‘The Affair’ Season 4, Episode 2: The Mayor of Montauk

‘The Affair’ Season 4, Episode 2: The Mayor of Montauk

Small wonder. More than the other three main characters, Alison stares the Big Questions right in the face as part of her day job, let alone as part of her inner monologue. In this episode alone, she coaches a grieving mother to spend time away from her alcoholic, abusive husband after seeing the terrifying drawings their son has made of the man. The husband then shows up, insinuating himself into her office, closing the door behind him and assaulting her for trying to break up what’s left of his family (a concern he and his wife both shared).

Alison is rescued from her attacker by a handsome official from the Veterans Health Administration named Ben, whom she’d met earlier. Yet early sparks of romance, though sweet, come with complications of their own. After returning from combat duty, he explains, he began drinking heavily to circumvent his post-traumatic stress disorder-induced impotence, then entered Alcoholics Anonymous, which required him to remain both sober and abstinent. Over a charming Facetime call that ends the episode, they begin the countdown to when he’ll be permitted to date and have sex again: “What are you doing in five months, two weeks, and two days?”

The tragedy of Alison Bailey, the complex quandary that makes her one of the best characters on this or any other show, is that her fears about how other people view her are entirely justified. Try as she might to escape, people think she’s a flibbertigibbet, blowing in and out of people’s lives, sailing in on a headwind of chaotic charm and leaving a wake of destruction behind her. People treat her like a sexual palimpsest, her beauty and vulnerability making her instantaneously attractive to men who project their fantasies and desires onto her. People see her as permanently tainted by trauma, to be pitied with a whispered “there but for the grace of God go I,” but always kept at arm’s length for fear of contamination.

That Alison, too, sees herself this way is implicit in her own point-of-view segment. Men either fall for her instantly or lash out at her as the root of all their problems. Minor disasters tend to follow her despite her best intentions. Her son’s death is both the event around which she has structured her career and a terrible secret to be kept from those with whom she’d like to become close. Despite her self-awareness, she seems locked into her lot in life — much more so than even Noah, Helen and Cole, all of whom may be aware of what’s wrong with them but perpetuate it anyway. Alison comes across as cursed, an inward-looking Cassandra prophesying her own doom while helpless to stop it.

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