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I’ve been quite a curmudgeon this fall TV season. Though 2014 had many outstanding shows (you can read my Top Ten list here), nothing on the networks interested me enough to add it to my viewing lineup. I binge-watched Transparent over a long weekend in September, but that seems an age ago. Only two serial programs really made an impression on me: The Missing on STARZ (originally on BBC) and The Affair on Showtime. And unfortunately for my joie de vivre, both of these shows were about how the tragic loss of a child destroys the lives of his parents.
There’s been a resurgence of horror on TV, but for my money, The Missing is the scariest show I’ve seen in a long time. In 2006, Londoners Emily and Tony Hughes are on vacation with their five-year-old son Oliver in France when their car breaks down. While it’s being repaired, they stop for the night in a quaint countryside town. Against Emily’s better judgment, Tony and Oliver go swimming in a local public pool during the World Cup.
What happens next is truly the stuff of nightmares (literally, since I had a terrifying one right before the finale). Tony and Olly get separated in the chaos at the poolside bar, and Olly goes missing. I had a panic attack right alongside Tony as the seconds without Olly stretched to hours, days, years. The show skips around in the timeline from 2006 to 2014, with a brief stop in 2009, following Tony’s grim odyssey to find Oliver.
Tony and Emily had a happy marriage, but they’re torn apart by their reactions to the loss of Olly. Emily needs for her life to go on, but Tony cannot let go. Due to his tenacity, the case is eventually reopened in 2014, but by then Emily has left him. Though she was unfaithful, Tony admits that he drove her away, because whenever he looks at her, he sees Oliver. It’s no coincidence that Emily’s fiancé has a son Olly’s age.
A consuming love
I strongly identified with Tony, played with red hot fury by James Nesbitt. His obsession, his inability to settle for a lifetime of not knowing what happened to Oliver, is exactly how I’d react if my own five-year-old disappeared. The story went down many dark avenues, full of creepy characters and red herrings, but Tony never gave up. I found myself cheering for him even when he lashed out in violent, counterproductive ways. He simply cannot bear a world without Oliver, and his relentless drive for answers is a way of keeping his son alive and real for him. As damaged and enraged as Tony is, it’s impossible not to be moved by his consuming love for his son and his undying hope that he can find Olly again if he only searches hard enough.
Showtime’s The Affair is a very different take on a similar topic. Alison Bailey, played by Ruth Wilson, lost her four-year-old son Gabriel to drowning two years ago in the ocean off Montauk. Since then, Alison has been numb, except when her guilt and misery flare up. Then she cuts herself so that she can feel anything.
Alison has been married to Cole Lockhart since she was a teenager. A fifth-generation Montauk resident whose family has lots of local influence, Cole is handsome and rugged. But like Tony with Emily, whenever Alison looks at him, she sees Gabriel. It doesn’t help that Cole’s family is dysfunctional and stifling, and her own family fragmented.
So Alison is sleepwalking through her stultifying life, waiting tables at the local diner, when in walks Noah. Married, father of four ridiculous brats, a failed novelist whose father-in-law is a multiple bestseller, he’s just as trapped as she is. The story is told Rashômon-style, from both characters’ points of view, shuttling back and forth between 2012 and 2014. Their first encounter is when Noah’s youngest child chokes at the diner. In his recollection, he saves her. In Alison’s, she does. Thus begins their torturous fascination with each other.
Between memory and truth
At first, the differences between Noah and Alison’s narratives are exactly the kind of discrepancies that crop up in the spaces between memory and truth. The show is not interested in offering objective certainty about events. We’ll never know what really happened, only what Alison and Noah believe happened, through their deeply self-involved lenses. The best part of The Affair was noticing the places where the stories diverged and drawing my own conclusions.
First and foremost, Alison sees herself as damaged. The loss of her son is a wound that doesn’t heal, so she numbs out and becomes nothing. She’s Cole Lockhart’s wife. She’s a mother without a child, that poor woman whose son drowned. She tells her friend that, on the first night she and Noah kissed, he looked at her, really looked at her — a moment so erotic that she’s indelibly hooked on him. But the viewers know that she was wrong. Noah doesn’t really see her. He can’t see past the end of his nose. To him, she’s a vixen, a victim, a chance to be the hero that he can’t be with his wife and family. But he makes her a mother again, thus literally filling that void inside her with new life.
Though I found both The Missing and The Affair riveting, I can’t say either of them was enjoyable TV. Even the most emotionally stable person would have difficulty coping with the loss of a child, and neither Tony Hughes nor Alison Bailey is an emotionally stable person. They are people ruined by guilt and the most excruciating, incurable sort of longing. Crippling loss has made Tony and Alison reckless and self-destructive, and their trajectories can be hard to watch.
The Missing is an anthology series, so Tony Hughes’s story has come to its heartbreaking conclusion. The Affair has been renewed for a second season. Though I find none of the characters on it as sympathetic as the Hugheses, I’ll be watching, if only to see if Alison ever truly recovers. So far, she’s not even close.
Above right: Alison (Ruth Wilson) and Noah (Dominic West) see things differently in The Affair.
What, When, Where
The Missing. Season 1 written by Harry Williams and Jack Williams; Tom Shankland directed. Aired on BBC One in the UK and on Starz in the United States.
The Affair. Created by Hagai Levi and Sarah Treem. Aired on Showtime.
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