The only thing The Affair loves more than hating Noah Solloway (Dominic West) is a sex scene. There have been sweet sex scenes, like the one between Helen (Maura Tierney) and Sasha (Claes Bang) in Sunday night’s newest episode, “503.” There was the intense sex scene that littered the beginning of the series with Noah and Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) titular show-starting affair. But, there are very few sex scenes like the haunting encounter Joanie (True Blood’s Anna Paquin) shares with a nameless bartender in “503.”
In a year where sex scenes are better, sexier, and more intentionally consensual than ever, Joanie’s second hookup of season 5 is haunting. If you can’t shake off the grimness of “503’s” final moments, you’re not alone. And you’re not wrong. This look into Joanie’s psyche suggests The Affair has a disturbingly morbid outlook on destiny — especially when it comes to women struggling with mental illness.
The Affair first signals Joanie is about to have an affair seconds into her visit to a Montauk, NY bar. The bartender, Nat (Mercer Boffey), notices Joanie looking at a future-style photo of kids. He asks if they are hers. They are but she says no — she lies. About a minute and a half later in TV time, Nat and Joanie are going at it in a dark room (this is definitely a soul sibling to Celeste’s Big Little Lies bartender tryst). Immediately, Nat’s hand is wrapped around Joanie’s throat. “Tighter,” she says and he chokes her out.
The Affair may have hoped this rough sex scene could offer a power look at a woman’s sexuality. One that tells us Joanie has metabolized the loss she has suffered over a lifetime and tried to find some sliver of pleasure in pain. It could be a reminder women simply like rough sex as much as any man.
Yet, that is not what we’re seeing on screen. Instead, the scene plays like an especially naked way to actively court death. Even after Nat grips Joanie’s neck tighter, she says, near tears, “It’s not working for me.” Those aren’t the words of someone enjoying their BDSM romp. Then, when Nat throws Joanie onto the bed, she looks more like a cadaver than a sexually empowered woman. Her purposefully milk-white skin gleams in the moonlight as Nat forcefully chokes her. The resulting prolonged shot lingers a few seconds too long on Joanie’s nude torso. All we see is a strong fist wrapped around Joanie’s throat as she bobs back and forth on the bed in time to Nat’s movements.
In the best forms of BDSM sex, the dominant partner acts to increase the more submissive partner's sexual pleasure. However, Nat's glee seems to stem from his ability to hurt Joanie, rather than a genuine interest in what gets her off.
When Joanie clamps her eyes closed, it’s difficult to tell if that’s in response to genuine dangerous agony or bliss. The Affair seems to want you to wonder.
If Joanie’s intense sex scene were an isolated incident, we could possibly give it a pass as one dubious sexual moment in a series full of dubious sexual moments. But, the Showtime series has already suggested to us Joanie is grappling with suicidal ideation. This encounter with Nat comes off as her latest flirtation with her most self-destructive thoughts. This is serious.
In the season 5 premiere, Joanie swallows an entire bottle of prescription pills after bringing up the fact that she is nearing the age her mother, OG Affair star Alison (Ruth Wilson), died. The world believes Alison died by suicide and Joanie is terrified of ending up like her mom (she has no idea the story of Alison’s death may be patently false). Yet, these first few episodes of 2019 suggest that no matter how much Joanie tries to run from Alison’s tragic end that is where she is also bound to go. That’s frighteningly bleak.
Joanie may have spit out the meds, as we learn in “502,” but now she’s gasping for breath with an aggressive stranger in a dark corner of Long island. You know, the same place a different aggressive man may have killed her mother. And, the “503” sex scene is cut with flashforwards of Joanie inspecting her childhood home. The objects that drive her fascination? Images of Alison’s life before her so-called sucide.
To really drive home the idea that something is quote-on-quote wrong with Joanie due to Alison’s death, Nat gleefully tells her, “You are on sick bitch.” And, in a trailer for the season, we see Joanie’s husband Paul (Lyriq Bent) grasp her and say, “You are so fucking broken, Joanie.” Immediately, she breaks down into tears.
Although The Affair may be working towards some great optimistic resolution, it’s currently telling us tragic women can only beget more tragic women. No wonder Ruth Wilson ran away as quickly as she could.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.