Last week, we learned some devastating news: Alison (Ruth Wilson) is dead. What we didn't learn was how it happened. Don't hold your breath that the mystery will be solved this week; in true The Affair style, we get two points of view on the events leading up to Alison's death. They're both hers, and the divergent stories seem equally implausible.
What we do know is that Alison is a changed person after her conversation with Helen (Maura Tierney) in L.A. and after meeting her birth father. The way she thinks of herself is changed fundamentally by learning that she is the product of rape and by Helen's assertion that does have control over her own narrative. Alison's final story for us is a tale of two possible outcomes from an evening.
The first story is hopeful and idealised. She's wearing a lovely dress when Ben (Ramon Rodriguez) stops by, flowers and wine in hand. He does everything right: he tells her right away that he is married and that he left his wife, he owns up to having two kids (one has the same name, Gabriel, as Alison's dead son), he fixes her leaking sink, he makes pancakes (and magically knows where everything in her kitchen is). Most importantly, he reinforces over and over that she is the woman of his dreams, that he loves her, that he wants her. Ben also tells her about killing a kid in Iraq, and this story is why I have the faintest glimmer of hope that this may have been what really happened and not just a wish. It's a story, with slightly different outcomes, that Ben tells in both narratives — surely that means it couldn't be a figment of Alison's imagination? If we're watching this happen sequentially, does the fact that the first Ben tells her something she doesn't know with this story mean this is the true Ben?
He also tells a dark story of tying his wife up during sex, and his hatred for her when he returned from the war, that happened before he stopped drinking. It hints at his dark side, which we're supposed to understand has been repressed by AA, but his moodiness and brooding during the story signals that even if she had lived and pursued this relationship it may have been...dangerous. But his darkness also allows her the freedom to explore her own, admitting to some of the worst things she feels she has done and her most bleak feelings. In some ways, her speech about Gabriel feels like the reflection of someone who is already gone — a reckoning and resolution, finally bringing self-forgiveness. Ben, again, does exactly the right thing by putting some music on and asking her to dance. Maybe the answer lies in her telling to Ben of Athena's (Deirdre O’Connell) theories on reincarnation and admitting that she's come as far as she can in this life, that she's just waiting to die. When he asks what she wants, she realises she wants him, and just before they have hot outdoor sex, she makes him promise not to mess with her heart.
That moment makes it all the more devastating when the second story begins. Alison resets, in a cute summer top that looks like her dress and jeans now with her sink broken once again. Another Ben shows up, banging on her door while thunder rumbles (a nod to that Garth Brooks song?). This Ben doesn't say or do anything right: he demands to know why she stood him up, he does admit he's married, he creepily follows her around without respecting her boundaries, he demands food, he interrupts, he manipulates, he guilts. In short: he's awful, and he gets worse when he lies to her and worse than that when he begins drinking. The highlight in this scenario is Alison herself, both when she takes responsibility for her role in the affairs she's been part of and when she stands up to the false narrative Ben insists on painting. She asks him to tell her who he is and...boy, does he. He is reprehensible. This version of Ben is painful to watch but we see hints of the guy Cole (Joshua Jackson) spoke to. He's nothing like the guy we've seen through Alison's eyes this season, but this side of him has always been there.
In the end, this Ben kills Alison. She's not the first person he's killed. It happens quickly, but it was obviously coming all along. He cracks when she calls him out on his shit and stands up to him. Her end is quick, violent, and bloody. And, interestingly, consistent with the kind of injuries she would have gotten if her body slammed into the rocks of the jetty where the police think she flung herself into the ocean.
Which one of these stories is true? That secret seems to die along with Alison. Both of these versions of Ben are extreme, from the perfect man to a cold-blooded killer with sociopathic tendencies. My theory is that neither is what really happened; instead, we’ve just watched the two possible outcomes that Alison imagined could happen. The truth of her death is something else entirely.
There's another clue hidden in the music here, showrunner Sarah Treem says. That Jason Isbell song that plays when each of the scene starts, "Cover Me Up," allegedly tells us everything we need to know. I have read the lyrics about 100 times now and I still don't know how Alison died, but I do know the dichotomy of Ben.
Whatever happened we know for sure that Alison was tired of this story and ready for another life.