Well, that was certainly something.
This is an episode full of important firsts for The Affair. The first time the show drops the perspective device. The first time all four main characters have separate stories in one episode. And for the first time, I don’t quite know what to think about it all.
When a show breaks in format so drastically, there is an obvious purpose behind it. Whether it’s a one-episode diversion or a permanent change, shifting storytelling devices in the middle of a show’s run is a decision that can lead to both great and horrible things, depending on the execution. The Affair’s decision to drop its perspective device in this episode is a deliberate, momentous decision, even if it does turn out to be a one-time thing. The part that’s more difficult to parse is what the episode itself actually means.
The episode is designed to ease us into the structural change: It starts with a timestamp signaling that it’s noon in New York, and that a hurricane is on its way toward the area. From there, it branches out to show where each character is throughout the storm, starting with Alison entering early labor, then transitioning to Helen, then Noah, before switching to an intercut story between Alison’s labor and Cole back in Montauk. Like the hurricane building over New York, the episode itself builds to the birth of Alison’s baby, with the hurricane reaching the height of its power just as the baby is born, then breaking and transitioning to a peaceful new day the next morning as the baby is cuddled in Alison’s arms. The hurricane itself serves as both a substitute framing device, tying the four stories together, and a significant plot driver in each of the four individual stories themselves, Noah’s in particular.
This episode represents what seems to suggest a breaking point in Noah’s downward spiral into becoming a completely irredeemable asshole, but getting him to that point in the episode was certainly unpleasant. Yet again, Noah is ignoring Alison for something involving his book (this time meeting a big Hollywood producer and George Clooney about adapting it, which, no way) and yet again, he gets so caught up in his own hype that he ends up stranded at a ridiculous party, wasted, with no way to get home and his far-too-tempting publicist throwing herself at him again. He ends up tediously wandering through the party, high out of his mind, and only snaps out of it when he ends up naked in a hot tub watching two women make out—and realizes one of them is Whitney. This is apparently the one thing that can snap him out of his stupidity and make him realize how far he’s strayed from his actual life, his actual self, but it’s too late. The hurricane has him stranded, with endless missed calls on his phone from Alison, a complete failure in his personal life.
The problem with Noah’s story this entire season isn’t that Noah is an asshole; assholes can be compelling, vibrant people to watch on screen (and his story has been this at times, for sure). It’s that if this was his ultimate destination, if everything he’s been experiencing was leading up to this moment of realization and him sobbing in his stranded car, unable to get to Alison, it feels empty. If breaking from the perspectives in this episode is meant to garner any sort of sympathy for Noah, it ends up doing the exact opposite. Noah deserves to be sobbing in that car, yet watching him sob in that car feels ultimately hollow, almost like he’s going through the motions of what he should be feeling rather than actually feeling the emotions themselves.
As for Alison and Cole, their stories are intrinsically connected, as Alison delivers her baby and Cole says goodbye to the house they shared with Gabriel. While Noah’s story was simply kind of tedious, it’s these two stories where the episode goes off the rails. Alison spends the storm laboring alone, pleading for Noah to be at her side, with that pleading ultimately transitioning into her fear over not wanting this baby. Meanwhile, Cole is in his own Cole world, waiting out the storm at the beach house in Montauk and doing what he does best: pushing other people away. As always, his anger is directly connected to Gabriel’s death and to his family; this time, it happens when he learns Luisa can’t have children, which reinforces everything his mother told him about the Lockhart curse. It’s at this point when at least Luisa is allowed to diagnose Cole’s greatest failing: That he always blames everyone else around him for the things wrong in his life, and never takes responsibility.
It’s at this point where the episode turns from literal to the more metaphorical, and not all that successfully. As the hurricane rages on, Alison toils away in labor, and Cole sits in their old house growing sadder and angrier. Alison vocalizes her fears about the new baby, while Cole sees Gabriel one last time, out in the storm. When Alison delivers, Gabriel disappears for good—and Cole burns down their house, the last vestiges of the family they shared together. It’s obviously meant to be powerful and emotional, but it comes off as more melodramatic and silly. It tries to dig deep, but these emotions have already been explored to exhaustion, so there’s so little left for them to grab onto. It’s framed as catharsis—as evidenced by the more calm, calculating demeanor Alison has the next morning—but catharsis should be satisfying, and like Noah’s crying jag in the rain, the depth here never quite lands.
The biggest question going forward for The Affair is what does all this mean? What was the purpose of the format break? Is this simply about bringing all the characters to a tipping point at the same time? What is the significance of the intercutting between Alison’s baby being born and Cole mourning no more Lockhart children? Is this the both of them saying goodbye to Gabriel for good, or unknowingly sharing another child together? This episode asks a lot of questions, and answers none. It’s an intriguing concept, but doesn’t quite have the emotional weight to carry all the unanswered questions it leaves behind, making this not quite work as a single episode as well as it should. Here’s hoping the next episode can help fill in the details.
- Helen’s story doesn’t feel like it quite fits in here. What does her encounter with Dr. Ullah give to her character, other than allowing her to voice how she feels about being a mother and reaffirm her already-known feelings about her divorce?
- Small thing I loved: That the asshole Hollywood producer hated Max the asshole Wall Street trader. Assholes from different worlds don’t mix, apparently.
- Luisa’s story about how she became infertile is actually quite sad, if you can hear it over the sound of Cole’s ringing head. He certainly couldn’t.
- “The world does not revolve around your pain.” Tell them, Luisa. Tell them all.