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Per tradition, The Affair kills it in its penultimate episode

Photo: Paul Sarkis (CBS)
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This has been such a hit-or-miss Affair season, I’m actually grateful for this episode: a solid reminder of why many of us loved this show so much in the first place. Yes, Helen and Noah’s relationship journey was a bit paint-by-numbers (screaming Virginia Woolf-worthy fight followed by soul-revealing talks then life-threatening moment), as well as being a meta metaphor for the journey relationships take in the first place. Still—like Noah’s confrontation with his prison guard Brendan Fraser in season three, and the two versions of Alison’s death in season four, and Cole and Alison reconnecting in season two—it all added up to one amazing hour of television for the penultimate episode of the season.

Let’s not kid ourselves that the Helen-Noah relationship hasn’t been the main force of this season all along—just a few weeks ago Noah was tracking Helen to a client’s house and begging her to reconcile. This episode was a pretty great way to get them back in the same place. (The danger that Noah and Helen were in is only exacerbated by the thousands of evacuations going on right now related to the Kincade fire in northern California.)

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As the series nears its end, its greatest strength is the almost five seasons that preceded this episode: Our long history with Helen and Noah, their changing perceptions of each other, Noah’s efforts to be a better person after all the damage he’s caused (if that’s even possible), the effect that his actions have had on the kids. It’s also extremely advantageous to have Maura Tierney and Dominic West in these roles, responding and reacting to each other in one of the most vital episodes they’ve ever shared, one in which everything—the kids, Helen’s parents, their various other partners—just fall away and Helen and Noah can actually can climb back to relating to each other as the people they actually are.

That closeness is metered out expertly over the course of the hour in varying levels. After yet another toxic tornado administered by Whitney, who conveniently forgets all the hard work her dad has done over the course of the past week to give her her dream wedding, Noah takes off again. Helen goes after him under the guise of finding Whitney’s birth certificate, but let’s face it, she probably would have tracked him down anyway. Cue the requisite screaming fight, but I have to say, really impressed with West in the emotionality of these scenes, from crying to shouting. His accent slips in a little when he yells, but he perfectly encapsulates the conundrum of Noah: He has fucked up in so many ways that try as he might, it seems impossible for him to dig himself out. That’s why he went to prison in the first place after all: the neverending weight of his guilt. Also the vulnerability of him wanting to stay with his writing because it’s all he has, since he doesn’t have the kids any more. He’s hurtful to Helen, but it seems to be in an effort to help her, to get her out and to safety, even if he has to force her to storm off to do it.

Even the few moments of Ruth Wilson’s voice, and the fleeting, beautiful flashbacks, offer jolting reminders of how much the show has suffered with out her. But Noah’s looks back to his marriage letter and their depositions are so valuable. He rewinds the line, “poor sucker made a bad choice,” which he uses to refer to other people, but realizes that it perfectly applies to himself. As he explains to Helen later, he needed Alison to shift his life into some semblance of vibrancy—unfortunately that revitalization came at the expense of everything else he cared about. Believing that he could get that life back, he heads off to save Helen, who once again blindly trusts the man who has hurt her so many times.

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The hike away from the fire is steeped with so much tantalizing suspense—the climb down the rock face, especially. It’s only Helen’s anger at “mansplaining” that enables her to make it down the wall. But I love how their journey in a way mimics an actual marriage: threats on all sides (how scary was that shot of the approaching fire?), putting all your trust and vulnerability in someone, figuring out B-plans in case something happens to one of you, climbing out of a ravine when times are low, working things out when the peaks and valleys are a bit smoother. To my mind, they could have dispensed with the numerous “Can I ask you a question” intros, but otherwise their relationship hike talk was a necessary balm over years of hurt and betrayal and disappointment. Again, the actors’ ease with each other completely sold those conversational moments that in lesser hands could have come off as hokey.

But Noah’s still not going to get out of this all that easily, and savvy viewers should have had a sense of foreboding as soon as Helen said that she wanted to sit down. So Noah is tasked with saving Helen’s life by carrying her a mile to the main road, finally fulfilling his penance.

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As The Affair has already offed a female lead, I honestly wasn’t sure if they were going to go for the old “too little, too late,” heart-wrenching ending. And I’m sure we all had a mini heart attack when we saw this:

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But, apparently The Affair has decided that, like Noah, we have all suffered enough. I suspect that the series will end with Noah and Helen together, as the promo photos have hinted from the beginning (although I really hate the out of proportion Photoshopping to try to make it look like Noah and Helen are closer in height than they really are). But after this episode, I feel a lot better about that outcome. Noah and Helen will come full circle, but as almost entirely different people than they were however many years ago.

Photo: Andrew Eccles (Showtime)
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Stray observations

  • Did not know that Tesla has a “bioweapon defense mode.” But I’m still not sure how Helen wound up with Sasha’s car anyway. “I’m storming out of here, but I’m taking your car with me!” Honestly, his vanity license plate should be reason enough for Helen to dump his ass. R.I.P. DaMann1.
  • Calls to the kids would have disrupted the flow of the episode, but I felt bad that they were probably freaking out that whole time.
  • Way to sneak that “I was screaming into the canyon at the moment of my death” reference in there, The Affair.
  • Damn, Helen’s version of Whitney is quite a little hellion.
  • Next week: Last one, guys. Whitney’s wedding, I guess? I suppose saving her mother’s life will get Noah back on the guest list. And I get that we have to go back to Montauk and wrap up this Joanie situation, but I’m really not looking forward to it. But am looking forward to your final Affair thoughts, see you then.
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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.