“Welcome to the end of the world,” Alison tells Noah on the first episode of Showtime’s new drama, The Affair, starring Dominic West (The Wire) and Ruth Wilson (Luther). As you can guess from the title, the two leads will engage in an illicit relationship. And though The Affair is far from the first show to trace a secret liaison, the stakes have never felt so high: it really may be the end of the world.
The show unfolds in two parts: first from Noah’s perspective and then from Alison’s. The differences between their two narratives—told to police officers investigating a still-unknown crime—elucidate the differences between how men and women view the world and especially romantic relationships.
Show co-creator Sarah Treem wrote for HBO’s In Treatment for three years and the first season of Netflix’s House of Cards before pitching Showtime a drama about the psychological effects of an extramarital affair. She also penned a play, When We Were Young and Unafraid, which ran off Broadway this summer. You can either stream the first episode on YouTube or catch it on Showtime when it premieres this Sunday after Homeland.
Treem spoke to TIME about why people cheat and how we’re all unreliable narrators of our own lives.
There were a lot of differences between the two narratives in the first episode. Were there any particular things you wanted to communicate as we’re first meeting these characters about how they see themselves or want to be seen by others?
What’s interesting about love affairs is that when people are recounting the story, they remember themselves as somewhat neutral. We remember ourselves as witnesses in our own lives, and we remember other people as actors.
As a writer, and especially when I was a younger writer and I was inserting my own voice into a script or a play, I would find that the character I had somewhat based on myself was often the most uninteresting character in the story because I didn’t have a good perspective on who I was. Most people don’t, really. It’s really hard to see yourself as you actually are.
So that’s kind of what we were trying to say in that first episode: That we are all unreliable narrators when it comes to telling the story of our own lives.
It seems like the two characters each try to make themselves the hero as well.
They both believe that they’re good people. I was interviewing people to prepare to write this show, and I was thinking this is a show about memory. So I was asking everybody how they wanted to be remembered when they died. An overwhelming majority of people said that they wanted to be remembered as kind, which I thought was really significant given how hurtful people can be to each other. Most people are trying to be kind but because communication is really difficult on a fundamental level, we end up hurting each other unintentionally. That was something I was keeping in mind as I started writing these characters: They’re trying hard to be kind. But they f*ck up, like everybody does.
I couldn’t help but think of Gone Girl when I watched the show. Obviously the two are very different, but they both have these competing narratives from a man and a woman in a relationship. In Gone Girl, it’s a battle of the sexes where each character is vying for the audience’s sympathy. Do you think Noah and Alison are competing for our sympathies?
In my mind, they’re both right. But I think the show’s a bit of a Rorschach Test when it comes to what people believe. I do think which character feels the most truthful to you does tell you lot about yourself because we were trying very hard as writers not to judge one side or the other, to tell both narratives as truthfully as we could. So I think when the balance gets tipped, it has to do with the audience member’s own personality.
That could have to do with gender. I think that men and women have very different experiences as human beings in their lives, and we were excited about telling a story from two different perspectives that were gendered.
Can you give an example of how the gender of the storyteller changed the narrative?
This is a literary thing, but I think that male narrative tends to be more linear. There’s an ascension: starting in one place and ending someplace else. It can be an upward ascension or a fall into darkness, but there is a linearity to the way men tell their stories. When women tell their stories sometimes there’s more of a circular narrative. You sort of end up in the same place that you start.
The way one of our directors described it was like a spiral: you move forward and then you come back a little bit; and then you move a little farther forward and then you come back halfway. When he talked about Alison’s narrative, he talked about her cycling through herself. And I think that’s very true, especially as Alison’s narrative keeps going. She’s getting somewhere, but it’s not as linear [as Noah’s story]. She keeps circling back to the beginning. There’s something about the way women experience their lives that feels more circuitous to me. Maybe it has something to do with childbirth or these cycles that we’re in.
You mentioned interviewing people earlier. How did you do research for this script?
I didn’t interview anybody specifically because of who they were. I was just talking to anybody who would talk to me about their experience with being married or having an affair. We did have a consultant on the show. Her name’s Esther Perel, and she wrote a book called Mating in Captivity. She has spent her whole life talking to couples about infidelity and affairs—that’s her bread and butter. And she has this great quote from Mating in Captivity where she says something like when people go looking for affairs, it’s not because they’re unhappy with their spouse but because they’re unsatisfied with who they’ve become.
We really used that as an operating principle when we were trying to think about why these characters were cheating: it wasn’t because there was something significantly wrong with their marriages. Their marriages were flawed like any marriage. But we didn’t want it to be his wife is a shrew, so he has to cheat. Instead, it has something to do with who Noah is, who Alison is.
If anything, it seems like the characters idealize their spouses and cast the other person’s spouse in a worse light.
Yeah, in the beginning that’s exactly what it seems like. But that will change. I think the strength of the series is that the relationships among all four of them keep shifting. So as the series goes on, nobody looks great the whole time and nobody looks evil the whole time. Your sympathies are constantly realigning with all four of these characters. And the Helen and Cole characters [Noah and Alison’s spouses] become much more significant players as the series moves along. They both sort of take over in the second part of the series.
I really do believe that Walt Whitman quote—I think it’s from Song of Myself—where he says, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” We were really trying to show in the series that most people are capable of almost anything. It’s just about the circumstances that you find yourself in. You construct a character for yourself, but then sometimes the circumstances change in such a significant way that we are acting in a way that we never would have predicted. But it’s not that we’re different: that behavior was always part of us. So we’ve applied that concept to all four of our characters over the course of a season.
As you know, there are not enough women working behind the camera. So why do you think it’s important we get more women writing stories for TV and especially for prestige dramas?
What’s great about TV is that you have a lot more women working in television just percentage-wise and a lot more opportunities here that are not necessarily there in screenwriting, which is why I personally feel really comfortable in television.
But it’s sort of obvious: If you want to tell complicated, true stories about women then you need women in charge of storytelling. It’s hard for any of us to really get into the heads of other people and understand what makes them tick. I’m not saying that’s impossible at all: I think there are plenty of men in television who write really complicated and really truthful women. But I think having more female voices in charge of these shows can only augment what they already have. And I think the networks are realizing that now.
What lessons did you learn from In Treatment and House of Cards that you have carried over to this show?
They were very different shows. With In Treatment, it was just two people in a room with a camera and nothing else. When somebody got up and walked to the door, we were like, “Oh, that’s an action shot.” So on In Treatment I really learned how to invest in character with no pyrotechnics and understand how a scene can turn on an emotional revelation or a breakdown. That is all you need to create incredibly compelling, white knuckle television.
And House of Cards was huge. It was definitely the biggest show that I’ve ever been on. The budget was enormous; the scope of the show was enormous; and the ambition of the show was enormous. So having those two tent poles of experience was helpful for me because I learned to go small and I learned to go large, and I could decide for myself which impulse was appropriate at which moment in this show.
In When We Were Young and Unafraid off-Broadway and in The Affair, characters are forced to contend with other world views that conflict with their own. Were you thinking about the script for one when you were writing the other?
My theory as a writer in terms of how you create drama is that you figure out the question you’re obsessed with—what’s the fear that is gnawing at your existential soul? What’s your fundamental anxiety at this moment of your existence? You figure out how to ask it in the form of a question, and then you dramatize it from multiple perspectives. You basically create characters who have different answers to that question, and then you put them in a room or a situation together, and you don’t let them leave. That’s how I think you build drama.
I was definitely working on that idea in When We Were Young and Unafraid, and I’m doing it again here. Here, the multiple perspective thing is woven into the experience of the show in a really exciting way, but that’s always been my idea as a dramatic writer. That’s how I learned to write.
So now I have to ask, what is your fundamental anxiety that you are dealing with on this show?
How does marriage work? Does marriage work? Is long-term fidelity possible? Is it natural?
I just got married this summer. I don’t think I was engaged when I started writing the show. I had a kid two years ago, so I just sort of entered that phase of my own life. So that’s what I’ve been thinking about a lot.
Is your exploration of that question causing any anxiety among your family members?
I have to be totally honest: the experience of making this show and spending 10 episodes thinking about the consequences of infidelity has only made me want to double down on my own marriage. It’s only made me want to be good to my husband as possible and work as hard on my marriage as I can because I think this show does not sugar coat what it’s like to have an affair. This is not an escapist fantasy. The stakes are incredibly high here. I think if you’d asked my husband at the beginning of the experience if he was nervous about it, he might have said yes, but I feel like he thinks it’s the best thing that ever happened to our marriage now. Like, “I hope you write this show for years.” [Laughs]
[SPOILER ALERT: The final question contains a spoiler for the first episode.]
The stakes are definitely high on this show. Just in the first episode, Noah has to confront the possible mortality of his children twice and that’s all before we even learn about Alison’s backstory. It was very intense, and I didn’t necessarily expect that from this show. Why pack so much drama into the first episode?
When we pitched the show, we said that we were going to do a show about infidelity and about two marriages. It was going to be a very intimate show. But we said we think that the intimacy in normal people’s lives—in a marriage, in an affair—the stakes are as high as they are on Game of Thrones. There is as much emotional depth to dig through as there are on the shows that have the greatest scope. Virginia Woolf has this great quote in Mrs. Dalloway, “She always had this feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live for even one day.” And I believe that about my characters’ lives and all of our lives.
It was definitely a choice to put these dangerous situations at the beginning of the pilot to alert the audience the stakes are high here. This man cares about his children more than anything in the world. He has a lot to lose. Life is dangerous. You don’t have to necessarily go to war for certain days of our lives to feel completely treacherous.