For Cole and Alison, most of this season has been about moving on with their lives, away from the place where they first fell apart. Montauk has been a character in The Affair since the beginning, existing as this almost prototypical mythological place that existed as both the keeper of Alison’s secrets and the symbol of Noah’s restlessness. In season two, Montauk shifted to also become a character in Noah’s book, and within this shifting place is where Cole and Alison find themselves stuck, wanting to move on from their past there but not really knowing how.
The turning point of the season was obviously the hurricane, which might have resulted in a frustrating episode but it at least fueled significant plot and character development from that point forward. That was the night Cole finally moved on from his connection to Montauk and decided to make a new life in the city with Luisa. That was the night Alison stopped waiting for her life with an absent Noah to fully satisfy her and started to look within herself. But while Cole and Alison both seem at least content with their lives in the city (Cole more so than Alison, perhaps), there’s something about Montauk that acts like a gravitational pull, dragging them back to where everything first went wrong.
Cole’s journey back to Montauk is much easier to track from point A to point B, simply because he has so many obvious ties that remain. As much as Cole wants to exit the orbit of his family’s crazy, The Affair has taken great pains to paint Montauk as a place the locals can’t quite seem to let go of, even while they are surrounded by outsiders who threaten to take everything away. The textual example of this within the show has always been the Lobster Roll, which was the symbol of Cole’s attempts to hold onto the soul of Montauk in season one, and then serves as the conduit to his return to Montauk here in season two. The present-day scenes revealed very early on in the season that Cole bought the restaurant out from under Oscar—and Scotty—and this episode mostly serves to finally put all those pieces together. He did buy the restaurant, but the key piece missing was that Alison is his business partner. Luisa and Noah might view this as a reversion of sorts, with Cole and Alison returning to a past they had ostensibly let go of, but after the events of the hurricane it feels much more like a maturity of their former relationship than anything else. They are both coming home, but it is in a way that moves them forward rather than holding them back.
This episode is as much about Alison moving on as Cole, but interestingly the writers chose to tell her half of the story through Noah rather than Alison herself. Alison is very briefly seen, only showing up to tell Noah she wants to talk to him about something and then disappearing for most of the episode while Noah wonders exactly what is going on. It’s a neat parallel of what Alison’s life was like while Noah was off promoting his book, but Noah is far too wrapped up in what her disappearance means for him to realize any sort of similarity. Noah’s journey into trying to figure out Alison’s headspace leads him to realize she has been lying to him about attending classes, and she’s so unreachable that Noah assumes this is it; this is the moment she is leaving him.
Noah’s fears are corroborated when he gets a text from Oscar showing Cole and Alison together at the auction. Oscar is a ridiculous character who only serves to either move the plot forward or help people come to some great realization about themselves, but for some reason his presence always works despite this fact. It’s Oscar who forces Noah to see the truth: That he doesn’t know the real Alison, no really, because he doesn’t understand Montauk. Noah is a tourist in Montauk, and that idea of tourism extends to how he views Alison; she’s more of a construct he created in his mind than the actual living, breathing person in front of him. When Noah finally meets up with her at the end, all of this is confirmed throughout their conversation. Alison buying the Lobster Roll without talking to him is a horrible thing; this much is true. But the reasons she did it hint at a much deeper problem, one Noah still can’t quite see. This is why it was so important to see Alison’s journey through his eyes in this episode, so we can see just how far Noah and Alison have drifted apart. All Noah can do is repeat Alison’s plan to become a doctor over and over again, even after she tells him that was an old dream that she realized she no longer wants. Noah found Alison when she was in a state of complete stasis following Gabriel’s death. Now that she’s finally moving forward to try to become a full person again, can he reconcile himself with the person she is becoming?
Noah’s most crucial interaction in this episode isn’t actually with Alison at all, however; it’s his conversation with Max that really resonates. The last time we saw Max, Noah was chasing him away from his new, fancy life on the night of the hurricane. Now Noah needs Max’s help, so he shows up on the doorstep of Max’s new house in Montauk. For Max, it’s a crystallization of their entire dynamic: Noah shows up only when he’s in crisis, and never gives Max anything back in return. All Max wants is an actual friendship, but that hope ends forever when Noah realizes that Max had a relationship with Helen. “You fucked my wife?” is a reductive statement, but appropriate as Noah only sees things how they relate to him. For Max’s part, all he wants to do is understand how he can give and give—monetarily, sure, but give—and Noah just takes and takes, and yet people run away from him and flock to Noah. Once again, Noah doesn’t see what’s lurking behind Max’s query, the sadness and loneliness, but only sees Max as how he perceives him; a worthless person who is only good for other people because he can provide for them. It’s a fantastic scene, complex and layered and wonderfully acted by both Josh Stamberg and Dominic West, and is wonderful at showing just how deep Noah’s self-involved pathology runs.
This scene is also the key to what might be Noah’s downfall, as far as the present day storyline is concerned. Max testifying that he saw Noah wash off his car’s bumper the night Scotty was run down is a brutal thing for a former friend to do. Coming forward to volunteer the information to the prosecution is even worse. Yet it all feels of a piece, the final step in Noah’s own descent that he brought upon himself. Noah might not have killed Scotty, but it certainly seems like all of his actions might be conspiring to bring him down for it anyway.
- Harry wanting a series of Descent novels is fantastic, as is Harry basically telling Noah that maybe he’s a populist writer and not some great literary mind. Harry obviously has his own self-interest here, but it is certainly good to hear someone call Noah out on his writer ego bullshit.
- Luisa meeting Cherry at the hotel has to be a top ten awkward in-law meeting of all time. Yikes.
- I really loved Margaret’s small scene, where she points out all of the horrible ties the Lockhart family has to hers but offers forgiveness. I guess anyone can change if their lives fall apart spectacularly enough.
- Cole agreeing to bring Scotty on if he gets rehab is only going to go horribly, awfully wrong. Cole says he wants to get away from his family but buying the Lobster Roll and agreeing to work with Scotty says differently.