The Affair excels when dealing with the intimate. One-on-one scenes crackle with life, the small observations of the ugliness around the edge of an affair resonate, sex scenes are filled with deliberate character intention, and, most significantly, the way personal experiences bias perception are well rendered. What it is less successful at navigating is the business of story mechanics, which is an issue that has been slowly increasing in intensity as the season progresses, right up until it nearly explodes in this messy, weird, hard-to-parse penultimate episode. It’s the kind of episode that forces the question: What kind of show is The Affair trying to be?
When the show started, it felt as if the events were almost happening inside of a dream. It was driven almost solely by emotional and character beats, with almost all of the story progression happening in the interrogation framing device. As that device has gone away and Noah and Alison’s lives move from the gauzy dream of a shared Montauk affair to the brutal reality of their actual lives, the show has at times suffered under the collective weight of all the story that surrounds these lives, and no more so than in episode nine. Looking at it on an episodic level only, this installment feels like a bizarre failure. Looking at the progression of the series up to this point is a much more compelling angle. Other than the device of seeing events through both Noah and Alison’s eyes, this is a very different series than what was presented in the pilot. What I’m still struggling with is if I think it is an equally good series, or if the initial magic is gone.
Let’s get down to what doesn’t really work about this episode, because it is unfortunately quite a bit. When we last saw Noah and Alison they had just reunited after four months, and while Noah seemed to be struggling with whether or not Alison really meant something to him, Alison was still obviously very much in Noah’s thrall. The episode ended with Noah and Alison declaring their love for each other, but because it was in Alison’s perspective, it was hard to tell if it was real or just her wishful thinking. Episode nine picks up like that uncertainty never existed, with Alison’s perspective gleefully showing the two meeting up in Brooklyn for a rendezvous of the illicit-sex variety. It’s the most loving and happy we’ve seen them since the period where they were sleeping together at Alison’s friend’s house, in a purposeful way: It not only reestablishes the affair, but moves it beyond the idea of a summer fling to a mutual love connection that both want to explore. There’s talk of leaving spouses and setting up studio apartments and of real momentum in the relationship for the first time.
What works about this sequence—in both perspectives—is what always works about the series: the intimate moments, especially the more fraught ones. Alison’s furtive use of Helen’s shampoo, her pause when she sees Noah frantically changing the sheets, and her incredulity when Noah seems to want to set her up in a tiny studio like a kept woman all tinge this happiness with the appropriate dread. For Noah, it’s the sex scene (in which Alison promises to be his, filling the gaps of what he’s been missing from Helen) and his scene with Max (where he finally voices his feelings for Alison while Max throws practicality back in his face). These moments make the affair itself feel like a lived-in character in the show, rather than just a plot spinning toward chaos.
Less successful is what is happening around the margins of Noah and Alison’s lives, simply because it all seems to be spiraling so fast into a big ball of plot-related nausea. The throwing up Whitney was doing last week means she’s pregnant (wisely predicted by all of you), and Noah suspects Scotty is the father after stalking Whitney’s Planned Parenthood appointment. Cherry’s weirdness about selling the ranch turns out to be because it’s practically owned by the bank due to her reckless refinancing. Alison running into Oscar in a vulnerable moment leads to them sleeping together, because sure. Noah sees someone commit suicide, which compels him to tell Helen he wants a separation. As this is happening, Alison tells Cole she has to leave him and leave Montauk, resulting in Alison, Cole, and Noah accidentally and awkwardly meeting up in the Montauk train station. Oh, and on top of it all, the detective is back in the interrogation room and he has some very specific questions for Noah.
It’s a snowball of plot, so much soapy, manipulative plot, too much and way too fast for one episode to sustain without crumbling under the weight. It’s almost as if the echoes of the breezier, emotionally-based episodes at the beginning of the series are ghosts of these characters who are now swallowed up by the business of having to get shit done. It very much could be an aberration—penultimate episodes are notorious for being stuffed with plot in order to get to the place where the finale can bring things home—but it feels like the end of a progression, and not one that is a positive shift for the series.
To be fair, although the episode was overstuffed, over-soaped, and overdone, there were moments of wonderful brilliance and insight. The scene where Noah tells Helen he is leaving her is a tremendous showcase for Maura Tierney, who continues to infuse Helen with the necessary layers to make Noah’s story work even as he’s becoming an increasingly difficult character to care about. Alison’s scenes with her doctor where she blames herself for Gabriel’s death (by secondary drowning, which is an interesting revelation and very informative of her immense guilt) are stunning. These scenes don’t exist in some sort of vacuum; they are a vital piece of the puzzle here, and keep the hour from feeling more confused than it already does. It’s just that what surrounds them feels so facile in comparison, and in a way the show hasn’t felt before.
There’s a moment in Noah’s storyline where he tells Max that Whitney is potentially pregnant by the brother-in-law of the woman he is having an affair with, and all Max can do is chuckle incredulously. In that moment, Max is very much an audience surrogate, shaking his head at the insane way all of this has snowballed all at once. Of course, Noah ignores all of Max’s very practical advice, after seeing someone jump off a building and having a police officer on the scene say it’s easy to just make “a choice.” The Affair made a lot of choices in this episode, but it won’t be until next week’s finale that we truly see if any of them were fatal.
- So Alison is currently having sex with Cole, Noah, and Oscar, creating quite the daytime soap three-way paternity dilemma. Drama!
- On that matter, I really don’t buy that Alison would sleep with Oscar at this point, no matter how shitty she feels about herself. I just don’t buy it.
- Also, was Alison’s plan really to wait until Cole got the ranch money, divorce him so she could get half, and then leave? What a shitty thing to do, Alison.
- Cherry is a ridiculous, manipulative sociopath, but I love Mare Winningham’s portrayal of her. You can feel the fire of a woman who raised those boys and kept that ranch going at all costs.
- Noah tries very hard to make himself look good in his own mind during his half of the hour—notice how the awful studio apartment scene is nowhere to be seen in his perspective, and is in fact Max’s idea—but he still always manages to come off looking like an idiot. I’m surprised Helen didn’t push him down the damn stairs.
- This Might Matter In The Future: Scotty went to meet Whitney at Planned Parenthood but when confronted insisted they were just friends; the detective is asking about Noah’s car; Noah notices the detective’s selective disclosure when it comes to his actual family situation.