Inception often gets all the credit for being the biggest mindfuck of a generation. Even eight years after the Christopher Nolan psychological thriller’s premiere, it’s questionable whether anyone really Gets the Leonardo DiCaprio flick. Yet, Sunday night’s episode of The Affair, “409,” gives Inception a run for its money in terms of forcing viewers to question everything they think they know about what they’re seeing onscreen.
As promised, “409” tells the story of how Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson), The Affair’s tragic heroine, died. The trick however, is that season 4’s penultimate episode gives fans two different perspectives on Alison’s death, and both of them belong to Alison. The first half of the episode is a dark fairytale of a romance between Alison and new love interest Ben Cruz (Ramon Rodriguez), a veteran who has been hiding his marriage from Alison. The second half is simply dark, starring Ben as a homicidal monster who eventually proves to be a murderer.
The key to understanding what’s real and what’s merely a fantasy between these two scenarios boils down to the Jason Isbell songs that introduce them. As even showrunner Sarah Treem said on Twitter, Isbell’s music will “tell you everything you need to know,” about the episode.
The first half of “409,” the near-magical, romantic section, begins with the song “Cover Me Up,” by Isbell. “Cover Me Up” is hopeful — it’s about loving someone so much, you want to lock yourself in bed with them forever. It’s also about finally giving into that kind of endless love specifically after “raging,” refusing to “trust anyone,” and keeping “a hand on the gun” of your heart to protect it. Or, exactly what Alison Bailey has been doing for four seasons. We realize Alison could easily be the narrator here as Isbell croons, “But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone.”
After trudging through years of heartache, Ben is supposed to be that someone for Alison.
Yet — and this is the integral part — this optimistic, sexed-up possibility is just that, a possibility, as “Cover Me Up” slowly reveals. “And the old lovers sing, ‘I thought it'd be me who helped him get home,’” Isbell sings. In this case, Ben is the “him,” especially after his lengthy heart-to-heart with Alison. During the chat, Ben reveals he accidentally killed an unarmed child during the war. Alison says she blames herself for her son Gabriel’s (Landen M. Lomot) death since she refused to take the sick little boy to the hospital out of spite for ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson).
After such an emotional conversation, Alison might just be able to metaphorically bring Ben home. But it’s the next lyric that proves such a goal is impossible because this is all a fantasy. “But home was a dream,” Isbell continues. The home Ben and Alison begin to create at the start of “409” is a dream. You realise how obviously true this is when the episode switches to the bleaker second half. Not only is the vibe different, but so is Alison’s physical home.
In the first half, Alison has beautiful decorations on her walls, cute curtains on her windows, flowers thriving in vases, and whimsical magnets on her fridge. Even the bar stools have comfy leather coverings. Then, everything comes crashing down to reality in the second half. All of those creature comforts disappear to show Alison’s home is liveable, but stark. The chairs are made of simple wood, the puffy window dressings have given way to pragmatic slatted blinds.
This is where the second Jason Isbell song, “Live Oak,” comes in. Again, it is filled with clues about what to believe about the scene. The second half suggests the prior scenario was Alison’s fantasy of what would happen when an imminent-to-arrive Ben shows up on her doorstep. Then, he knocks on her door, and it’s nothing like that dream.
Instead, Ben is immediately angry, before devolving into a rageful drunk who says he purposefully murdered an unarmed child at war. Ben is both desperate for Alison to give in to his demands for love and furious she wants to know if he’s married. When Alison reveals she met his wife (UnReal standout Breeda Wool) a week prior, but didn’t spill about their affair, Ben completely melts down, physically and verbally menacing Alison. She asks him to leave, or she will be forced to tell his wife all about his extramarital activities. Upon hearing this ultimatum, Ben goes from threatening to violent, throwing Alison around her own home. Finally, he flings her into a cabinet; as blood starts pouring down her head, it is clear Alison is dead. In the final moments of the episode, Ben hides his crime by dropping Alison into the stormy ocean, where police will eventually find her body.
The grimness of this scene pairs perfectly with the darkness of “Live Oak’s” narrator. In that song, the hero has been “rougher than timber” for as long as he can remember, and his “wickedness” is renowned. Ben, a man who killed a child just to keep the kid from “bothering” him, could qualify as this type of person. It’s suggested in the song, as with Ben, the narrator hopes the love of a good woman will save him. But, it can’t. In one of the final stanzas of “Live,” it is hinted the narrator killed the woman he loved and dropped her in the ocean. Isbell sings, “Well I carved a cross from live oak. And a box from shortleaf pine. And buried her so deep. She touched the water table line.”
While Ben wasn’t carving caskets out of trees, these lyrics definitely work as a metaphor for Ben’s own watery post-murder cover-up.
The only question remaining is whether this violent scenario is definitely what happened. An autopsy of Alison's body proved she had water in her lungs at the time of her death, suggesting the Affair leading lady was still breathing when she hit the water. That means she may have still been hanging on when Ben drowned her, or there’s a third perspective that is closer to the truth. Either way, Treem heavily hinted Ben has some sins to atone for, telling one Twitter fan wondering if the apparent murder will be caught, “Define ‘caught.’”
We'll find out Treem & Co.'s own definition for “caught’” with Sunday’s upcoming finale, “410.’”