Last week’s episode of The Affair felt like it might be a turning point for the show, but it is this week’s that proves it to be true. The Affair came on strong with an audacious, thrilling pilot and then almost held back for a few episodes, content to keep coasting on the feeling of the pilot while still meticulously building just enough bits and pieces of Alison and Noah’s separate lives to keep things compelling. Still, it wasn’t until the show spent an episode with just Alison and Noah together, detailing and ultimately cementing their connection, that it got all the pieces it needed to tell a complete story about their lives, both separately and together. Episode four was about Alison and Noah as their own distinct entity; episode five explores how this entity coexists with their already established lives. That exploration—coupled with some interesting revelations in the mystery framework—makes for an extremely satisfying episode.

Alison and Noah’s differing perspectives serve many purposes, but the most obvious one this week is how simply moving Alison’s story before Noah’s changes the feel of the episode. Noah’s story is usually filled with lots of noise—kids, wife, in-laws—but Alison’s home life with Cole is a much more still affair. The opening scene succinctly summarizes pretty much everything you need to know about the state of Cole and Alison’s marriage: She rebuffs his offer to spend time together (by using an excuse of not sleeping that was surely true many times in the past), then after he leaves happily bounds out of bed to get ready to meet Noah. When he returns to retrieve his forgotten surf wax, he catches her in her lie but says nothing. All you need is the look on Cole’s face, and his tacit “I love that dress on you” to know everything you need to know about him, and their marriage. Little scenes like this are so essential when we only get Alison’s perspective on Cole’s personality; surely, her guilt affects her memory of his reaction, but it also gives a tenderness to Cole that contrasts how he’s described or seen at other times.

The biggest change for Alison this week is that despite all of the building stressors we see in her life, she seems truly happy during her perspective for the first time. She smiles with Noah, she relaxes with him and she feels free in a way we haven’t seen before, like the final scene of last week’s episode unlocked something inside of her. The show smartly picks this moment of happiness to have her mother Athena return to drop some chaos into Alison’s life, and also drop some hard truths. Athena is certainly not an original character—a reiki practicing, world traveling, free spirit and self-professed healer who has very little patience for people who are interested in a more traditional life. Meeting her is like seeing Alison in photo negative; it’s immediately clear why Alison is so staunchly pragmatic, and why that pragmatism suddenly feels like a noose around her neck. Athena is that type of narcissist where her mother’s Alzheimer’s becomes about her somehow, and how Alison choosing to stay in Montauk rather than travel the world with her feels like the biggest betrayal of her life.

What Athena’s presence does do is give the writers an opportunity to flesh out a bit more of the Lockhart family dynamic, and things there are not as solid as they previously seemed. Cole’s speech at the town hall meeting might have been fully supported by his brothers, but those same brothers are apparently in constant conflict with him over whether or not to sell the family ranch. And then there’s Cole’s mother Cherry, who remains the strangely, subtly manipulative presence in the middle of it all. Cherry is the one who controls the ranch, but she deflects and says “it’s up to my boys” when asked if she will sell. She’s the one who has supposedly always been Alison’s rock throughout the years, but when Athena shows up she takes that moment to pointedly give Alison her old wedding ring so Athena will feel even more ostracized. There’s something bubbling under the surface of the Lockhart family, just waiting to boil over.

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This truly is the supporting players’ week to shine, as Noah’s perspective also features some great moments with both Helen and Whitney. The perspectives this week are distinct in that we are seeing the same day—and sometimes seeing the same scene—but those scenes are so incredibly different that at the end of the episode it almost feels like a puzzle to be solved: How does the day fit together? Were those even the same scenes? The overlapping scenes were full of distinctly different clothes, distinctly different sexual encounters, and distinctly different conversations. Was it Noah and Alison’s other distractions that day that made their memories differ, or is there something else going on here?

In Noah’s perspective, his day is almost solely consumed with covering up the tracks of his affair. His idea to slip out for a run is stymied when Helen requests bagels, which turns into Noah trying to stall for time, which turns into him having to rush home due to an emergency. Things would have been fine, however, if he hadn’t gotten a flat tire and then run into Oscar while he was waiting for the emergency service to come and change it. If there’s one concern about this episode and about the narrative going forward, it is Oscar and how he’s being inserted as slightly cartoonish villain in the midst of all of these extremely realistic performances. Oscar obviously has beef with the Lockharts, he’s been attuned to something off between Alison and Noah, and he’s even been mentioned by Noah as someone for the detective to talk to, but this is the first time what he’s doing has felt a little forced. This is definitely one of the limitations of the dual perspective format, as there’s truly no way to know anything about Oscar’s character beyond how his actions appear to Noah and Alison, and his behavior during most of Noah’s perspective was just pushy and strange. But maybe that’s the point: If he’s setting things up so he can use information about Noah and Alison’s affair to hurt Cole, this might just be the first step.

When he isn’t it is consumed with the lies he’s telling to Helen, Noah is almost solely dealing with Whitney. Whitney has been one of the small casualties of the single perspective device so far, only getting the chance to be the “spoiled brat” teenagers with very little shading. That shading finally comes here when she does something a horrible, spoiled-brat teenager would do: She and her friends bully a girl over social media so harshly that the girl tries to kill herself. Whitney is horrific about it when confronted, and a horrified Noah immediately wants her to write an apology letter and go visit the girl. Like all things, however, once Bruce hears what is going on it becomes far less about Whitney’s actions and far more about the family protecting themselves, which horrifies Noah even more.

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Noah’s story of his values vs. his in-laws’ money hits pretty much the same beats every week, but this episode finally feels like the time where we can see exactly how Helen fits into this picture. Noah rejects everything about the entitlement his in-laws’ money gives his family, but his wife doesn’t; she sees her parents’ money as essentially their money as well, and this continued conflict is what eats away at Noah. As she says, why not take more money when it will all be hers someday anyway? Noah, on the other hand, is obsessed with the idea of raising children that money doesn’t taint in some way, but this is a zero sum game when he accepts the very money that he feels is ruining them. It can’t be a coincidence that Whitney remains completely remorseless around Helen and the in-laws and only accepts some sort of responsibility for her actions when she’s one-on-one with Noah. He sees himself as the moral North Pole of this family, but that moral high ground is slipping away with every time he sneaks away to see Alison.

Also not a coincidence: That the episode ends with Noah and Alison together in bed, completely in sync in a way they aren’t with their actual families right now. When Noah asks Alison to run away with him and she agrees, it might not be something they desperately mean but it’s definitely something they desperately want, at least in that moment. Sometimes, the wanting is enough.

Stray observations:

  • So it is Scotty who died, and both Alison and Noah appeared to lie to the detective at the end of their interrogation scene, or at least feel nervous about the question they were asked. Hmm.
  • Joshua Jackson, Maura Tierney, Julia Goldani Telles, and Dierdre O’Connell all did wonderful work in this episode. Bringing a character to life that’s solely seen though someone else’s eyes is a tough task.
  • Favorite shot this week: The close up of Alison opening the door to Phoebe’s house, like she’s opening the door to another life.
  • Interesting: Oscar’s personality is exactly the same in both Alison and Noah’s perspective. Guess he really is that much of an ass.
  • This Might Matter In The Future: Noah asks Alison if she is on the pill, Oliver is “expecting a delivery” from Scotty, Oliver used to hang out at Helen’s house when they were younger.

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