Interview: Sarah Treem Looks Back on ‘The Affair’ Season Two

The Affair

Showtime’s Golden Globe-winning drama The Affair wrapped up its critically acclaimed second season on December 20 and achieved exactly what a season finale should. It answered questions asked by viewers since its first season and whetted viewers’ appetites for a third season by putting one of its main characters into even more dire straights, resulting in series-high ratings. It was a fitting end to a season that deftly avoided the dreaded sophomore slump thanks to the sharp eye and gentle guiding hand of show runner and series co-creator Sarah Treem.

It’s amazing to consider that The Affair is Treem’s first series as show runner. After writing and co-producing HBO’s acclaimed In Treatment as well as How to Make It In America and writing episodes of Netflix’s House of Cards, Treem guides her series with the confidence and foresight of someone well beyond her experience. Additionally, her work is perhaps best appreciated for showcasing a wide array of female experiences, a rarity in a medium long dominated by men. The Affair is a richer experience because of the perspectives she brings.

Sarah Treem recently discussed The Affair‘s second season with AwardsDaily TV and offered a few hints as to what to expect from Season Three.

Note: Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t yet seen the finale.

ADTV: The finale had one thing in common with last year’s finale in that two major events are seen in completely different lights. In the Season Two finale, you have Alison making a confession Noah about Joanie’s parentage in two dramatically different ways. Is this a recollection issue, or are the narrators spinning the truth for their own gain?

Treem: This season they weren’t telling their stories to the detective, per se, so it’s not about spinning the truth for gain. What I try to get at, when the POVs diverge, is the emotional truth of moments, instead of the literal truth. From Noah’s POV, Alison told him about Joanie’s paternity in order to save their relationship. That’s why she’s crying on the steps as she tells him. She’s sorry and she wants to be forgiven. From Alison’s POV, she tells him the truth in order to leave him. In order to break the relationship apart. Now the “truth” is probably somewhere in the middle. Alison probably wants to be forgiven and she wants to escape. Most of the time, especially in relationships, we want both things at the same time. We want to be forgiven and punished. We want to be joined and freed. Like last year, I wanted to push the storytelling differences at the critical moment beyond the literal – so the audience wouldn’t waste time trying to figure out “what really happened.” It doesn’t really matter, does it? Whether it was night or day. Whether she was on the steps or listening to Scotty sing. What matters, at least to me, is not how Alison tells Noah… it’s why.

The Affair

ADTV: Season Two saw the much-publicized broadening of the show’s perspectives beyond Noah and Alison, and the critical and audience reaction to this change has been overwhelmingly positive. Looking back over the season, what was the biggest challenge for the writers with this shift?

Treem: I’d say servicing everyone’s stories. Suddenly we had four arcs to do justice for, not two, and so the amount of storytelling we need to accomplish increased exponentially. That’s why we also added on two more episodes this year. We just needed more time.


ADTV: The ninth episode actually had no dueling perspectives, instead relying on the four main characters’ vantage points during a hurricane. What drove your creative team to abandon the standard structure for this particular outing?

Treem: We’ve always been interested in doing a 4-way split, and this seemed like the episode to do it because the hurricane was a way to unite their experiences even if they never interacted. I was surprised by how quickly people assumed that the various story lines were suddenly being told by an “objective” POV because we didn’t label the character’s screen time by name. That was actually something Showtime wanted me to do but I thought, by this point in the storytelling, the audience understood that nothing in this show is ever objective. And I wanted to make sure everyone knew this episode was being told in continual, progressive time. So we put the times of day on screen instead of the character names. That seemed to confuse a lot of people.  Live and learn.


ADTV: My personal favorite episode in Season Two has to have been Helen’s (Maura Tierney’s) stoned comedy of errors resulting in her arrest. Tonally, this episode felt completely different than anything else you’ve done over both seasons. What led you down this path with Helen?

Treem: Helen is like so many women in that she has spent years and years taking care of everyone else before herself. And that’s her way to keep control over her life. If she plays by all the rules and puts herself last, she feels like she somehow deserves what she has. When that system breaks down, Helen’s boundaries break down with it. And because she has no practice fucking up, she’s not very good at it. So one bad decision leads to another and then another until a juggernaut ensues and the consequences become disastrous. So that was the idea behind the story of the episode. But credit for the execution goes entirely to the writer, Anya Epstein, the director, John Dahl, and Maura herself, who is naturally a very funny actress. She’s fearless.

The Affair

ADTV: One of the things I love most about the show is the Season Two focus on such amazingly strong and robust female characters. One running theme through the series has been variations on motherhood. Alison and Athena. Helen and Margaret.  Cherry and her boys. What do you think the show ultimately says about motherhood, and is this a theme you’ll continue to explore in Season Three?

Treem: I also love all the mother-and-daughter axises at play this season. One of my favorite lines from the season is when Athena says to Alison “How long are you going to spend seeing every decision life offers you as another opportunity to prove you’re not me?” And Helen and Margaret, of course, have that epic showdown where Helen accuses Margaret of sabotaging her happiness, which then has reverberations in Helen’s relationship with Whitney… and Alison now has a daughter…. so all these women in our series are continually wrestling with their matrimonial legacies. I read once that the child learns to understand herself through her relationship with her mother and the world through her relationship with her father. That might be pop psychology mumbo-jumbo, but it always struck me as truthful. In terms of Season Three, I don’t know. I don’t like to retread territory. I have a feeling Season Three may be more about fathers and sons.


ADTV: Speaking of the Lockharts, now that you’ve dug into their past a bit, they’re starting to feel like a raucous Greek tragedy. Are there more Lockhart secrets to uncover and will you continue to explore the Lockhart family roots? Will Cole continue to struggle with “the curse” on his family?

Treem: I’m not sure. I’m very much interested in the idea that all four of these characters are trying to separate from their parents and not repeat their mistakes and all of them are failing at it. I don’t think Cole’s relationship with Cherry has been explored in enough depth yet. There was originally a scene in the finale which gave us more insight into Cherry’s character but we had to cut it for time. So I definitely don’t feel like that well has been exhausted yet.


ADTV: My personal take on Season One versus Season Two is that we’re shifting from a season of excitement over the new sexual encounters between Noah and Alison to a season of reality as they (and their extended family) deal with the fallout of their actions. Through this, most viewers seem to loathe Noah. Was that by design initially? Where did you want to take Noah over the second season?

Treem: In the first season, the reason I think viewers like Noah more was because he seemed so put upon. His in-laws were horrible, his wife didn’t stuck up for him, he was constantly being emasculated. But this season, all of those external obstacles fell away and he got everything he ever wanted. The fact that he didn’t say no to any of it – that he became self-absorbed and myopic – really bothered people but that was the plan all along. Give a man everything he’s ever wanted and see how he responds. Usually, that scenario doesn’t end well. Noah says in the first episode that he liked being married because “you give up certain civil liberties to live in a secure state.” He demonstrates a lot of insight into his own character in that line. He knows that he, like most of us, needs boundaries. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. The second season was intended to be Noah learning that lesson the hard way.


ADTV: Episode 10 saw Cynthia Nixon appear as Marilyn, Noah and Alison’s couples therapist. It was an enlightening and frank way of exploring Noah’s conflicting appetites as well as a neat throwback to your HBO series In Treatment. Will we see more characters in therapy over Season Three?

Treem: Probably not. I think it worked well because of where it was placed in this season – on the heels of the episode where Noah had finally hit his nadir. We figured, by that point, the viewers would be incredibly hungry for a window into Noah’s head. And Anya (who, again, wrote that brilliant episode) and I had both worked on In Treatment, so we were excited to pay homage to our experience on that show, which had been so meaningful for both of us. But as much as I want to bring Cynthia Nixon back to this universe, I don’t see her therapist’s office becoming a regular set.

The Affair

ADTV: If Season One is about exploring a blossoming relationship between Noah and Alison and Season Two explores the outcome of their actions, then what theming can we expect from Season Three?  

Treem: I think if Season One was the affair itself, and Season Two was the immediate aftermath, Season Three is the legacy of the affair. How what happened has altered the DNA of all these characters respective psychologies forever. As Helen says to Noah about Whitney in Episode 8, “There are some mistakes that a person doesn’t recover from and I think this is one of them.” I don’t mean to say that all the characters are now forever screwed. But they’re altered. They’ve lost their collective innocence.


ADTV: Finally, I have to ask, what made you choose “House of the Rising Sun” for Scott (Colin Donnell) to perform? Was this is grand farewell from the series, or will there be more Scott flashbacks in Season Three?

Treem: No, Scotty is gone. But “House of the Rising Sun” is basically a warning… don’t live the way I have lived or else. The truth is that Scotty is probably the least morally complicated character on the show…. he was just a hustler and not a very good one. But all the other characters have reason to question their choices and fear the consequences. Everyone always wants to know if The Affair will prove to be a morality tale … like “don’t cheat or your life will fall apart.” I don’t see it that way… I’m not that interested in the morality of monogamy. But I am interested in archetypal stories. In the idea that we share a collective unconscious and we are all sort of tragic characters blindly replaying the same scenes over and over again for the pleasure of the gods. So there was something about the tone of “House of the Rising Sun” that appealed to me on a kind of primal level. That and it’s in the public domain. So it was cheap!

The Affair‘s Maura Tierney is up for a Supporting Actress Golden Globe, which will be announced in a televised ceremony on Sunday, January 10. Both seasons of the acclaimed drama are available on Showtime’s streaming service with Season One available on iTunes and Netflix. Season Three will premiere on Showtime in Fall 2016.

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