One of the intrinsic struggles of The Affair is its tricky relationship with the truth. By presenting a story in season one where the same events are told through two different perspectives, the show established a universe where there was no such thing as the absolute truth, then happily lived in the resulting grey areas. That ethos was challenged, however, by the very framework the show imposed on itself, introducing an overarching mystery element that practically begs viewers to want some kind of concrete answers as the series progresses. It’s almost as if each episode viewers are put at war with themselves, forced to make a choice: Do we want the objective truth of the mystery or the emotional truth of the characters?
Adding Helen and Cole’s stories in season two—while exciting on a purely dramatic level—makes the above question that much more difficult. All of season one used the murder mystery framework as a way to pick at Noah and Alison and their affair, losing a great deal of its impact once the interrogation scenes ended and the investigation went to a more nebulous place. Now the investigation is essentially over, with Noah arrested and indicted for the crime, what The Affair really needs to figure out the most is how the present-day framework fits in with the meat of the story, which is still very much in the past. The first two episodes haven’t quite cracked how to make this work, and that is never clearer than in the case of Alison and Cole’s story here.
One thing The Affair has been good at since the beginning is not being afraid to expand what is possible within the tight confines of structure the show has established for itself. Presenting Alison’s story as “Part Three”—signaling to the audience that this is a continuation of the stories from last week’s premiere—is one of those slight tweaks that works. It’s essential for Noah and Alison’s story as a couple to see her perspective on his idyllic recollection of their time together, and as we learn it probably isn’t nearly as idyllic as he remembers. Noah remembered coming home after a hard day in New York City to a serene, perfect dinner full of impromptu dancing and warm smiles. Alison remembers the same events as him coming home surly and confrontational, ending in steamy make-up sex on the kitchen counter. In both cases, their perspective on what happened wasn’t really about the other person at all: It was about what they themselves needed, emotionally. In Noah’s perspective in the premiere, he needed to come home from that stressful day and know those stresses were worth it; that his choice to blow up his life for Alison was the right one. In Alison’s perspective here, she needed to feel useful, wanted, and chosen. The truth of what actually happened doesn’t matter.
Alison needing to feel useful and wanted is key, as she spends most of the rest of her perspective this week feeling anything but. She meanders into town because she’s too restless to stay in the cabin. While she’s there she casually asks the waitress at a café how much money she makes, but her heart clearly isn’t in being a waitress these days. It isn’t until she befriends the couple who is letting them stay in the cabin so Noah can finish his novel—and they offer her a job—that she starts to perk up a bit. That the woman she would be assisting is the head of the publishing house Noah will probably sell his novel to seems important (but might not be at all, considering the show’s history of introducing things that ultimately don’t have much meaning to the plot side of the story).
As for Alison’s interaction with Cole, that’s a bit harder to parse. It’s here that holding on to any idea that the truth is important in the world of The Affair will get you in trouble, because the interaction they have in Alison’s memory is so different than the one in Cole’s it almost becomes humorous. Alison remembers everything about their interaction as fraught with menace and danger, with Cole seeming vaguely threatening throughout before becoming overtly threatening at the end. In Cole’s perspective, their meeting has an entirely less confrontational and more melancholy tone. Obviously neither of them are objectively true, but at this point The Affair cares far more about what it means for their characters than anything with the actual truth. Does Alison remember Cole this way because that is how he was, or does she need to paint him with a menacing, scary brush in order to justify what she did to him and the choices she made?
Cole’s perspective on the encounter is entirely different, with Alison greeting him almost warmly, them calmly sitting together and discussing the end of their relationship in a sad, non-threatening, resigned sort of way. This would feel entirely too jarring if it came at the beginning of his half of the episode, but the show smartly sets up the ruin that his Cole’s life in a way that it feels like it is inevitable. The Cole we see here isn’t an angry, dangerous man. He’s a tired, defeated man, one who can’t figure out how to begin his new life because he still hasn’t let go of the old one. Cole is so divorced from his new circumstances that he can’t even bring himself to sleep in Alison’s house; instead, he’s shacking up in an RV in the driveway. He’s ignoring his family, sleepwalking (sometimes literally) through his job as a cab driver, and working all hours of the night, subsisting on self-hatred and cocaine.
Cole’s interaction with Alison was about the very last moment, where he asks Alison if she’s coming home and she says no, then runs after him and hugs him goodbye. Alison’s perspective of the incident showed she needed to feel justified in her decision to leave; Cole’s perspective of the same moment showed he needed to find a reason to finally move on. When we see Cole again in the present-day courtroom scenes, it’s clear some sort of moving on did happen: He’s calm, clean-cut, and even happy to see Alison’s daughter. It’s his reaction to Noah during the indictment hearing that is harder to analyze, and where it feels as if the show is going to have to do more digging to make these present-day scenes work in the framework of showing four different perspectives. Alison and Noah—and to an extent, Helen—feel like they fit into the present day story of Noah’s arrest, but Cole feels weirdly divorced from the whole thing here. This is especially strange because the victim is Cole’s brother, and we know so much about Cole’s family. Where was his family at this hearing? What was behind Cole’s pointed glare at Alison when the charges were being read? It’s one thing to raise questions. What The Affair needs to be careful with going forward is making sure we care about the answers.
- I’m curious to see if every two episodes is going to be a complete story now, or if that was just the conceit of the first two episodes in order to introduce Helen and Cole’s perspectives to the show.
- One thing I really loved: Learning that Bruce is divorcing Margaret during Cole’s perspective, by him telling him in the cab. This is one of the great things expanding the perspectives gives the show: A wider range of ways to tell stories about the same group of people.
- Alison’s beach property (and the money tied up in it) is obviously going to be an ongoing plot point in this season, with both Noah and Scotty mentioning its existence in a way that implied they wanted the money from its sale.
- The broken toilet has to be the weirdest story connector this show has used so far.
- I like the framed book covers on the wall, presumably from other writers who have stayed in the cabin to finish their novels. A nice touch.
- In Alison’ perspective, Noah’s book is dedicated to her. If this is not objectively true I might scream out of frustration.
- So Alison knows Noah’s lawyer from somewhere, but it’s not clear where. And she’s not happy at all about Helen hiring him as Noah’s lawyer and no one talking to her about it.
- I spy: Cole with a wedding ring in the present-day scenes.