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The Debate Over ‘The Affair’ Star Ruth Wilson’s Awkward Exit (Column)

In an interview with “CBS This Morning” this week, Ruth Wilson created something rare for daytime talk: the sort of tense, awkward moment that reminds you that a show is unscripted, and live. Asked about the end of her role on “The Affair” — her character, Alison, was recently killed — Wilson told “This Morning” host Gayle King that “I did want to leave, but I’m not allowed to talk about why.”

This sort of mysteriousness around the decisions made by or for actors is nothing new; TV fans are still waiting, and likely will be forever, for clarity on why Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi stopped filming “The Good Wife” together. But Wilson’s bluntness, delivered with a tense smile, stopped the “This Morning” chat dead. Attempting to restart the interview, King asked if rumors she’d heard about gender-based pay disparities on “The Affair” were true (itself a surprising bit of hearsay to surface on a morning show, particularly one aired by Showtime’s corporate partner). “I’ve never complained to Showtime about pay parity,” Wilson said, choosing her words with lawyerly care before issuing the sort of tight chuckle that indicates a topic is closed.

Speculation online has since run wild — not surprising, perhaps, given Wilson’s crypticness and scrupulous phrasing, but also striking given that the show at issue is an aging cable series heading into its final season.

Characters — even lead characters — are killed off shows frequently. And Variety‘s reporting indicates that the decision was nowhere near as dramatic as it seems, having been rooted in Wilson’s decision to leave the show to pursue a BBC/PBS miniseries about her family history. But Wilson’s crypticness helped turn what would otherwise have been ultimately business as usual for a TV industry that traffics in huge twists into a social media bonfire. And Showtime’s statement did little to defuse it, indicating that the parting of ways had been a mutual decision by all parties. Ultimately, per Showtime, it had been agreed that “the most powerful creative decision would be to end Alison’s arc at the moment when she had finally achieved self-empowerment.”

Something isn’t adding up. What’s the truth here? Was it Wilson’s decision solely, or was it a mutual one? What exactly is Wilson prevented from telling us?

All this nebulousness makes Wilson seem like a victim of something. She may well have been aware that by citing strictures against speaking freely, she’d call to many viewers’ minds just how much Hollywood misbehavior was until recently papered over by actresses signing non-disclosure agreements. Or she may just be deflecting a conversation she’d prefer not to have, unwittingly making it worse. Either way, Showtime is learning that once a performer is no longer in your employ, they owe you nothing, as Wilson is, intentionally or not, fueling the sense she was, somehow, treated nefariously.

The irony of this affair over “The Affair” is that it mirrors the show itself; as a drama that relies on fractured perspectives, it’s created a drama of fractured perspectives. What to Wilson may have been an innocuous conversation-ender is to the commentariat online the start of what could become years’ worth of feverish speculation. And what may have seemed to her like a proactive decision to quit may have seemed to the network like a truly mutual agreement. Perhaps the rest of the cast and Treem will soon find a way to merge the two sketchy narratives. In an age where openness and frankness, within limits, is generally accepted, ambiguity has the tendency to tarnish shows as it festers.

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