‘The Affair’ Finale: Sarah Treem Explains The Payoff For The Five Season Journey Of Noah & Helen Solloway
SPOILERS AHEAD: Showtime’s The Affair finished its five season run tonight, with the series’ co-creator and guiding creative voice Sarah Treem making her directorial debut on the finale. Treem took 90 minutes to stitch back together the fractured Solloway clan, as the philandering Noah (Dominic West) and long suffering wife Helen (Maura Tierney) find a way back to each other. This was something that seemed nearly impossible after his affair with the desperately unhappy Alison (Ruth Wilson), who found her way into the arms of the bored wannabe bestselling author Noah. He left his own wife and their four children and a highly unexpected adventure began, one that traced the multi-generational ripples created by such a tumultuous event.
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Both Wilson and Joshua Jackson, who played her husband Cole, departed the show previously. Their respective viewpoints of incidents drove the narrative in the series early years, along with stories told from the POV of Noah and Helen. Now, the final season came down to the Solloway clan, and a futuristic storyline involving Alison and Cole’s grown daughter Joanie. The final season opened with Noah’s book Descent in a deal to be made into a feature by actor/turned director Sasha Mann (Claes Bang), a manipulative star who promptly romanced Helen and cut Noah out of a creative role in his own life story.
During this season, karma also caught up to Noah as he prepared for the release of a new book, and a profile outed him as a #MeToo predator of women. Even though some of the allegations were dubious, they were enough to drive a wedge between Noah, and Helen and their four children. Particularly Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles), who careened into adulthood with the burden of the imploded family. Her repressed memory of cavorting in a hot tub with a young woman, only to turn and see her father leering (he didn’t know it was her), was shown in Season 2 without repercussions. But not it has unlocked horrible memories and wreaked havoc at a time Whitney has more than her share of pressure. She is marrying an Irish painter whose Green Card hopes rest on the nuptials, and Helen is all out of excuses to justify her ex-husband’s narcissistic behavior. Whitney has begun to replicate her father’s reckless behavior and is in danger of spiraling out of control.
Only the family optimist, youngest daughter Stacey Solloway (Abigail Dylan Harrison) sees destiny as she tells them a story of a doomed romance between two astronauts who meet at the international space station, fall madly in love, but cannot stay together. They build new lives with others, she tells them, only to realize the whole time they secretly loved each other and when they ran into each other on the opposite side of the galaxy, they realized they had been in orbit the whole time, searching for each other. Noah and Helen have been getting closer, as in the show’s next to last episode, when Noah rescued Helen from the LA fires that threatened to engulf his home. He wouldn’t leave until he found his daughter’s birth certificate, needed for the wedding license. He led Helen down a treacherous ravine to a fire break, and when she was bit by a rattlesnake, he carried her a mile to save her life.
Tonight, Helen and Noah found themselves on the same side of that galaxy described so poetically by the youngest Solloway (who would write a book titled Montauk about her family), but nothing about a reunion is easy, especially for Helen to forgive him. The episode began with Noah – desperate for Whitney to have a perfect wedding even though she has banned him from attending – rehearses the whole family in a flash mob that was part of Whitney’s fantasy of a perfect wedding day. Exhorting them with moves like “pizza arms, spin, ride the tractor, kick the puppy,” the dance is a mess, but a determined Noah is in full Bob Fosse choreographer mode. There is joy in Helen’s face as she watches her children and the dance take shape, and all that Noah has created on the grounds where they got married long ago. Noah’s act of kindness includes him secretly springing for a last minute ticket to bring the groom’s mother in from Belfast after a snafu. Somehow, the rancor and scandal that plagued the family strips away for something more lasting and important.
For a first time director, Treem has crafted and shot some remarkable scenes here. One involves Helen, helping Whitney into her dress, and her cranky daughter seeing her mother’s plight as Helen’s mother Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant) enters the room and eviscerates her daughter with insults. It awakens a traumatized Whitney’s appreciation of family that drives the final episode into a satisfying climax. When he welcomes Colin into the family and the young man notes how bad the rap has been against Noah, he doesn’t shrink at all. “Yeah, well I’ve done some things to deserve that. Also the Solloway women are pretty tough. Good luck with yours. Here’s the thing about the family you’re marrying into. We’re all batshit crazy and we can be brutal with each other. But when the shit hits the fan, we show up. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing.”
Another surprise comes when Helen, who is clearly at sea with her feelings about the husband whose betrayal sent her on this five season quest of self-discovery, decides to show up, at Noah’s hotel after shooing him away before Whitney arrives at her grandparents’ Hamptons estate for the wedding that Noah planned, every detail.
One distinguishing characteristic of The Affair is how emotionally powerful it has been, and how predictable. That is underscored by the story of Joanie Lockhart (Anna Paquin), the daughter of Cole and Alison who has spent her life in a campaign of self-hate, a saboteur of her own happiness and relationship with her husband and two daughters because she grew up with the knowledge her mother committed suicide and this girl wasn’t enough to keep her around. There are numerous surprises in store for her. First, she stumbles into the Lobster Roll, the Montauk eatery where Alison first met Noah. And there, behind the county is Noah himself, wearing about three decades of age from the previous scene.
With the help of EJ, a young man she met when she visited her father’s Hamptons home (she hopped into bed with the young man), Joanie learned that her mother was murdered by Ben, something viewers learned a couple seasons ago. Joanie has also learned that Ben is a wily sociopath unable to turn him in for his crimes, she resolves to avenge her mother’s death by killing him. But Joanie’s own self-discovery will lead her to a better alternative. She’ll learn that EJ is in fact the son of Helen’s second husband Vik and Sierra. He allows her find her way off the revenge path and back to the diner and Noah. He tells her the truth about how much Alison loved her, and how hard she worked to become a worthy mother, before her life was cruelly snuffed out by Ben when she discovered he was married and threatened to tell his wife. Unshackled from her destructive path, a liberated but still damaged Joanie finds a way home, to reunite with her family and try again.
Among the other special scenes: Whitney slowly realizes all of the things her father selflessly did to make her dream day, and she, her new husband and siblings make a break from the wedding to see Noah at his nearby hotel. When Whitney looks through the window and sees Helen and Noah making love, they all sit on a bench outside the room, munch on the piece of wedding cake they brought with them. And wait patiently to reunite with their parents.
And the ending, driven by an aging Noah, shows in a most touching way that battle tested true love can conquer most any adversity, including global warming floods and climate change-induced wildfires, and even death.
Here is a sometimes slightly existential post mortem chat with Treem about wrapping up a storyline in one of the most emotionally touching series I have seen in a good long time.
DEADLINE: You wrote the finale and made your directing debut. After suffering with the Solloway family and watching them grow up with the stain of infidelity and scandal, you couldn’t help but root for them, as unsparing as they have been with each other. The flash mob scene at Whitney’s wedding, I have to admit I misted up a bit.
SARAH TREEM: Well, I’m so glad. That’s the point, to get men to cry. My modus operandi.
DEADLINE: We had a good interview at the start of the season and several commenters got on me for the way I dismissed male characters I basically labeled as a disgrace to the male gender. They felt I was way too hard on Noah Solloway, and I have to say based on how this series ended, that they were right. I had also pegged Whitney’s Irish fiancé Colin as a Green Card-seeking deadbeat masquerading as an artist. That portrait of Whitney that he painted an episode or two back, indicated a real artist, hopelessly in love. And now you’ve redeemed the whole lot of them in a way I didn’t think possible. Let’s start with Noah. When you started this, how much of Noah’s character arc was there in a blueprint in your mind, and how much just evolved?
TREEM: I always felt it was Noah’s show, from the beginning. He was the first character I had, an amalgamation of a couple different people that I knew at the time that I thought really interesting. To me he was always the most interesting character because you couldn’t point to what was wrong with him. The other characters — Cole and Alison lost a child, and Helen had been left by her husband Noah. So their actions were always somewhat forgivable, because the story had told you where they were coming from, and their circumstances excused them.
With Noah, we don’t have an excuse for why he is the way he is. For me as a writer, that’s why he’s a most interesting character and the most truthful character. A lot of the way we understand story is in retrospect. At the time people make choices and later they can tell you why they did it. That’s narrative, a construct. You finding meaning for actions you’ve already taken. If the show tried to tell anything it’s that there are two sides to every story. Those narratives are incredibly biased. So to me he was always the most interesting character and because he’s the writer he’s a character I identified incredibly strongly this character who tries so hard to control his narrative and can’t…
DEADLINE: And can’t control his impulses…
TREEM: Yeah. Trying to make sense of himself and as he grows and keeps going, people start to turn on him. I do think this is true in life, especially for men, that bad behavior or selfish behavior, is more easily forgiven when you’re young than it is when you get older. There’s a line of people who get hurt, who at some point move on. Noah’s arc is the longest and most surprising in my head, but I didn’t know I was going to end here, when I started. This series was always intended to be a different kind of show.
DEADLINE: One interesting surprise with the narrative. We’ve seen people brought down in this #MeToo reporting that is not based on due process, but which reflects repressed outrage from women who’ve been left to feel they were victimized. Noah even comes back from that. Give a sense why you walked that tightrope and put Noah in that dilemma. We’ve read a lot of these stories and with some you go, that man is a scoundrel, good bye. Others you go, hmmm, does that warrant being canceled? Why add that topical element to the mix with Noah.
TREEM: In terms of the #MeToo storyline, it seemed to me there wasn’t another show that could do it the way we could. Because of the nature of the show and how we had storytelling from these different character perspectives ingrained in the show. When I was thinking about the end of the show, and what would be possible for Noah’s redemption, and if there was a way to get Noah and Helen back together, which is where I started this season with my writer’s room. What would it take for them to be able to get back together? What would it take? Originally, they were like, maybe he becomes an amazing father and Helen gets very busy and he takes over a lot of the family responsibilities. And she starts to date this movie star, and he just has to sit there and take it. The truth was, there was no amount of good fathering that he could do that me and my writers felt would be enough for her to forgive Noah in a way that the audience would feel good about. No amount of taking the kids to school, making their breakfast, all that stuff that was going to make you feel that if they got back together that he wasn’t going to just do it again. I mean leave her, cheat on her again and not see her as a complete person.
The only thing I believed was going to get us to a different person was, we figured out in the writer’s room, if the call was coming from within the house. Meaning, you can defend yourself against almost anybody else. You can defend yourself against public opinion, against coworkers and against your spouse. A lot of marriage is defense, this interesting dance between intimacy and defense, at all times. But defending yourself against your children? When your children are telling you that what you did hurt them, you have to be a certain kind of sociopath to not take that to heart. I knew I wanted Whitney to turn on Noah. That was the starting block for the season. We thought, why would she turn? And we thought back to that moment in the hot tub in Season 2, and how we had never talked about it, we just buried it.
DEADLINE: That was a scene in which Whitney was experimenting, kissing a girl in the hot tub, her back to Noah, whom she had no idea was at that party. And then she is horrified to turn around and see him leering…
TREEM: She as a character would have repressed that and, for want of a better word, it eventually would have fucked her up. She would have seen her mother defending her father, over and over again, and she would have come to repeat that pattern with men, and get to a point where she was hurting herself and she would have to think, why am I doing this? And she would turn that back against her parents…
DEADLINE: Was the severity of that repressed memory triggered by that scene early in this last season, when she cheated on Colin with that awful photographer ex-boyfriend Furkat, degrading herself in front of a rich voyeur who might sponsor an art galley for her…
TREEM: Yes, that’s what did it. She cheats on her fiancé with Furkat, in front of this guy, which is basically an act of prostitution without her realizing it, and she comes back to the apartment she shares with Colin. And she is thinking, what the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I like this? Why do I do these things to myself? It’s not the first time, either. This is the guy who hit her, three years ago in Paris. If I’m Whitney, and I have been that girl at times in my life, I think, why do I keep putting myself in situations I know are going to hurt me? What’s wrong with me? That was the beginning of her journey. The #MeToo storyline started with that very personal familial relationship between these people and it felt like the right way for us to start to unpack stuff, and have them talk to each other and raise the stakes. And make it a situation they just couldn’t ignore. I am really fascinated, as I am reading these #MeToo stories, about what happens to the families in these situations. What happens to the children, the wife? What are the conversations these men are having, at home? Why do women choose to stay with men in these circumstances even when the entire public opinion has turned against them? Why did Hillary Clinton stay? I have been thinking about these situation for a really long time.
In terms of the #MeToo of it all, it felt like the real Uber-story to tell the personal story about the family that I wanted to tell. And get Noah to a point where he has to come to terms with his past. And accept it and that his actions, though potentially defensible at the time – they didn’t seem like assaults in his eyes – and the viewer will say, wait a second. We saw this when it happened, and it wasn’t assault…but the truth is we saw it from Noah’s perspective, we didn’t see it from the other perspective on the show. If we’d seen the other perspective on the show, maybe we would have seen it differently. That was the point. It wasn’t like we were undoing truth. There is no truth, there’s only bias in this show. Have I answered?
DEADLINE: It was a perfect storytelling device, weaving itself so well into the theme of stories told from different perspectives, depicting traumatic incidents. That scene, when Helen is helping Whitney into her wedding dress, and Helen’s mother comes in…first, you leave me wanting to hate someone on this show, and I watch this scene and hate Helen’s mother, and then she is the first one to jump into the freezing pool to rescue her Alzheimer’s-suffering husband Bruce, who in a rare moment of clarity conspires with Whitney so she can escape the wedding reception and look for her father. Well at least you left me Ben to hate, the guy who killed Alison. But that scene, what was the dynamic in your mind? Whitney was so nasty to Helen, but you feel the affection is just below the surface, and then when Helen’s mother comes in and repeatedly insults her own daughter in front of her granddaughter, Whitney erupts and her eyes are open to something. Fine acting from all three. Can you explain what you did there?
TREEM: I’m glad you caught all of that. That was all intentional. I got to direct the finale, which was a lot of fun for me. That particular scene, was incredibly hard to direct, and to edit. Usually, I’m quick in the editing room, but scene took two days to edit because of the power dynamics in that scene. When I was directing it, I kept saying, we have to hold the triangle. I come out of theater, and so I’m familiar with directing stage, and it was important to me that we kept the triangle going in that scene. This idea that they had to be at different points for the scene to hold itself. And it basically all had to be at odd axis’s with each other. If any of them started to come toward each other, signifying an alliance, the scene was over. It was important to me that it was these three tall women, held in a way where it was like the same woman at three different points in her life, in the same space. That was the idea.
So you see the scene from Helen’s POV, which is important to remember. We were picking up where Whitney left her mother, in Episode 10, where from Helen’s perspective, Whitney was screaming at her and saying, all I want is to not be like you. We had to pick up at that place, because the audience hadn’t seen anything else and that was the energy we come into the scene with. When Margaret swoops in, and is so horrible to her daughter Helen…saying, is that what you’re wearing and just shit talking her daughter which show how much Margaret takes Helen for granted, Whitney seeing her grandmother doing that to her mother…her heart opens up and she realizes what her mother has had to deal with all her life. Her heart opens toward her mother. They had been at such odds with each other, she couldn’t switch to that place right away. So she has to do that by saying that Margaret is such a fucking monster. That’s her gift to Helen, by saying what Helen can’t say. That Margaret is behaving like a fucking monster. And then we lead them through the kitchen and it’s not till that moment that Helen feels really uncomfortable that Whitney is going to reject her when she tries to walk her daughter down the aisle. And then Whitney offers her hand. That hand moment is supposed to the shift in Whitney that starts in the library.
DEADLINE: Right before that, Margaret looks at Helen’s handsome children and says, ‘Oh my kids.’ Another dagger in the heart of her daughter. Helen then goes through the motions at that wedding and finally makes a decision. After saying she never makes a decision, that things just happen to her while Noah is always making decisions, she decides to go to her ex-husband. Roll all that into how you see Helen and her evolution. A woman willing to forgive her husband for betrayals most women probably couldn’t because the collective trauma would be just too much.
TREEM: Helen is the only child of very narcissistic parents. She says something to Noah on that hike to the fire trail in Episode 10, “I wasn’t a person, I was a performance of a person and all I wanted was for someone to save me from Bruce and Margaret.” That is Helen’s youth in a nutshell where she didn’t really have a chance to develop who she was because she was just so trying to protect herself from her parents all the time. And be the person they wanted her to be, as a way of self protection. My view of Helen is she missed a pretty major developmental leap that happens for some people in their 20s when you figure out who you are. It has taken Helen a very long time to even get comfortable with the voice in her head, telling her what she wants. I don’t think that’s so unusual for people, and especially women. That it takes much longer, especially my generation. This way in which you’re coming into early middle age thinking, wait a minute…who am I and what do I want? Why is it so hard to just hear my own thoughts and needs? Sometimes I would put everyone else’s needs first, get those taken care of. When I first started doing this job I would take care of everything else, and then I would go write. At a certain point, it was clear I wasn’t going to be able write enough, sustain the needed output if I put myself last in the day. I don’t think I am a self-effacing person, this is just how women get trained.
Helen’s journey through this whole series has been toward being able to hear herself, to put her own needs first. To accept who she is and what she wants. In terms of giving the characters the hardest things to overcome, I think that Helen going back to Noah is the hardest thing Helen has ever done. It’s so unpopular and there are so many people who don’t want it to happen, and so many forces against it. But at the end of the day, it’s what her heart wants. So I think it’s a victory because she can finally hear what she herself wants, and then she has to be brave enough to go for it even though nobody is going to reward her for that.
DEADLINE: In Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars, he talks of relationships like the one with his wife that came later, and how it was two people with broken pieces becoming a whole. That could describe Noah and Helen. Are they stronger as a couple for having gone through all that adversity? Their young daughter Stacey, who write the family story we see at the end in the book Montauk, describes her parents perceptively when talking about a couple that couldn’t live together, but goes into space and eventually comes back together. She says they simply had been orbiting till they found each other. You created these characters; are Noah and Helen better off than if they kept going through the motion in their marriage and not had to go through all the adversity that filled five seasons of The Affair?
TREEM: I absolutely think so. That’s my experience in life, that only through adversity do you grow. There’s no other way. There is a poem I love by Robert Hass called Faint Music, and it was an inspiration for a lot of the fifth season. The poem is about someone who gets to the point of their life where they are suicidal, when nothing makes sense and there’s no way to create a narrative where they’re the hero anymore. Getting to that place when everything falls apart and then comes the realization that the world is full of so much pain that it sounds a bit like singing, and how the order is ego then pain then singing. That’s how the poem ends. At a certain point when it falls away and you can’t make sense of your life anymore and it hasn’t gone your way no matter how hard you tried, then there’s a collectivism of pain. You realize that pain is humanity, human existence and it’s beautiful because all of us are going through it. Nobody escapes it. Once you see it, it opens up this new peace but there’s no way to get there without the pain. You can’t jump to the peace. Your ego has to be hurt by what happens to you and then comes the darkness and only then comes the joy and celebration. That is what I tried to do this season, especially for Noah. Why by the end, is singing.
DEADLINE: The futuristic story arc of Joanie, the daughter of Cole and Alison, was endlessly surprising. She goes to see Ben when she realizes he killed her mother, and nothing that happens was predictable. He figures out who she is when she comes for counseling for PTSD, he confesses and manipulates her into signing a paper and admitting she wants to castrate him, which he plays for cops. It would have been easy for her to avenge her mother. But you didn’t go that way. What was the thought as you were figuring out that arc?
TREEM: That Ben storyline, people have been very passionate about. The point with Ben is, he is a sociopath. There are people who are just bad. Not a lot of them, but there are people who are not redeemable. When we in the writer’s room started to talk about the Ben and Joanie arc, I didn’t want to redeem Ben. He killed our protagonist. In cold blood. So anything I felt we could do to redeem him would feel false, and gross. The other option was that he pay for his crime. But nobody pays for their crimes on this show. That’s just not the way this show works. People pay for other people’s crimes. Helen killed somebody and never had to pay for it…
DEADLINE: Cole’s brother, in an accident collision that Noah took the blame for…
TREEM: This is not a show about truth and justice. It’s about growth and personal accountability, though that often times doesn’t line up with political or social accountability. I knew what Joanie needed. She had constructed her entire identity, her ego, around the idea her mother did not want to stay alive for her. That her mother killed herself and she wasn’t important enough for her mother to want to live. She has been incredibly damaged by that and creates situations where she makes herself impossible to love. What Joanie thought she needed was to avenge her mother’s death, once she figured out Alison was murdered. But that’s not what she needed. She needed to know the truth about how Alison died, so she could forgive Alison and ultimately forgive herself. For being unlovable. And then to go home and break the pattern of abandonment that had been wriggling through her family for generations.
The only way we could do that…if Ben pays for his crimes, the cycle continues and when EJ says, this isn’t going to bring your mother back, she says, I know that. He says, you don’t really know that, and he’s right. The reason we had Ben win that scene is it leads her into a spiral that ultimately leads her back to Noah who gives her the piece of information that changes her life.
DEADLINE: The knowledge that while she believed her mother abandoned her, that Alison in fact went to get help for her own problems so she could be a proper mother, and then fought Cole and his wife Luisa for custody, none of which Cole shared with Joanie because he was too heartbroken to talk about Alison to her.
TREEM: I knew it would be a risk, narratively, because people aren’t comfortable seeing people get away with crimes, but this is a show that has always tried to challenge narrative expectations and insist that narrative itself is a construct being woven all the time by the person who see it. That was the thinking behind the Ben arc.
DEADLINE: Noah tells Joanie EJ’s theory that tragedy is passed down and becomes ingrained in DNA. Do you believe that?
TREEM: That was taken from Rachel Yehuda, who has done studies on children of the Holocaust and how the DNA changed post trauma. Anecdotally, I guess I do believe it. Progress in families is a spiral. There’s the generation that goes through the trauma, then the generation after that repeats the trauma and the third generation where, if all the circumstances are good in their lives, they transcend the trauma. You see in the families of alcoholics where the second generation becomes an alcoholic but gets sober, and the third gets sober even more quickly. It’s progress and I do think as a species we are trending toward enlightenment. But it’s in stutter steps.
DEADLINE: Our last interview you spoke about this Richard Greenberg play Three Days of Rain, about these three children who are trying to figure out what happened to their parents, in some will dispute. The play goes back and the three are their parents and a friend of their parents and what you realize is the story these kids have about what happened to their parents, it’s entirely wrong. Their parents had a different story.
We see that as Noah unlocks something in Joanie when he creates the false narrative of her mother that has been running through her mind and fueling her self-destructive habits and inability to connect with her own daughters and husband. She was on that DNA tragedy track, but the truth sets her free and breaks that pattern?
TREEM: There was real trauma that Joanie’s parents went through. They lost a child and that impacted the way they raised her. You saw it in the third season how precious they were with her. That obviously affects a child. Then the idea of DNA being recoded by trauma. She inherits that, a PTSD trigger, which they say about children of trauma survivors, that they are more likely to experience PTSD, and their lives are harder. That all tracks for Joanie. But like everything, it’s nature and nurture. We are all coded a certain way but we have free will. It is really hard to change, but we can do it if we really try. You have to concentrate and want it. Until Joanie understands that her mother didn’t kill herself and that her mother loved her more than anything and her mother was fighting for her, she didn’t see the point and so didn’t really want to change. But as we see at the end, she now has hope as she goes home to try. It’s not going to be easy, but she is going to try.
DEADLINE: A couple other great scenes. When Helen and Noah’s children leave Whitney’s wedding to find Noah at his hotel. When Whitney sees her parents are having sex, they politely wait outside. And then you didn’t show them all reuniting, which would have been so predictable to show that reunion. That was risky though, because those kids were just traumatized by the #MeToo scandal their father had been going through…
TREEM: That’s my favorite thought, the first idea I had for the finale. That we were going to get the Solloway family back together, but not in the way you were expecting. I am as a writer someone who has a hard time with sentimentality, but I knew I wanted the family to come back together. I had this idea for a shot, where the Solloway kids were eating cake outside the hotel where you could see through the window that their parents were having sex. But to me, that was enough. You got it, you understood Whitney had forgiven her father and wanted to be with him. You understood that Helen and Noah were in some way getting back together. The fact the kids didn’t leave, but stayed, that said something too. This is our family, this is our life, as fucked up as we are, this is us. This is our batshit family. You don’t want to go past that.
DEADLINE: The last episode had Noah rescuing Helen, as they climbed down a ravine to escape wildfires in California. It aired just as fires raged near the Getty Center off the 405. We had the fires, the floods that ravaged Montauk in the not too distant future because of global warming, and this recurring theme about slipping into the ocean. You said you aren’t overtly sentimental, but isn’t what you are saying here that, sure, the earth is burning and flooding and we’ve wrecked it, but love has a certain power that is important. Have I got that right?
TREEM: Yes. There’s a line I actually cut from the Noah-Joanie scene that I am kicking myself over. It felt redundant but now I think it was important. Basically, Noah says, it doesn’t matter who your parents slept with or how and why they made their choices. They’ve come and gone and now it’s your turn and soon you’ll be gone, too. I think if anything, that’s the point of the show, in the end. All of this, in the end, whether you believe in climate change or not, we are not going to last forever and neither is our planet. You can make as much meaning as you want in whatever way you want to make it, but at the end of the day, our lives are pretty fucking short. And the only thing that matters at the end, is as Helen says to Joanie, is that somebody knew you. Really, really knew you. And will remember you after you’re gone.
In terms of the climate change, the fires and the floods…I am in LA too and we’ve had to evacuate. I was in Topanga and in Mandeville for awhile. I’ve moved out of Mandeville now but we have had to evacuate for three years in a row now. Everybody said, how prescient you are. How did you know about the Getty fires? I said, I knew because last year there was a fire at the Getty. It wasn’t a leap for me. It’s fire season in LA at the end of the year, and my kid has asthma and so I’m incredibly conscious about it. If nothing else, these fires have taught me that we are always living in a precious place, whether or not we want to see it. The flooding at the end, we thought in the writer’s room, wouldn’t it be something if at the end we saw the sea level rise and rise and everything goes back into the ocean as the theme song says. In the end, we didn’t do that. A little too much on the nose.
At a certain point, the earth is going to end by either water or fire. And we will be gone, and then it doesn’t really matter.
DEADLINE: What character was most satisfying and surprising in the way their arc unfolded over five seasons?
TREEM: There were surprises in all of them. I guess for me, I identified with Noah and Alison strongly at the beginning. Those were the two points of entry. I always identified strongly with Whitney. The character I had the least access to was Helen. I started the show when I was pretty young. I don’t think I had children; I was pregnant with my son when we sold the show. Her experience as a mother of four being left, was pretty alien to me. Over the course of writing the show, I got more familiar with her circumstances and got to understand the character better. That was a real thrill as a writer, getting closer and closer to this character and understanding her more and more. I started to see the journey for her.
When Maura read Helen on the page, in the pilot, she said, there’s not really a character here. I said, I know, I know. But if you do this show, I promise I will write you a character. I pursued her hard for this and she says, I don’t see a character and I go, I promise, I promise I will make one. She came to me a couple episodes in and said, I still don’t really see a character. I go, you’re right, you’re right. Just give me a chance. I had to think harder about Helen as a character more than I did the other main characters. So I guess I am most satisfied with her character and the journey. Because she became the beating heart of the show and that was personally very satisfying for me.
DEADLINE: What’s that like when you are wrapping up with that knowledge and see Maura before you all say goodbye?
TREEM: She was so sweet and we were both pretty emotional. We’ve been doing this for a long, long time. Maura is very brilliant and could be a writer herself and so I included her a lot in crafting Helen’s arc. What do you think she would do? Where do you want Helen to end up? And she’s really kind to writers. She understands in this particular job she is the actor and we are the writers. She gives me a lot of credit, says it’s your show and I’ll do what you want me to do.
This is a bit strange, but a lot of things I wrote on the show ended up coming true. Over and over, to the point it got quite bizarre.
DEADLINE: Like what?
TREEM: Well, some of that is personal. But the Getty fire is an example. At one point, we were like what hell have we wrought? Maura said at one point, don’t you dare give her cancer! I’m afraid of your witchy-ness. So I don’t want you to drive my character off a cliff. Just send her to a nunnery, afraid that whatever I wrote would come true. I said we can’t send you to a nunnery, but my gesture toward her was to not tell how Helen dies, and that was quite purposeful. You understand how every other character died but we don’t ever say how Helen dies. At one point, in the writer’s room, we were trying to come up with her last name and we asked Maura. The writer/producers kept asking her, what do you think Helen’s middle name is? She said, I don’t know. Then at a certain point, she says, wait a minute. Is this for her tombstone? Which of course, it was.
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