The Truth is Not In Here: Memory on Serial and The Affair


What if memory is a prison? When we think back, we are constantly tripping over our own perception of the truth and circling around what was. What if we are constantly trying to unlock a door that did not exist in the first place? The truth and memory are on two parallel roads. If they intersect it is a miracle. And maybe we don’t want them to.

(A note here about what’s below. I know this is a TV blog but you’ll forgive me for a moment while I discuss a podcast).

Serial is an exceptional new podcast from the same folks that bring us This American Life. The show is the true story of the murder of high school senior, Hae Min Lee, and the arrest of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The host of the show, Sarah Koenig, turns detective and each week she looks into different pieces of evidence, different people’s testimony, letters, photos, alibis, timelines – everything she can find related to the case. And what she finds is a messy, convoluted, fractured story. Adnan claims and maintains he is innocent (he speaks to Koenig on a phone from prison), some people think he is too, others do not. It is hard for Koenig to remain impartial and you can tell that both sides sway her – she doesn’t ever pretend that they don’t. The show is personal and Koenig’s plight becomes the listener’s too.

The main problem with re-evaluating the case is that it happened 15 years ago. Everything that we hear from the people involved is covered in layers of dust and cobwebs. Adnan has thought and thought and thought about the day because, if he’s innocent, all he has is time in prison to think about the ways he might be able to prove what he is saying is true. And, if he’s guilty, all he has had is time in prison to think about the ways that he might be able to prove what he is saying is true.

Koenig wants to uncover the truth, obsessively and desperately. But, what she uncovers, beyond the incompetency of the criminal justice system, is the way that memory can betray us mercilessly. Memory is not fact. When Koenig and her colleague attempt to replicate the timeline of events in episode 5, they prove that the first part of the timeline, though tight, is possible. Possible but not certain. When they tell this to Adnan, to use Koenig’s word, he’s incredulous. “I don’t know”, he keeps saying. He is sure that the busses would have held him up for much longer. That it wouldn’t have been possible to make it to Best Buy (the supposed scene of the crime) in that amount of time. Koenig has a certain amount of facts at her disposal (phone logs, etc) – and she’s obsessed with these facts – that help her recreate what happened. But finally all she is left with is what people say and what they remember – or, more accurately, what they think that remember. And, let’s be perfectly precise, what they want to remember. In fact, what Koenig is doing, by retracing Adnan’s supposed steps on the day of the murder, is re-creating her own version of events – she’s creating a memory for herself.

When listening to Serial I’m reminded of shows like True Detective and Rectify (there are more than a few similarities in Adnan’s case to Daniel Holden’s), shows that play with our perception of memory – how we trust it or don’t based on who is doing the talking. But, more recently, Serial connects in my mind to The Affair. The Affair doesn’t play with memory – The Affair, unlike any of the shows above, is memory.

The Affair airs on Showtime and is by the same team that created In Treatment. And, where that show had an episode/session per day, The Affair also has a bit of a gimmick in construction at its forefront. The Affair is two separate accounts of the same story in the Rashoman-style. I use the term “same” here fairly loosely because the story is not the same from each perspective – bits and pieces are similar but large portions of the narrative are different from each account. The story surrounds two main characters – the characters of the titular affair – Noah Solloway (Domonic West) and Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson), who meet and subsequently start a relationship, one summer in the seaside resort town of Montauk on Long Island.

Noah is a writer who has come to Montauk to attempt to write his second novel. Except he hasn’t gone to Montauk to isolate himself from distractions – in essence, he’s brought these distractions with him. These distractions are his family – his wife (the always wonderful and endlessly exasperated, Maura Tierney) and his rambunctious four children, all at various stages of annoying. Plus, he’s staying with his wealthy in-laws and a father-in-law who he hates, who also happens to be a famous novelist. Noah loves his family, he and his wife have chemistry and humour to spare, and his kids, despite their chaos, are funny and weird and you can see Noah’s love for them. But Noah is unhappy – just not about anything perceptible or tangible. Noah is the personification of ennui.

And then Noah meets Alison, at her job as a waitress at The Lobster Roll, and she’s exciting and beautiful and incredibly sexy. And it seems like Alison finds Noah sexy too, even though he’s a dad and a little bit weary – maybe because of that. And Alison wants Noah. Alison can see in Noah something of his plight. She can see that he is unhappy, that he needs something to help him feel again. She takes it upon herself to be that something.

Or maybe…

Alison is a deeply sad woman reeling from the loss of her very young son. She’s married to a loving man named Cole (Joshua Jackson) whose large, boisterous, inclusive family takes pains to make her feel welcome, especially after the death of her son. Alison may love Cole but the love is hard to see. When we are in Alison’s memories things feel wrong, always. There are passages where she rides her bike down pristine lakefront drives and she looks free and beautiful but her face is lost and sad and heartbroken. Alison is depressed and grieving but more than that she seems numb. Numb to everything and anything that is going on around her. Like she is still in a haze of mourning.

And then Alison meets Noah at her job at The Lobster Roll. And Noah seems confident and sexy and a little frazzled by his out-of-control family. Alison is flustered when she meets Noah. She seems like someone who is surprised when anyone pays attention to her – let alone a handsome, smart, confident man with a family. And Noah starts to bring Alison out of her haze.

In the first episode, Alison and Noah have an encounter on the beach. In Noah’s version Alison says, “You found me!” as she sits on the sand, her sun-dress being blown around by the wind, exposing and undressing her – Alison not even bothering to make sure her underwear isn’t seen. In Noah’s version of events Alison wants to be exposed, wants Noah to see what’s underneath immediately. She takes him to her home and shows him her outdoor shower, getting undressed and starting to shower in front of him. Noah’s male fantasy is bordering on the perfect pornographic set up. In Alison’s version of events, Noah says, “I found you!” while she is sitting on the beach, looking out at the water longingly. She’s a taken aback when he walks her home and wants to see the outdoor shower. She’s shy but intrigued by Noah. In Alison’s version Noah takes her by surprise. In Noah’s version it is Alison who does the surprising. And then, Cole comes home and there is an argument with Alison that leads to rough sex against the hood of their car. And in both versions Noah watches, out-of-sight from Cole, behind some bushes near the long driveway. And in both versions Alison meets his gaze and she watches him watch.

There is an eeriness and spookiness about The Affair that is present from the very start of the show – that something is or will be very wrong very soon, death is in the periphery – a kind of slow-moving thriller. The show sets the audience up to be primed for a mystery but it turns out to be a mystery of much greater import than the story of how these two got together. Because eventually we see that both Noah and Alison are being interrogated by the same detective, separately. We find out that someone (the mystery still remains about who this someone is, at least by the end of episode three) is dead. The death may have been an accident but maybe not. What The Affair does rather ingeniously is layer the mystery underneath the affair itself, and lets us connect the dots on both fronts. The show withholds information in the way that someone might if they were telling their version of the story. Pieces are skipped over, lingered on, changed to make the teller look more flattering. And so we wonder how much of the flashbacks are even part of the stories that Noah and Alison tell the investigator – how much of these flashbacks are pure memory, just fleeting thoughts that go unsaid (there is some strange camera work at play on this front too – sort of hazy, herky-jerky moments that don’t work for me. I understand what they are supposed to do – it’s memory, it’s all a bit hazy and unfocused – but the entire construct of the show does that without the camera tricks).

We have two unreliable narrators/narratives and then we have the space in between the memories – something like the truth – in the investigation room. In these scenes Noah and Alison both seem slightly different. Noah doesn’t seem to be the lost man he is in his own version of events and Alison doesn’t seem to be the shy innocent. They both seem a bit harder and Alison seems much more sly – mysterious even – like she knows something more than she’s letting on. Alison could become a femme fatale and Noah could be a murderer. But, for now, and for the near future we are in the middle somewhere – and far, far away from truth.

If I have any qualms with the show in the early going it is that it is unsubtle. There is a moment when Noah is playing “I Spy” with his youngest daughter and, as he’s looking around a farmer’s market, he’s surprised to see Alison. His daughter, sensing Noah’s pause, says, “What do you see?”. Noah’s response is, “Disaster”. Now, that’s a pretty clumsy exchange and it’s not something that I can see anyone saying in front of their five-year-old kid. Similarly, in episode three, there is a moment in Alison’s version of events where she is at the library with Noah and she shows him a book that includes a photo of her grandfather. Her grandfather was a fisherman and, like most fishermen, he’d spin tall-tales. Alison says, “No one could believe anything he said”. You see, the truth is often different from what people say. Making characters say your themes in dialogue might not be the most obvious way to get your point across, but it’s pretty darn close. The Affair gets a pass – at least for the moment – from me for these clumsy, obvious lines because we aren’t seeing things play out as they were, we aren’t seeing the truth. We are seeing events as remembered from these specific people. I can understand why Noah might have injected some of his own, created, writerly drama into the events. The Affair is clear in one thing: what we are seeing is not what happened. It is apparent from the early going that what we are seeing is a fiction, a created, crafted version of events. An almost-lie or, maybe, an outright lie.

And this is where the two shows intersect for me and also where they part ways. The Affair is fiction, and more accurately a fictionalized fiction – and that makes it intriguing and fun. Whatever fiction is in Serial is where that show gets sad. Because something really happened and a girl is really dead. There is something exhilarating, exciting but also terrifying about these two stories. And I watch and listen with a tight chest and sweaty palms. The fear and the terror is in the havoc that memory wreaks in the search for the truth. We are all imprisoned by our own memories – we create a past for ourselves that never existed, we all do this no matter the importance of events. And we are imprisoned by other people’s memories, too. The truth is in facts – the truth drowns in memory.

One thought on “The Truth is Not In Here: Memory on Serial and The Affair

  1. Pingback: The Reality Myth: life is not what it seems on unREAL | The Golden Age of Television

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