Season 5, Episode 6
An affair shaped Joanie Lockhart’s childhood. Now an affair of her own has upended her marriage. If the man involved is to be believed, that’s more than just human nature — it’s science.
The first episode of “The Affair” to take place entirely in the future through the adult Joanie’s point of view, this installment picked up right where we last saw her, at the grave of her father, Cole. There she meets E.J. (Michael Braun), a chatty, nosy scientist investigating the cemetery for his own reasons. (It’s unclear if there’s anyone left in climate-ravaged Future Montauk but scientists.)
E.J. is an epigeneticist studying the cyclical effects of trauma from one generation to the next. “Children of parents who have experienced trauma are more likely to be triggered by their own stressors than children of untraumatized parents,” he explains after giving Joanie a ride. (His ebullience seems to flummox her right out of worrying about getting in a car with a strange man.) A scientist with his interests would naturally gravitate to the Lockhart family, with its history of murder, suicide and accidental death, with Joanie’s mother’s death among them.
Ah, but to which category did her death truly belong? When Joanie flips through the police file at the abandoned station, the information is all a blur. But when E.J. pops up unexpectedly at her father’s house to show her the super moon lighting up the sky over the ocean, she uses meteorological data provided by her smart glasses and discovers that the low tide the night of her mother’s death would have made it difficult for her to drown if she’d simply jumped in to kill herself.
Only later, after flipping through her father’s files, is she reminded in a dream that the handsome ex-Marine Ben Cruz (Ramon Rodriguez), with whom her father appeared to be obsessed, had been hanging around her mother before she died — and may well have murdered her.
All of this takes place surrounding two sexual encounters between Joanie and E.J. During the first, E.J. stops everything short when he realizes that Joanie’s violent sexual proclivities may mean she inherited her parents’ trauma after all. The second takes place after Joanie admits to her husband, Paul (Lyriq Bent), that she has been serially unfaithful, seemingly to torpedo their relationship. According to E.J., this kind of behavior, and the despair that drives it, stems from never properly grieving the people she loses.
In a way, this episode feels like “The Affair” mourning its departed stars. Seeing Joshua Jackson’s open, soulful face as Cole in flashbacks; hearing Ruth Wilson’s ragged, bottomed-out voice as Alison in voice-over; watching Joanie wrestle with her memories of both parents as if those memories were living things she must defeat in order to survive … all of it draws attention to the enormity of the contribution those actors and their characters made to the show, and the void left in their wake. After half a season of the Solloways and their circle of lovers, friends and family, the Lockharts finally get their due, and it’s long overdue.
The show runs a major risk in putting its missing pieces front and center, of course: It highlights how “The Affair” is no longer about half the people it used to be about. If you miss them, well, you’re going to miss them even more after an episode devoted to how magnetic and fascinating they were.
And the shortcuts required to bring them back to the forefront are noticeable. E.J., for example, feels like a plot contrivance as much as a character: His mile-a-minute garrulousness and his job as an epigeneticist both feel designed to deliver as much exposition as possible in the shortest amount of time. That he and Joanie jump into bed together the same day they meet at her father’s grave site — a connection that feels forced — is partially explained by her serial infidelity. But a more convincing reason is simply that the writers, for whatever reason, decided that they needed this guy in order for Joanie to get to the bottom of her mother’s murder.
The same can be said of Joanie’s use of futuristic technology to determine the tide was too low the night her mother died for her to have committed suicide. Is that really something only fancy sci-fi glasses could determine? Wouldn’t the timing of Alison’s death and the weather and tide conditions at the time have been taken into consideration by the authorities of the day? I’m happy that Joanie is on a path to the truth, but her first steps along the way have been shaky.
I’m more compelled by Joanie’s depression; Anna Paquin’s work never feels more raw and convincing than when she spills her guts to E.J. about the depths of her mental distress. The way she speaks about her constant thoughts of suicide, about her self-destructive coping mechanisms, about how in her zeal to be nothing like her mother she has become just like her mother … even though Joanie is a relative stranger to us, it still hurts to hear.
It hurts worse when you realize how much of it is tied to the deteriorating state of the planet. Joanie has a life that revolves around death: the death of Montauk as an inhabitable place, the death of the Long Island coast as the sand washes away in storm after storm, the death of the expensive indoor garden her family uses to generate oxygen, the death of her children as they grow up to breathe the toxic air she is powerless to purify. How can anyone be expected to heal from grief while surrounded by so much more of it?
The Odds and Ends:
When Joanie pulls up the tidal data from the night of her mother’s death, we see a date: Oct. 13, 2021. This means that everything we have seen over the past two seasons of the show (at least) takes place in the near future. This is probably the kind of thing you could piece together by tracking the ages of the Lockhart and Solloway children over the years, but it threw me for a loop nonetheless.
Catalina Sandino Moreno shows up as Cole’s ex-wife Luisa, now some 30 years older. Luisa was an interesting, underutilized character, and it’s good to see her again, even if it’s under a layer of less-than-convincing age makeup.
Joanie and Paul’s two little girls are adopted, which explains why she, even as a mother, might refer to a planned pregnancy as a “carbon bomb.”
Sometimes you can boil down an entire slew of anxieties into a single image. Joanie discovering that her garden’s strawberries are rotten while her mental health, her marriage and her planet collapse is one of those times.