Showtime’s The Affair is, at its core, a character drama masquerading as a mystery. Sure, the device of the “he said / she said” gimmick helps propels the story and ultimately becomes a through-line into the narrative, but the heart of the series – its most valuable asset – lines within its carefully constructed characters. The heartbroken waitress who opens herself to an affair to cope with the loss of a child. The struggling author disappointed in his adult life. And the wife coping with an unravelling family and the loss of her husband, the rock upon which she relied.
That wife, Helen Solloway, is marvelously lived-in by previous Emmy nominee Maura Tierney (E.R.). If justice prevails on Emmy nomination morning, then she will be rewarded again with a nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
The beginning of The Affair centers mostly on the central embroiled pair: Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson). Tierney spends the first three-quarters of the show drifting in and out of his storyline, serving the part of the dutiful wife and mother at their summer in Montauk. The wealthy daughter of a celebrated novelist, Helen always appears to have settled for Noah – at least that’s what he believes – but you’re always aware that through all of the child, parent, and job stress she deeply loves him. So, when Noah begins the affair with Alison, the audience is somewhat torn. Helen isn’t a shrew. She isn’t a bitch. She’ isn’t a saint either. She’s a real woman in the real world. And that is, perhaps, too much for Noah to absorb.
Once they leave the island, the audience believes Noah has escaped detection. After a panic attack thought to be a heart attack shakes him, Noah confesses his infidelity to Helen. When Noah says the words “I had a fling,” Tierney’s face registers each and every arrow that hits her heart. You could watch the scene in slow-mo and pinpoint the exact moment she loses her faith and love in him and in life itself. You think, for a while, that the uptight, extremely waspy Helen will overlook the incident, much as her mother had for a lifetime. Yet, at home, Tierney gradually unravels, building the confrontation scene from a one of incredulity (Noah tries to make the affair about his damaged ego and his self-induced shortcomings) to one of seething woman-scored rage (later, when she discovers a tell-tale pair of panties in his dresser drawer).
The part of the cheated-upon wife has been written many times in all forms of art, yet Tierney expertly renders the soul of the woman. Even after things appear at its bleakest, she remains hopeful. She is torn. She is disappointed. She is hurt. Yet, she fights for him in the end. And ultimately loses, we discover. While West and particularly Wilson are both excellent in the series, Tierney’s performance is the drama’s quiet anchor, and, when all is said and done, you’re left wondering if Noah made a huge mistake in turning her away.