‘The Affair’ By the Numbers: Despite Season 4’s Tragedies, This Was The Most Balanced Season Yet For All Characters

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Affair” Season 4.]

After four seasons, “The Affair” has been consistent in just one way: keeping viewers on their toes. The emotionally dense and complex drama has played with perspective, format, lies, and truth since the very beginning, sometimes frustrating its audience, but rarely boring them.

One of those frustrations had a name: Noah Solloway (played by Dominic West). Over the course of “The Affair’s” third season, savvy viewers might have noticed that while the series had initially been evenly split between two main characters, Alison and Noah, the decision to experiment with its format shifted things to not just include the points-of-view of Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson), but to — more often than not — favor Noah’s perspective.

That is why, 18 months ago, IndieWire turned to charts and graphs to break down just how things had changed. The short version of those results, post-Season 3: Rather than lean on new perspectives to become much more of an ensemble, Noah’s narrative had pretty much taken over the show over those first three years, most notably at the expense of Alison (Ruth Wilson) — as seen in the charts below:

Entering Season 4, then, was the question of whether that pattern would continue — or if Alison might once again rise in prominence. Which makes the reveal of Alison’s death (either suicide or murder) toward the end of the season a bit ironic, on top of its actual tragedy: The game-changing twist dealt near the end of Season 4 was the sort of move which reminds us that this show is a horse that’s not afraid to buck its riders.

For the record, the official Showtime statement regarding Wilson’s departure from “The Affair” is that “Ultimately, it felt like the most powerful creative decision would be to end Alison’s arc at the moment when she had finally achieved self-empowerment,” and there’s no indication that Wilson choice to leave had anything to do with unhappiness over that imbalance. (Wilson has said in interviews that she’s “not allowed to say” why she requested her exit, and also had no input into the way Alison’s storyline ended.)

However, while this year was planned and structured around Wilson’s desire to leave the show, Wilson wasn’t nearly as absent as one might think from the action. Here’s the list of each Season 4 episode and the points-of-view featured:

401: Noah, Helen
402: Cole, Alison
403: Noah, Helen
404: Alison, Cole
405: Vic, Cole
406: Noah, Alison
407: Helen, Noah
408: Cole, Noah
409: Alison, Alison
410: Noah, Cole, Helen

This means the total POV sections from Season 4 break down as follows:

Noah: 6
Alison: 5
Cole: 5
Helen: 4
Vic: 1

A couple of notes regarding those numbers:

  • It could be argued that Cole should receive sole credit for Episode 408, since his point-of-view drove a large majority of that episode. However, we choose to credit Noah for his part in the episode, for two reasons: One, Jackson delivers an incredible performance over the course of the hour, but West is nearly omnipresent. Two, Noah essentially gets the last word — his short coda in the diner, breaking down over the memory of the waitress he met all those years ago, punctuating the episode’s tangible grieving.
  • Congrats to Omar Metwally for being the first actor of color to get a POV sequence (as the character at one point was perhaps one of the show’s most interesting players, it could be argued that this was way overdue).
  • While a character getting a POV segment usually means their story gets the chance to advance further, Season 4 Episode 9 covered approximately the same stretch of time from Alison’s perspective, instead telling two different versions of the same night. However, whatever interpretation you choose to assign to the events of that night, both sections do offer a great deal of insight into Alison as a character, and so both deserve the credit.

Once we give those numbers the ol’ pie chart treatment, here’s what a chart of every character’s participation over the course of the series to date looks like:

But here’s the more exciting bit — here’s the narrative spread of just Season 4:

It’s a far more equal balance than past seasons — not only that, but as the numbers above indicate, if Noah’s one scene from 408 was stricken from the record, it would be a three-way tie for first between him, Alison, and Cole, with Helen only shortly behind.

Season 4 might not be remembered as the best-ever season of “The Affair,” but it had a captivating energy even before Alison’s death dropped all our jaws (not just due to the decreased emphasis on Noah’s story). Which is good news, because without that spark, it’s doubtful we’d be excited to talk about what’s to come in Season 5.

The show’s final season, as previously announced, has been greenlit, and we know Wilson won’t be involved. This means that in a year (or likely more, given the current pace of prestige TV), when we make some new charts and graphs, Alison’s numbers will remain the same, while others will increase.

What will happen next? It seems likely that showrunner Sarah Treem and her team will continue to include fresh blood alongside the established series regulars. At least one more section from Vic’s POV feels nearly essential, given the drama thrown at him during Season 4, from his complicated relationships with his parents and his terminal cancer diagnosis to unexpectedly getting his young neighbor Sierra (Emily Browning) pregnant.

And yes, Sierra probably has a lot to say about impending motherhood, her fluid sexuality, and her perhaps more-than-a-crush on Helen. There are also Season 4 newcomers Jenelle (Sanaa Lathan), who probably has a very different perspective on how her new employee/lover Noah interacts with the students at her high school, as well as Jenelle’s son Anton (Christopher Meyer), now exploring collegiate life and trying to figure out what it means to be a writer.

“The Affair.”

Showtime

Plus, Ben (Ramon Rodriguez) may have something to say about the events of the night he maybe murdered Alison. And Cole’s now-estranged wife Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), between her potential career in the restaurant business, immigration concerns, and love for adopted daughter Joanie, doesn’t lack for story.

Seriously, those are just a few options — it’s a mystery as to who else could be featured, from either the existing ensemble or new characters from the new worlds that these characters will be asked to explore when the show eventually returns. But what’s most promising about all those options, and what we learn from looking back at Season 4, is something that feels promising for the show’s future.

An affair might seem like it happens just between two people, after all. But the whole point of “The Affair” is that the effects of an affair are ultimately seismic, for the lives of everyone involved. Over the past four seasons, the show has been at its best when it’s shown how the aftershocks impact even the most tertiary of those involved. Wilson will be very much missed, but how the show moves forward will continue to speak to that all-too-human truth, one that doesn’t often find an opportunity to thrive on television.

“The Affair” Seasons 1-4 are streaming now via Showtime.

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