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Transmutation: A Character Study - Alison Bailey (The Affair)

1 Aug 2017

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"After someone dies, I think we want to tell ourselves a story of how it was our fault, because at least it gives us some control."

Transmutation: A Character Study - Alison Bailey (The Affair)

This article is about the evolution of Alison Bailey, the female protagonist of this ugly, beautiful, organized chaos that is The Affair. For those of you who don’t know, the story of the show is about the ripple effect an affair causes in everyone even close to involved with the drama, but we’ll soon find out that things were already pretty messed up from the get-go, and there's a lot more to it than what you see on the surface. Now, if you haven't watched it, you should know there are spoilers ahead, but I urge you to give it a shot because this show might not seem like your cup of tea, but it has so many layers that it's impossible not to relate in some way, and the real meaning of the show is always underneath. Alison Bailey's journey, in particular, is something to be admired, she started as an utterly broken person and, the last time we saw her, by the end of season 3, she was ready to do something with her pain, learning to use it to help others.

In the beginning, both Noah and Alison (the perpetrators of the affair) were the main characters, later, we also got to see from the point of view of their spouses, though somehow it always seemed like Noah was really the main protagonist. Slowly, as Noah’s story became tired and his character utterly irredeemable, Alison started to come out of his shadow, becoming the real lead in many fans' eyes, even if the show’s writers didn’t seem to want to admit it and kept trying to make Noha’s story interesting, which definitely didn't work for meg. This doesn't mean there's nothing fascinating about Noah's journey too; if there’s something this show does right, is character development, they can show us someone’s slow descent into madness as well as someone’s rise from the darkness. But still, opposite to Noah’s, Alison's story becomes more compelling by the minute as she starts to get away from the dead weight and moves on from her painful past. I’m aware there might not be so many viewers out there but Alison is just such a compelling character that it makes the whole thing worthwhile.

When we first meet Alison it is actually through Noah’s eyes, and this is one of the show's most interesting features, it is told by unreliable narrators, we see things from different perspectives and we never really find out which one is more accurate. Noah and Alison meet at a time when they're both lost, her in her grief, and him in his frustration, they both feel trapped and they find an escape in each other. To Alison, Noah represents something new, and the excitement of the forbidden makes her forget her pain for a little while. She often struggles with the idea that the rest of the world sees her as damaged goods, and she wants a different label, any other label, so she's drawn to someone who sees her as sex personified, the seemingly complete opposite of a grieving mother.

Almost every single person on the show is broken, unlikeable, and sometimes unforgivable. But no matter how broken everyone is, Alison easily wins the trauma crown, if there is such a thing, with Cole, her husband, coming in a close second, because no matter how unlucky they were, Cole had his family to get him through the trauma and Alison had no one but Cole and the baby boy they both lost. So, she ends things with Cole because she feels like they're broken beyond repair. They're just two people that don’t know how to cope together without being responsible for the other's coping mechanisms and being a constant reminder of their pain. They still care deeply for each other but they both know, deep down, things aren't getting better. We don't really learn what happened with their son right away, but slowly we piece it all together, Gabriel drowned at a beach party under Cole's watch, Alison performed CPR on him and he seemed fine but tired, so she took him home and put him to bed, but he never woke up. No matter how much they told her secondary drowning was rare and she couldn't have known, placing blame on each other, and bottling it up, is what finally broke their marriage.

After that, she goes on a downward spiral, she gets drunk, ends up doing self-hating, degrading things, and even hurting herself. And the fact that Cole's mom openly states how much she blames her for Gabriel’s death and decides it's a good moment to say "I told you so" doesn't help either. In that moment, Alison just loses it and tries to take her life by drowning, just like him. When she's halfway there, she thinks she gets a message from Gabriel when a little boy calls her from the beach. She decides at that moment that she actually wants to live, for him. And, for the first time, that becomes absolutely true. But to do that, she feels she has to leave Montauk and find out who she is without the town's eyes on her.

That's when Cole gets truly lost, when he finds himself alone, without her, and no matter how much she cares for him, she knows being apart is still the best thing for them, even if the loss of their child will never leave them, they need to find a life that's not about grief, and this is hard to watch, but it's one of the wisest decisions she could ever make. Now, leaving Cole was the right decision, but going to Noah, trading her label, was just a band-aid.

When Alison realizes she was just covering up the pain and having a life that wasn't true to herself, she ends up going back to Cole, and this is the moment when The Affair shows its true colors. Up until this point, it was an intriguing look into the darkest parts of human nature and the different perspectives on life disguised as a mystery, and though brilliant, nothing can compare to how intoxicatingly painful Alison’s journey towards healing is. She's not alone, the truth is, she and Cole always end up going back to each other, and it's beautiful to watch, even if this is not just a love story, and their being together is not truly the point.

She finally decides to actively seek her healing, she realizes, after Gabriel's death she stopped talking to people, she thought no one would understand her pain, and so sex became a way of connecting without having to speak or be understood. Noah gets in the way of her healing, and when she tells him she's pregnant they try to have a normal life, but it's a completely forced one, she doesn't want him and he doesn't want her or the baby, so when he goes to jail she finally sees her moment to get away from him for good. Once's he's completed his sentence, he tries to get her back, but she tells him there's no point in being each other's escape anymore, that they tried to excuse what they did by telling themselves they loved each other, but now they have to start being honest with themselves.

Alison started doing better, but there were things she'd never been able to address her own feelings. This becomes painfully clear when one day she was taking care of her daughter, Joanie, who got sick and wouldn’t get better, that's when the fear kicked in, she started having flashes of everything that could happen to her, and she was sure her little girl would die if she stayed with her, so she left her with Cole, her real father, and went to get help for herself. Once she got back, the road to recovery was hard, she endured every little trial they put in her way, since people were unsure if she'd just up and leave without warning again, and she made sure Cole trusted her enough with their daughter. She did this knowing she did what was best, but she never complained because she understood things from his perspective as well. This is what shows her true growth, knowing she needed to be able to take care of herself in order to be able to take care of others.

"Everyone assumes that life is a given, but you and I know that it's not. You and I both know that breath can end, so we know that life is a gift. You'll miss Dawn, but you'll keep her memory alive. You'll live now for both of you."

None of this would've been possible without Ruth Wilson's impeccable acting since the show could've easily crumbled without her. Alison Bailey has come such a long way. By the end of last season, she was thinking of enrolling in a program to be a grief counselor, finding solace in helping others get over the same thing she had to go through. This way, she started finding purpose in her life, feeling that somehow her pain, and how she got through it (even if it took an affair for her to shake her life to the core) could help others get better. And, maybe, with proper guidance, they wouldn't have to lose so much in the process.

"It will never go back, you know? That's the terrible thing about living. You never get to go back, no matter how badly you miss it. You just gotta keep moving forward."