“What do you see now, when you look at me?” “What do you think I see?”
Up until this point, the story of Noah and Alison’s affair has been firmly intertwined with the story of their respective families. It was all part of the delicate dance to get them to this point; the point where there affair tips from something they are delicately dancing around to something that becomes all-consuming. This is the first episode focused solely on Noah and Alison and the advancement of their relationship, with no family members involved, even if the specter of those family members is still very much felt. It’s the episode The Affair needed to sell Noah and Alison’s affair as the catalyst for the entire series. The question is: Did it work?
That’s a difficult question to answer, simply because the show doesn’t seem to care much about making Noah and Alison a couple to root for. At every turn, they aren’t presented as a great love or even a good match, really, but instead as two people drawn to each other despite the chaos being together will inevitably cause them. It’s clear both Noah and Alison consider their day drip to Block Island their chance to finally consummate their nascent affair, even if it’s something unspoken between them. But The Affair isn’t interested in the act of consummation itself as much as what that act means for the characters. The most important question here, then, isn’t “Did it work?” but “What does it mean?”
From the moment Noah and Alison met, it’s almost as if there was an invisible string connecting them to each other. It is a string they don’t control, and a string they both at times wish they could cut. Most of all, though, it’s a string they both don’t quite understand, and this episode is all about them exploring what their connection means, and why it exists. On the surface, their attraction to each other is simple: For Noah, Alison represents a clean slate, someone who doesn’t have the tethers to his family, the same tethers that drag down his self-esteem. Alison doesn’t see him as someone who could be a better (more commercial) writer, or someone who could make more money, or someone who could support his family better. For Alison, Noah represents someone who doesn’t know her whole tragic life story just by hearing her name or seeing her face. He doesn’t look at her and automatically see death.
There’s a similarity here, and that similarity boils down to emotional freedom. Noah loves his wife and kids, Alison loves Cole (even if she’s less adamant about it in her perspective than Noah is about Helen in his), but they both feel trapped. In that way, the day trip to Block Island is not really a rendezvous to be together as much as it is a rendezvous to get away from themselves, at least the selves they are in Montauk. The problem with running to someone else to escape yourself is that it involves another person, so you must navigate that other person’s thoughts, feelings, and mind in order to do it. This space—between Noah and Alison’s expectations of losing themselves in each other and the reality of the complications this entails—is where this episode shines, as they stutter and start and finally see each other for what feels like the first time.
The most striking thing about this episode, other than the families being entirely absent, is how the perspective shift in the middle of the episode isn’t a restart; it’s a pause. We aren’t seeing Alison’s version of the beginning of the day, we simply pick up right where Noah’s version left off, right in the middle of having sex. It’s a huge stylistic shift, and a necessary one considering they are really the only two characters involved here, so repeating the exact same beats would be more of a narrative drag. Choosing to do the perspective shift during the sex scene is a brilliant, jarring choice, as the scene shifts from Noah’s reluctant excitement to Alison’s own internal struggle as she realizes she’s done something horrible. It’s notable that in his version, Noah continues to think of himself as a good person, and have an almost pathological need to convince someone—perhaps himself—that this affair was an inevitability more than a choice he made. In contrast, Alison doubts her choices but it’s less of her own concern about being a good person, or a good wife, but part of her larger discomfort in her own skin.
If anything, this episode is about the fractured way we get to know other people, and how people reveal themselves to each other one fragmented moment at a time. Noah and Alison spend almost the entire day on Block Island completely out of sync, one minute laughing together and feeling close, and the next minute acting like they are on completely different planets. The both adamantly don’t want to end their own marriages (at least according to Noah’s perspective), both thinking the affair can live almost on a surface level, but only can truly connect once the surface is scratched. As the weeks progress, The Affair is more and more revealing itself as a show about how hard it is to know another person, and the price you pay to have that knowledge. When Alison and Noah first have sex, they’re on completely different pages; note how Noah makes it a point to recognize Alison didn’t orgasm in their first encounter, and Alison contends it doesn’t matter. They both say they had a nice time on Block Island, but is that what we saw? Or did we see two people who keep pushing and pulling at each other trying to find common ground?
The common ground does come, and in turn makes their connection make sense in a way it hasn’t before this episode. You can almost see in Alison’s eyes something crumbling when she hears Noah tell his story about hearing his dead mother’s voice call out to him; as if his telling this story makes it safe for her to tell him about Gabriel. Alison has spent her entire relationship with Noah to this point hiding the reason behind her sadness, but it isn’t until she tells Noah that Gabriel drowned that they finally see each other. And it isn’t until this moment that they ever feel in sync. Her confession unlocks something between them—as evidenced by the final scene of the episode, as they have sex completely present with each other—and that something is the reason this episode works so well. It was necessary to see the journey getting to this point, no matter how messy it was. Now that this is unlocked, how do Noah and Alison reconcile this connection with the rest of their complicated lives? The real world is constantly looming in the background, even if—for this one day—they allowed themselves to forget.
- This week we get a quick glimpse of present-day Noah and Alison outside the interrogation room. Noah has a fairly easygoing conversation with his son about homework, while Alison frantically calls a mystery person to tell them she’s being questioned by the police. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
- Also notable: The detective in Noah’s version is divorced and doesn’t see his kids often, but in Alison’s version he’s happily married for 25 years.
- Interesting: In both versions this week, the little things are the same, such as clothing and the room. It’s as if both Noah and Alison were more attuned to the reality of this memory. No need to fill in the blanks with false details.
- The most compelling small story divergence for me this week was how Noah remembered Alison telling him about Peter Pan calling from the shipwreck, but she remembers telling him a story about a dead boy calling for his mother. Chilling.
- I like that Cole’s giant tattoo gets to work double duty as a character beat for Cole and for Alison, as she explains to Noah how much it hurts to look at it every day. I somewhat doubt she’s ever said that to Cole.