In the very first scene of this episode of The Affair, Noah is teaching his class about Romeo and Juliet. It’s a lively class discussion, distilled down to Noah’s final interpretation of the theme of the play: “Pure love cannot sustain in an imperfect world.”
Whether or not you agree with this interpretation—and it’s been far too long since my own high school reading for me to make an informed decision—it’s certainly an eye-opening statement for this episode, if not the show as a whole. If The Affair is about the purity of love, what love does it consider pure? Is it Noah’s love with Helen, Alison’s love with Cole, or Noah’s love with Alison? Was Noah and Alison’s love the pure thing their imperfect circumstances couldn’t sustain, or was their love the imperfection that imposed on their pure lives? More and more, it seems as if there is no real good answer to these questions, with the questions themselves being the point.
This episode picks up four months after the last, with Christmas looming and the romantic summer haze of Montauk fully transformed into the bitter cold of winter. At first blush it appears Noah’s life is back on track, until the rot around the edges starts to slowly seep in: Helen refuses a “thanks for sticking it out” present, Martin and Whitney are both in crisis, and the therapy Noah and Helen have apparently been in since he revealed his affair still results in contentious sessions. While Noah is ready to be forgiven and move on, insisting Alison meant nothing as a person, and the affair was more a reflection on him than her actually meaning anything to him, Helen’s acceptance is slower going. The therapy scene between the two leads to one of the most interesting moments I’ve seen on television in quite a while. Women on television are rarely afforded the opportunity to be baldy honest when talking about why they selected their mate, or why they got married; romance and love is almost universally the most treasured aspect. Helen’s assessment of why she wanted to marry Noah—he was stable, he was nothing like her father, he adored her, and he would give her a nice, solid life that other people would be jealous of—is shocking in its honesty and no-holds-barred practicality, and feels almost revolutionary to hear. A capable, beautiful, smart woman admitting love was only a small reason why she chose her life partner? Unthinkable.
Noah’s reaction to this, and his subsequent trip to Montauk that was intended to fully prove his trustworthiness in the face of temptation, is where things get complicated. Noah understands why Helen chose him—he’s always understood, really—but his relationship with Helen and his affair with Alison are all jumbled up with his view of his worthiness as a man, and more importantly, as a writer. Noah isn’t writing now that he’s back in the city and trying to save his marriage—or is it because he’s not around Alison, and she’s the one who inspired him? Bruce’s revelation that he once had an Alison, and he feels his choice to stay with his family has affected his creativity ever since, hits Noah like a ton of bricks. Inevitably, Noah sees Alison and gets sucked back into her orbit a bit, giving her a ride to the hospital. But it’s Bruce’s revelation that leads Noah to go beyond that simple ride and go back to be by Alison’s side, if only for a moment, but it’s hard to tell if Noah is looking for Alison or just looking to get the creativity Alison brought him over the summer back.
As for Alison, her marriage is in a much better place. With Cole’s family preparing to sell the ranch and her trying to get pregnant, there’s a naturalness and affection in her marriage that hasn’t been there in the past; it’s easy to see how this was the way their relationship might have been, before Gabriel died. But despite this progress, there’s still much amiss: Cole is distracted by the plans to sell the ranch, and when Alison’s grandmother takes a turn for ill-health, she doesn’t even bother to tell him about it. The gulf that existed before—the one that Alison explained as them living very independent lives—still exists, with Alison eventually relying on Noah for the emotional support she needs to get through the decision to sign a do not resuscitate order for her grandmother. In her version, it’s Noah who makes the connection between Gabriel’s death and her grandmother’s, in a way Cole likely would not be able to do. When they part, with Noah stoically telling her he loves her (and her returning the sentiment) in what feels like a goodbye, more than anything else it feels like Alison leaving the comfort of someone who understands her emotional needs to go back to her status quo of a more neglectful partner.
But the draw of The Affair remains what the format necessitates it withholds: the absolute truth. Did Noah really tell Alison he loves her, and did she say it in return? Or does Noah really believe his affair was all about him, and Alison herself means nothing? That these answers all live somewhere in between writer intention and audience interpretation means that no matter whether the quality of The Affair rises or falls on an episode-by-episode basis, it still remains one of the more distinct shows on the television landscape.
- It looks like time is compressing to slowly catch up with where the detective is in the present day. I still find the transition between the time periods to be too vague and disorienting, but I’m getting used to it.
- Noah’s novel is a bestseller and is going to be made into a film. He’s the Bruce Butler he always wanted to be, huh?
- Noah is so desperately trying to make Martin a mini-him, pushing him to stay in public school to get a “real-life education” despite the troubles he is having. Noah really has difficulty seeing past his own nose sometimes.
- No Oscar was a nice relief, but Cherry was still there to fulfill the sociopath quotient. She is quite the passive aggressive piece of work, flooding the bathroom to potentially delay the sale of the ranch.
- Alison’s catering outfit was practically a nun’s habit in comparison to the dress she was wearing in Noah’s version.
- This Might Matter In The Future: Noah’s book describes The End but he claimed he was never there; Noah had a reservation at The End but it was cancelled very late of the night in question; Scotty’s memorial was delayed for some reason, potentially the police investigation?