What makes a good man? What makes a great one? And is it possible to be both at the same time? These are the questions Noah is wrestling with following his descent to rock bottom in the previous episode, and what are retroactively framed as the questions he has been wrestling with since first beginning his affair with Alison. But is Noah’s self-reflectiveness enough to bring his story full circle?
After the extreme melodrama of the hurricane episode, The Affair wisely calms things down by doing something completely out of character: Spending the entire first half of the episode with Noah talking to his couples’ therapist, one-on-one. It’s a clever setup that allows the show to dispatch with both a large amount of exposition (it’s been a year since the last episode’s fateful hurricane) and a large amount of implied character development. The conversation goes in a lot of directions—at times feeling like an information dump of all the things we’ve been missing about Noah Solloway—but eventually settles into where it was headed all along, a musing on Noah’s feelings about what it means to be a good man, and his struggle to reconcile those feelings with the man he actually is in his day-to-day life.
This could be obnoxious, and Noah’s feelings about the differences between being a good man and a great one are certainly frustrating at times, but the boldness of the writers to use such a static format to explore feelings that have previously only been shown manifest as reprehensible actions pays significant dividends. It turns out that despite spending the past year making amends with Alison about missing the birth of their child, Noah still hasn’t resolved any of his core inner conflicts about who he is or who he wants to be. Like with Descent, he’s attempting to work through it in the writing of his next novel, a historical-based fiction novel about a World War II general, the quintessential “great” man, but a great man who also had an affair with movie star Marlene Dietrich. Noah’s main conflict is this: He wants to be a “good” family man, the man who loves his wife and is a good father to his kids; it’s the kind of man his dad wasn’t, and the kind of man he always considered himself to be. But he also wants to be a “great” man, the kind of man history books will remember, the kind of man who can go to Paris for a year to write a book and sleep around and generally not care about anything but himself and his work. Noah is stuck in absolutes, convinced there’s no way to be both at the same time or at least not willing to make the sacrifices required to be one or the other.
It’s because of this inner conflict that Noah hasn’t yet told Alison he’s officially divorced even though he’s had the signed papers for weeks. It’s because of this conflict that he has a pattern of constantly thinking that all the women in his life are passing judgment on him. It’s because of this conflict that he was so willing to sleep with his publicist, and why he now feels like he could very easily sleep with one of his more receptive students. Instead of deciding that he’s a good man and acting accordingly like he did for the 20 years he was married to Helen, he’s now convinced himself that he’s either not a good man or being a good man isn’t as interesting as being a great one, and doesn’t know where he ultimately wants to end up. Noah’s essential struggle is that, to him, it feels like being a good man to the people in his life who love him most is far less interesting than being considered a great man by the countless strangers who read his book. Despite talking it over at length with his therapist, by the end of the episode he’s no closer to figuring out the answer, but at least we’re closer to understanding all of the internal questions and conflicts that have driven his character throughout the season.
Skipping forward in time allows for an extremely condensed yet needed character catchup for Noah, but it does illustrate one of the problems with The Affair, which is that it isn’t really interested in its characters unless they are in crisis. Noah even essentially puts a pin on this fact, telling his therapist that he and Alison have “gotten past the crisis” and are mostly doing well again. Yet we were given nothing but crisis, with all of Noah’s penance and the tricky renegotiation of his relationship with Alison happening entirely offscreen, reduced to a few sentences of exposition. Now that the story has picked up one year later—and the story is careening toward the present-day trial—Noah and Alison are in a state of flux again, with Noah specifically questioning Alison’s commitment to their relationship. Only wanting to deal with characters when they are in a state of flux is understandable, as it gives the required narrative and emotional drive for a good story, but it can be exhausting to watch, as Noah’s story has been over most of the season.
As for Alison, her conflicts are far less defined here and much more implied. She’s studying to be a doctor in an attempt to fulfill a childhood dream, but struggling with the coursework required to get her there. She’s missing her couples’ therapy appointments and giving lame excuses. She feels undone, and that feeling comes into high relief when she runs into a strung-out Scotty, there to pitch her on buying the Lobster Roll. Scotty’s appearance—and Alison’s whole perspective in general—mostly exists to function as plot advancement rather than character advancement for Alison, as the show barrels toward either the reveal that Cole is little Joanie’s father, or the reveal that someone killed Scotty over his insistence that this was the case. (The former feels more likely, but until it’s revealed I’m keeping my options open.) Scotty meets Joanie and seems to immediately suspect that it’s Cole’s baby, and in the present day Noah’s lawyer opens up the paternity test he had done and appears very surprised. It’s all leading somewhere, and none of the places it’s leading look like they are very good for Alison.
Decidedly happier than Alison is Cole, who has moved to Greenpoint to be with Luisa and has pretty much completely severed ties with his family. He’s so happy it’s almost unnerving, for both Alison and for the audience, as the last time we saw him he was tearfully burning down their house. Most of all, it’s shocking to see such a generally nice, relaxed scene in the midst of a show that’s usually filled with some sort of emotional tension. Even Alison’s unease is more endearing than anything else, even if that unease is potentially hiding a big, dark secret. But what would the characters on The Affair even be if there wasn’t something bigger and more complicated lurking just underneath the exterior?
- Noah’s lawyer calls Noah a good man during his defense. He can’t seem to get away from that label and what it means.
- Helen is still with Dr. Ullah, so his scenes last week make much more sense in retrospect, especially when taken in concert with Noah’s struggle to determine how to be a good man.
- Cynthia Nixon is perfect casting for the therapist. She has a sort of authoritative, centered presence that immediately makes her trustworthy.
- Noah remembers coming home from therapy to only Alison and telling her he had the therapy session without her. Alison remembers coming home to a bustling house and Noah telling her he saw Captain America instead of continuing the session without her. I would chalk it up to unimportant differing memories, but Noah mentioned going to see Captain America instead of staying in the session to his therapist, which is an intriguing overlap.
- “Would General Bradley conquered Normandy if he was at home changing diapers?” Ugh, Noah.