‘The Affair’: Alison’s a sharp reminder about suicide prevention
Spoilers ahead for S4 of The Affair!
It’s rare for a single episode of a TV show to be such a gut punch of emotion that it leaves you almost winded by the credits. But on Sunday night, S4E8 (“You Don’t Know the Whole Story”) of The Affair took a right hook to our chests and pushed all the air out.
The season has been slowly building with foreboding and dread surrounding Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) increasingly erratic and despairing arc.
Even though she seemingly begins S4 looking positively to the future with an exciting new job that allows her to use her own troubled past to help troubled women in the present, a string of escalating events slowly pummel her back to her former state.
She’s assaulted by the abusive husband of a woman she tries to help. She finds out her new lover is yet another married man.
She discovers she’s the outcome of her mother’s rape experience and she’s sexually assaulted by a stranger on a flight (and arrested when she fights back) during an impulsive bid to escape her own demons.
With all that, it’s not surprising to see her spiral into an understandable wreck. But it is surprising to be confronted with the devastating outcome of it all when it’s revealed her waterlogged dead body has been found after a desperate three day search.
It’s surprising – but it shouldn’t be. Like Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Noah (Dominic West) throughout the episode, we believe the best for her. That she’ll be found and she’ll be okay.
But there are warning signs throughout S4 and the entire show that Alison is a woman desperately seeking help, who is instead repeatedly exploited for her sadness and blamed for every consequence that comes of it.
It starts with Cole refusing to acknowledge and deal with their shared grief over their dead son. It escalates when she finds solace in her affair with Noah.
It implodes within her when she’s faced with Noah’s true perspective of her – a fantasy woman he spins into fiction. A story he repackages and sells as his own for a bestselling book.
It continues to eat away at her when she sleeps with Cole at his discretion, even though he’s now seemingly happily married to someone else. Particularly at a time when she wants nothing more than to start her life anew – not dive back into the same mistakes.
Her disclosure to Ben (Ramon Rodriguez) of a vision she has of strong arms pulling her out of water when she was young (a memory she discovers is tied to her estranged father saving her from drowning as a child) couldn’t be more apt in highlighting Alison’s need for help.
Since the pilot episode of The Affair, Alison has always been struggling under the waves of her own suffering, desperate for someone stronger to save her from it.
The warning signs have been there all along. Even in Fiona Apple’s haunting theme song: “I have only one thing to do and that’s / Be the wave that I am and then / Sink back into the ocean.”
In this way, The Affair has provided one of the most compelling and unique depictions of a troubled woman ever seen on screen.
Alison has always been a woman trying to do the best for herself in spite of her flaws and impulse for destruction. She’s always been fighting back against the pull of those waves, but complicit in her desire to be submerged by them too.
There are moments in “You Don’t Know the Whole Story” where it seems as though The Affair may be leaning on the tiresome fridging trope (where a female character is killed to further the narrative of a male character), but in a way that’s precisely the point.
Both Noah and Cole have repeatedly used Alison for their own gratification with little concern for her own troubles or feelings. It’s never been about Alison for either them – it’s always been about their own self-efficacy and satisfaction.
It’s telling that in trying to process her death, the two men are still scrapping on the ground like teenagers, hurling punches at each other instead of taking a moment to consider Alison’s fractured emotionality beyond their relationships with her.
Or that Noah continues to believe he did all he could for Alison when he bailed her out of jail and let Helen and Vic deal with her emotional breakdown. Alison’s father is also right when he tells Cole he’s just looking for someone else to blame.
Throughout The Affair, both have bounced responsibility for Alison’s well-being between each other and to anyone else they can instead of dealing with it directly.
In S4E6 (“Maybe It Didn’t Happen”), Alison is clearly in “bad shape” as Noah shrugs it off when describing the episode to Cole.
But her impulsive decision to leave her child (the one she’s fought so hard to gain custody of) to fly across the country on a whim only highlights a disconcerting truth: Alison has already organized her life in such a way that people won’t immediately worry as and when she chooses to disappear.
The character has isolated herself from loved ones and she has a notable absence of friends in her life. Furthermore, she’s organized an escape strategy well ahead of time (including transferring funds to a new account for her daughter).
As the detective tells Cole and Noah about there being no uncertainty that her death was a suicide, Alison had once told him that if she couldn’t find happiness by 35, she was willing to give up on life.
Every character in The Affair has been aware of the potential for Alison’s eventual tragic outcome (as we all have been as viewers) – but nobody did anything constructive to stop it.
In “Maybe It Didn’t Happen”, Alison opens up to Helen with a bombshell of a question. “Why do men look at me and see someone they can fuck with? What is it about me? It’s like they can smell something on me.”
Pithy as ever and still unwilling to let go of the grudge against the woman who helped to break up her marriage to Noah, Helen responds: “Do you not think you had any choice in the matter?” and continues to real off some California bullshit about manifesting your own destiny.
“You’ve been telling yourself the same story for a long time that bad things have always happened to you and always will. What if you change the narrative?”
Devastatingly, Alison has – she’s changed the narrative by ending it.
In doing this to the character, The Affair has provided a provocative arc that underlines the demands of mental illness and PTSD.
It also highlights the importance of acknowledging suicidal warning signs and acting swiftly upon them however a community can.
The reason why “You Don’t Know the Whole Story” is such a shattering piece of storytelling is that by all accounts, Alison should have been a survivor – but she isn’t.
Noah and Cole assumed she was fine. As an audience, we also assumed she was fine. But fine isn’t a powerful enough word or state to pull someone out of the water.
If you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 911, or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.