

That was the final unifying Solloway family portrait, as the camera span away, through time, to Joanie leaving Montauk on the train. And then, still in 2050-something, Noah was reading Montauk, a novel by a now-adult Stacey Solloway. Oh no, not another family memoir, or fictionalized autobiography. Can’t this family write or think about anyone but themselves?

Sitting against a grave, Noah read out his daughter’s description of him as “tall, patient but lazy,” and Helen as “small, impatient and assiduous.”

This fan thought that these were oddly lacking adjectives to describe the people we have been watching for five seasons—but please, there is no need for a sequel featuring the children’s clashing perspectives to justify it.

Noah’s memory returned to that night of love-making with Helen at the motel, and he and Helen exchanging a series of “I do” affirmations themselves, ending with “trying this again”—presumably meaning their relationship.

And so, when Noah stood up back in 2050-something, and the grave was revealed as Helen’s, who died in 2051 (next to Bruce, 2024, and Margaret, 2051; she was 100!), we assume they must have stayed together after that night of passion. Noah said that he had to go and would be back tomorrow.

Joanie returned home, and was reunited with husband Paul (Lyriq Bent) and her two daughters (Mykal-Michelle Harris as Madeline and Jaidyn Triplett as Thea). They all held one another; a family unit unified after the family unit shattered that we saw play out in the main body of The Affair.

But that wasn’t the end.

The Affair ended with Noah. This fan would have preferred Helen to have been present too. This was a show too guided by his dick, ego, and whims, in which the women around him struggled to find a place and presence. But Alison and Cole had to be absent because Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson left the show at the end of season four.

And all Affair roads did leave back to our leading man-child, man-slut, man-wrecking ball, man-writer, and finally, man-hero, and man oh-wise one.

We were back at the sea, just as we had to be—it was the show’s overarching symbol. Noah, now frail, walked through the sea grass to a clifftop. There was to be no final-reel slaying of The Affair’s living villain, Ben, Alison’s murderer. This fan half expected him to appear, and Noah to finish him off and tie this final plot strand, and then maybe Ben would “sink back into the ocean,” as Fiona Apple’s title theme has always doomily intoned.

Instead, Apple’s voice struck up—not with the theme but her take on the wondrous “The Whole of the Moon.” Noah began dancing to it, finally having the dance to himself denied on Whitney’s wedding day. The camera swooped away from him, leaving the cliff and shore and over the sea, the candy-striped lighthouse on the far right hand side of the screen.

The ocean was there, and it had its place, but it was non-threatening, non-consuming. It felt as if the spirit of Alison, the spirit of the show itself, was taking flight—not sinking, not claimed by the sea, but free at last.

One’s mind returned to the lines of Wilbur’s poem that flashed at the start of the the finale: the injured bird that flew free, and the wish that the same holds true for the narrator’s daughter’s writing and passions too. This was a perfect ending, and most surprisingly in this most brooding and inward-looking of shows, it represented an escape up-and-outwards—to light, air, joy, and creative self-expression; ascent, not Descent.

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