Montauk had seen better days. But all of them must have been better than this one.
The camera pulls back at the end of the second episode of "The Affair" (returning 9 p.m. Sunday on Showtime for its fifth and final season) to reveal an aerial shot looking south, from just above John's Drive-In at the corner of Montauk Highway and South Emery Street. In the foreground is the old Memory Motel, which is "old" by this point in the episode because the scene is taking place 30 years or so from now.
Portions of its roof have caved in, and pools of standing water fill the pocked parking lot. Fish swim in them. The Point Bar & Grill across the street — or whatever else is there by mid-21st century — isn't much better. The roof, like most of the roofs of Montauk, has cratered. Tourists are long gone and so it seems are Montaukers. It's a dismal, unpeopled spread reaching out to the ocean, which has now encroached the town. Montauk is cut off, a shrinking island in a beset world, where global warming has unleashed the icecaps and where electricity is optional, or at least available to those willing to pay a lot for it, like people over in the Hamptons. (Hey, who else, right?)
It's sad. No, it's worse than sad. There's not even a decent place to eat here anymore.
Welcome, if that's the right word, to Montauk circa whenever. (The show never says exactly.) In this portrait, we haven't corrected climate change but have gone on our benighted way — habit-bound creatures who have no clue what's bad for us, but keep on doing it just the same. In that sense, this future-shock vision of Montauk is just like the characters of "The Affair" themselves. They just go round and round, and where they stop … well, we know where they stop. It's rarely a constructive place to be.
"The Affair" began at the "End" — Montauk — five seasons ago, and ends at The End. This seems exactly right. Only the first three episodes were available for review, and most scenes take place in present-day Los Angeles, where Helen (Maura Tierney) and NoahSolloway (Dominic West) now live with their brood in their immediate orbit. But the Montauk scenes are the best, and most vivid.
Television has long embraced Montauk but the embrace has often seemed indifferent, and rarely if ever returned. There was that recent Bravo show "Summer House," which may or may not have been set here yet insisted it was. (Montauk insisted it was not.) There have been a bakers-dozen-and-counting films on Camp Hero. The producers of "Stranger Things" didn't film their hit here probably because Montaukers didn't want them to — more crews clogging more streets bringing more partyers. Thanks but no thanks.
"The Affair" was and is different. Montauk was and is in its DNA, and in the very air this show breathes. Recall Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson) who said in a first season episode, “These are our schools, our churches, our beaches, our docks, our sunrise, our little piece of heaven under God, and I am never going to leave this place … and I will fight to my last breath to keep Montauk local.”
And so he has, but there's not much left to fight for apparently.
"The Affair" loved Montauk because it was one perfect and bespoke metaphor for the show itself. Noah and Helen came out for a family vacation, and Noah promptly fell for a local waitress, Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson). She's split from her husband, Cole, in the wake of a personal tragedy, the loss of a child. They would later have another, Joanie, who is played by Anna Paquin in these fast-forward scenes to the distant future. She too is a tragic figure who wants to reconnect with a father she barely knew, and also learn what happened to her mother who may — or may not — have killed herself when Joanie was a child.
Fans of the show know the terrible truth of her fate. She was murdered by a lover, then dumped in the sea, with the words of the Fiona Apple title song made prophetic: "I have only one thing to do and that's/Be the wave that I am and then/Sink back into the ocean."
Waves, wind, sand, ocean … the narcotizing effect of land that abuts the endless sea, and that sense of beginnings or endings, specifically that sense here. Noah came out to Montauk, as he reflects in the new season, because he wanted "more, more, more." More out of his marriage, more out of his career, more out of life. Montauk was indifferent. It wasn't placed there to satisfy Noah's wants, or feed his boundless narcissism.
A character who joins the show this season, Sasha (Claes Bang), says to him, "Noah, you can't see yourself and never could and that's why you never get what you want."
Montauk could have told him that, and maybe already has.
Enter Joanie, who's looking for something, too — really, in fact, she's looking for herself. Troubled, self-destructive, sinking, the desolation of future-Montauk reflects her own desolation. She's a coastal engineer who helps communities figure out how to stanch the effects of climate change (think flooding). She's wrangled a trip to Montauk ostensibly to help a "DOD installation," but archly tells her boss that solutions are futile: "That's how we stay in business. Planned obsolescence and every two years, coming back for more."
But she's also here to solve a mystery, or two of them: The mystery of her mother, the mystery of herself.
In those few scattered scenes, Montauk of the future does almost seem alluring, beautiful even. There's nearly a touch of Whitman in them. He loved it here, too, once writing, "I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak, eastward the sea absorbing. … The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps … seeking the shores forever.”
In the fifth season of "The Affair," the sea has absorbed, the wild unrest has moved inland. Just up the street from the Memory Motel, by the way, stands the Montauk Chamber of Commerce. In those scattered "Affair" scenes, nature — abetted by man — appears to have subsumed it as well.
Newsday put in a call to the Chamber for a reaction to its fictional fate. "This is a fantasy TV show," it said in a statement. "Montauk is a beautiful and thriving place, as well as a tourist destination, and will continue to thrive well into the future."
Here's are some quick snapshots of who's who in the final season of "The Affair."
Noah Solloway (Dominic West): Believe it or not, he's finally got someone to adapt his bestselling roman à clef "Descent" into a movie. Meanwhile, he's still bugging Helen.
Helen Solloway (Maura Tierney): Preparing for the death of her husband, Vik, she's trying to figure out what to do with the rest of her life.
Dr. Vik Ullah (Omar Metwally): Spoiler alert, although not much of a spoiler by this point — Vik dies in the opener (pancreatic cancer) and it's tough, and touching, to watch.
Sierra (Emily Browning): Elfin free spirit and next door neighbor to Vik and Helen (also pregnant with Vik's child), she finally meets Helen's mom, Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant). "She's a child," says mom, sotto voce, upon first meeting her. "I know," says Helen.
Janelle Wilson (Sanaa Lathan): Principal of charter school where Noah teaches; also his lover, but not for long. She's on to what a jerk he can be.
Cole Lockhart (Joshua Jackson): Not sure where he is in present time, but in the future, he's back in his beloved Montauk — though we won't see him on this final season.
Alison Bailey (Ruth Wilson): Murdered last season and now off the show, but not in spirit. She'll drive the action this final season.
Joanie Lockhart (Anna Paquin): Adult daughter of Cole and Alison, who is troubled by her mother's death, and heads back to Montauk for answers.
Carl Gatewood (Russell Hornsby): Ex of Janelle who comes back into her life with an offer she can't, or won't, refuse.
Sasha Mann (Claes Bang): A-list action movie star, also aging Lothario, who'd like a little true love in his life; also the guy who (improbably) saw a book worth adapting in Noah's "Descent."