The story we were told last week was not entirely true. Not even in the ballpark of truth. And in a powerhouse hour of TV with more than a few twists and painful revelations, we learned what really happened to Alison the night she died.
Last week belonged to Joshua Jackson, from beginning to end. This week it’s departing cast member Ruth Wilson’s turn to shine, as both Parts of this episode are from her perspective (a first for The Affair), which prompted no small amount of head-scratching among fans on Twitter in the moments immediately after the episode ended.
But unlike past episodes, in which slight changes are explained through differing perspectives and the emotions behind the eyes of the beholder, “409” gave us two radically different outcomes.
Part One opens on Alison cleaning her apartment. Joanie’s puzzles (were they tangram puzzles?) litter the table; a fire glows in the hearth; a Jason Isbell song plays over the portable speaker on her chic glass living room table in the seaside cottage-esque living room… which made me second guess myself, because Alison’s home didn’t look like that before, did it? I wasn’t paying that much attention to it before, but it seems important now, for reasons we discover later on. She’s doing the dishes but wearing a beach dress, which is not how I do the dishes in my home, so I figured she was expecting company; however, when there’s a knock at the door it seems as though she’s taken aback slightly. She fiddles with a leaky faucet but gives up when a bit of wiggling doesn’t solve the problem (and, honestly, that’s a mood if ever there was one; I tried fixing a leaky showerhead once and ended up making it so bad we had to replace the whole thing. Cost us $200 when I’m sure the initial leak wasn’t anything to worry about, really. Now, if wiggles don’t fix it, I give up).
Anyway, all of this seems important, but only with the benefit of hindsight.
She answers the door and sees Ben standing there, wine and flowers in hand. But things are different between them. After he admits he was married, with children (one of whom is named Gabriel, which unnerves Alison as much as it did me), but that he’s left his wife for her, Alison tells him she already knows, and says she can’t do this; having been down this road before, she can’t stomach the idea of doing it again. And Ben seems understanding. It’s the simplest, easiest breakup that we’ve ever seen on The Affair.
He’s about to leave when he notices the leaky faucet and offers to fix it. This rapidly leads to Alison offering to make him supper, which leads to Ben cooking supper instead, and then to him telling her all about the traumatic events he experienced overseas and how it impacted his relationship with his wife. It’s not easy to listen to: after mistakenly killing an innocent child and being discharged, Ben goes home and discovers that the life he dreamed of returning to is hideous to him. Specifically, he can’t stand his wife, especially the way she looks at him; whether she knows what happened to him in Iraq is unclear but that hardly matters. He implies that his alcohol and PTSD-fueled rage led him to rape her once; this is what drove him to therapy and to get sober. It’s horrible stuff. But while it may all be true, to me it sounded a little too much like a series of excuses — for his trust issues, his bad behaviour, his alcoholism, why he left his wife, et cetera — designed specifically to make Alison stay.
And it works. She comes clean about her role in Gabriel’s death and how she should have known better, but how her anger and jealousy towards Cole blinded her to her son’s plight. They both blame themselves for their roles in the deaths of these two children, that much is obvious.
“What happens to people like us? The ones who can’t be forgiven?” Alison asks. Ben says it’s up to us to forgive ourselves first. Has Alison done that? It feels like she’s almost there, and she admits this herself when she talks about her mother Athena’s belief that we live multiple lives, each time getting closer and closer to perfection; maybe this is as close as she gets in this life, and she says as much to Ben.
“So you’re just waiting to die?” he asks.
It’s chilling, knowing what we know of Alison’s ultimate fate.
But it’s telling, too, that Alison both speaks of the changes she’s made to her life and of accepting the fact that this could be as far as she comes. Indeed, she and Ben come together for a passionate night beneath the Montauk stars, and it seems as though Alison is choosing life. Far be it from me (or anyone) to put words or action to the inner thoughts of another person, but it’s hard to imagine that this woman is someone contemplating suicide.
But when Alison gets up to tidy the kitchen before bed and we follow her through her house to the kitchen sink again, everything is different. It’s subtle but earth-shattering. Someone bangs on the door; thunder rolls in the distance; Alison looks out the window again and surveys her reflection through the rain-streaked glass. When she answers the door and sees Ben on the other side, Part Two has begun.
But while they start the same, they end up very differently. In Part Two, Ben is angry, harsh. He lies about being married when questioned by Alison and grows agitated by her insistence on him answering her, demands that they go out to eat as planned because he’s so hungry, and berates her for not calling him and telling him where she’d gone when she left town for Los Angeles. He tries to tell her that he acts the way he does because of what happened to him in Iraq, but when he goes to pour himself a drink (or two, or four — I lost count), my hackles raised and so did Alison’s. This is one of those nightmare scenarios that women think through every time they find themselves alone with a man they don’t know very well. I’ve done this; I’m sure every woman has, at one point or another. It’s just a fact of life as a woman. And throughout this second half, seeing the way Ben invades Alison’s space, blocking her doorways and positioning himself behind her or beside her or on top of her so as to render her less mobile…it frightened me. A lot. I don’t want to admit that maybe I need a content warning for this kind of thing, but the truth is… maybe I do.
At any rate, Ben is deaf to her rationale for wanting to live a different life, and doesn’t take kindly to Alison’s resistance to his continued presence in her home once she’s made it clear that this isn’t happening, in spite of his protestations about loving only her and needing her, needing this, in his life. He lies about being married. He lies (or maybe tells the truth? Who can say?) about how he deliberately killed the boy in Iraq, something which would almost certainly be considered a war crime if it were ever revealed. Everything we saw in Part One is inverted on itself; the dark doppelgänger to something infinitely more beautiful.
She wants him to leave. He refuses. A verbal fight turns to a physical one, and after Ben shoves Alison away from him as she runs for her door, she hits her head and slumps to the floor.
We know how this version of the story ends.
Her final words are delivered via voiceover as Ben carries her towards the ocean to cover up his crime. They’re worth reprinting in full:
“What’re you gonna do, Ben? Are you gonna kill me? You think that scares me? My son died. He died in my fucking arms. So what in god’s name do you think you can do to me that I haven’t done to myself a million times? I’ve been in pain my entire life and maybe that’s what makes people think that I’m weak. And maybe that makes people treat me like some sort of receptacle for all their grief, and rage, and disappointment. But I am fucking sick of it. 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.”
We’ve been treated to four seasons of “two sides to every story”, and have grown accustomed to seeing the truth laying somewhere in the middle.
How do we interpret Alison’s two versions of the same night?
Alison begins Part One and Part Two by looking at herself in the glass above her kitchen sink. Mirrors and seeing oneself reflected in any surface can be used to represent many different elements all related to seeking our inner selves, deeper truths. Off the top of my head, I can think of dozens of examples of characters facing themselves in this way at moments of crisis. Twin Peaks famously ended its second season with a broken mirror; Mad Men did it countless times throughout its seven-season run.
Far from being a simple moment of setting establishment, here they are telling moments of reflection for Alison. Recognition. Something beyond a simplistic “two sides” conceit that The Affair has had going for it since the start. The first moment Alison sees herself in the mirror is the moment when she can change the narrative, where reality and fantasy depart.
Thus, Part Two is the awful truth, and Part One is the fantasy, lived out in a kind of suspended reality (in the moment after she hit her head? When she was drowning? Does it matter?) that bears little resemblance to the real world — hence the beautiful and different interior of Alison’s home, and the kind and gentle Ben. This is the life she wanted to lead, the one in which she was happy. It features the conversation she wished had happened when she opened the door, instead of the one that did happen, which led to her sinking back into the ocean.
And, as I hoped for last week, Alison does get the final word, but it’s too late for her. The life she was leading and the life she wanted to lead are both over.
So where does that leave us? Which ending is truer to Alison’s story as we know it over the last four seasons? Last week, I didn’t want to believe that Alison could have ended her own life, after everything she had been through, and all the changes that were foreshadowed throughout this season. Having her life taken from her by the violent acts of someone close to her makes her death more tragic… but it also makes for good TV drama, which makes me feel manipulated. Her murder is hard to stomach, as well, because it happened as a result of domestic violence, by a man we barely knew, who seems to have been brought into this story solely to serve as the vehicle to allow Alison to be written out of the plot entirely. So I’m conflicted here as well.
In the end, Alison is gone and there is one more episode left before the season finale. Season 5 has already been greenlit as well, and now everyone is left wondering how the show will carry on with Alison Bailey/Ruth Wilson no longer being a part of it. But I’m in awe of the way the show chose to send her off in this episode. Whether you view the two stories through the strict lens of fantasy/reality or as something else entirely, I can’t help but applaud the choices made in this episode to tell this particular story.
- Now we know why Alison had water in her lungs, but what we don’t know is why the detective was so insistent upon labeling Alison’s death a suicide last week. Perhaps this is laziness on the part of the detective, and perhaps Cole will push him to the truth. Certainly, there must be evidence all over Alison’s apartment — her blood on the counter or on the Krishna statue from Athena, or in Ben’s car. But part of me wonders if finding Alison’s killer is going to be the main push for Cole’s character going into Season 5. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
- I’m uncomfortable with the idea that Ben could have made up the story about Iraq in Part One as a ploy to win Alison over, especially if this is a constructed reality of her own making; it would mean that, even in the idealised fantasy, Alison still falls for the line, and implies that she’d have rather learned nothing and survived than learned how to stand up for herself and died…I need to think about this a bit more.
- The camera follows Alison a lot in this episode, keeping pace in front of or behind her at various points. The shot that closes Part One and opens Part Two was superb, I thought, in that it tracks in from the balcony and across the living room to mirror the earlier shot of Alison doing dishes, but everything has changed — her clothes, the living room, the faucet. Surely this is the moment that Sarah Treem told us about on Twitter yesterday:
- Treem also hinted that the songs used in this episode would be important. And reading through the lyrics to all three, but especially the Jason Isbell ones…I can totally see how they reflect what’s happening in the story. Dissecting those song lyrics could make for a really good article someday:
- Unfortunately, there have been reports that Ruth Wilson was let go from the show following pay disputes between her and her male co-stars, specifically Dominic West. I’m not sure how much of that can be given credence — since I read it in a less-than-reputable British tabloid publication — but it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that it was true. I hope it’s not, and that Wilson decided to leave to further her own career in different ways, and not because this show was shortchanging her.
- I still think that Joshua Jackson is this season’s knock out, standout star, but Ruth Wilson and Ramon Rodriguez are brilliant in this episode. They’re the only people on screen, at all, throughout the entire hour, and they each play two versions of themselves, and that’s a remarkable feat.