Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

It’s surprising, and heartening when a show like The Affair, which sometimes gets bogged down in its own headiness, can turn out its best-ever episode in its fourth season. Can still offer an unexpected plot twist, and even draw on its own duplicitous viewpoints to add some mystery to that event. Last season I mostly had fun poking fun at Noah’s assholery and Professor SexFrench, until Brendan Fraser blew me away with his guest spots as the menacing/not menacing prison guard. Season four surpassed even that.

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So it’s a bit disheartening when the season-four finale opens up with a straight-up Noah Solloway wankfest. Granted, it’s from Noah’s perspective (“You’re the reason I became a writer,” says the exuberant college kid), but I spent the whole first section of the episode basically praying that Noah wasn’t going to hook up with Ariel. (Also cringing at college words that I highly doubt are used anymore, like “woke.”) Noah seems as surprised as anyone when the college writers compliment his female characters. It’s Anton who in fact has Noah’s number, noting correctly that Noah moves “through the world like it was a woman who belonged to me.” (Ariel gets a good dig in as well: “If I remember correctly, you were hard to emasculate.”)

Anton also has an excellent question for Noah: Why is he at Princeton? Is he hiding from the fact that Alison is dead? Is he trying to prove Cole wrong that he can actually follow through on something? Does he really feel that much responsibility to Anton (and his mom)? Fortunately, season four’s best new character points out to Noah that he really needs to deal with what he’s been avoiding: Alison’s death.

For Cole, it’s the opposite: He is completely immersed in his grief. He’s barely able to control his rage toward Luisa because she’s still alive and in his life and Alison is not. He can’t even open up enough to show some sympathy and compassion for Athena, who is burying her own child. His running away with Alison’s urn would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic.

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Cole’s conversation with his mom (Mare Winningham) at the cemetery is a high point of the episode. Surrounded by the deaths of his father, his son, and now his wife, Cole struggles to find footing, and Cherry is there to give it to him. It’s beautiful writing (by staff writer Katie Robbins and showrunner Sarah Treem), descriptions of people like Alison who were made mostly of air, seemingly too ethereal for this world. Cole despairs that he won’t be able to handle that burden, But Cherry convinces him that he can by reminding him of Joanie (tellingly, Luisa’s name is omitted from their conversation), and Cole, who, as we know, always wants to do the right thing, will stay with Luisa so that she can get her citizenship, and be there for Joanie. It’s a move that fits right into Cole’s martyr playbook, and I worry that he will never find love again. But his love for Alison was so all-consuming and epic (perfectly exemplified in that post-coital flashback), maybe he’s probably decided that that part of his life is over anyway.

There are all kinds of grief, and The Affair takes a Six Feet Under turn this episode, by showing how death makes life important. Alison’s sudden demise rocks Cole’s world to the core, and shakes up Noah’s psyche. But dealing with a terminally ill partner is a long, drawn-out version of that same process, and Maura Tierney expertly kicks ass yet again as Helen, who is somehow shouldering all of Vic’s burden, as well as her whole family, and his, not even getting time to change out of a vomit-stained shirt. She can give Vic what he needs because she has to, and Noah confirms what we all know: She’s strong enough to do so. She’s even formidable enough to process that Sierra’s pregnancy (a soap-opera twist that nearly everyone saw coming a mile away) as the gift that it actually is. Helen’s smile at the end of the episode, I think, is her realization that she’s stronger than she knew, and when this is all over, she will pick up her life and move forward.

After all, the show’s central conceit is how different people’s perceptions color things differently. A big portion of that is how other people see us. Anton’s spot-on yet cynical portrait of Noah enrages him. For both Helen and Cole, the fact that the people who know them best think that they’re strong enough to get through these terrible times is exactly what they need to draw the strength to do so.

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Directed by Rodrigo García, this episode is framed by those three key conversations: Anton and Noah, Cole and Cherry, and Helen and Noah. They’re all shot in tight close-up, to underline that valuable intimacy. But a life-affirming theme resonates, especially in the last two: We’re lucky to be alive. It’s a gift that we take for granted, especially if we get fed up like Whitney about how everything is so unfair all the time. It makes Ariel selection for a writing prompt even more appropriate: Nothing is as life-affirming as Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. We all contain multitudes. Ariel wants the writing kids to find a character who contains a paradox, but that’s a bit of a misdirect: We all do.

Whitman also enthused:

“I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

This episode of The Affair attempts to convince us that it’s not just the fact that we’re alive, but the connections we make while we’re here. Noah has undeniably changed the course of Anton’s life. Cherry has likely saved Cole from a fate like his father’s. Noah and Helen—after all the anger and grief of their relationship, and who, let’s remember, started the season almost completely at odds—still depend on each other. It means a lot—to Helen, to Noah—to have someone know you that well. The Affair usually dives so deep internally, it’s another heartening move to have the show looking outward for once in this finale.

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It would make for a great series finale (although a season five is looming), except for the mystery that still surrounds Alison’s death. I fear that that’s the thread that will tie season five together. I am dubious, but if this season has taught me anything, it’s that I really should give The Affair the benefit of the doubt.

Finale grade: B+

Season grade: B+

Stray observations

  • Did you guys see this article about how Ruth Wilson is not allowed to tale about why she left The Affair? Has to be because of the pay discrepancy, right?
  • “You’re not the only one who loved her.” “Don’t I know it.” Much as I would like Noah and Cole to spend the rest of their lives together, the affair the show is based on is always going to get in the way.
  • I did not know that Rodrigo García is the son of novelist Gabriel García Márquez.
  • “It’s Thanksgiving.” “Is it?” Whitney’s single scene this season is quintessentially Whitney.
  • The Affair in a nutshell: “Everybody’s so fucking crazy.” “Yeah.”
  • Thanks so much for watching this season with me, you guys. As I mentioned, it was a lot more entertaining than I was expecting, and your comments just make it all the better. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the finale below.

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