Earlier this week on Twitter, Time critic James Poniewozik confessed that he finds the two marriages in The Affair far more interesting than the affair itself. As the show has progressed and expanded and the affair come and gone, I have to agree with him, especially after this episode. Noah and Alison embarking on their affair was this gradual thing, made more compelling by the use of dual perspectives and the way that device played with expectations. The affair itself burned hot and fast, and then fell apart spectacularly, leaving both Noah and Alison to pick up the wreckage of their actual lives. Which leaves the question: What was the affair, even? Was it a real connection between two people, or simply a way for them to escape from themselves for a while?
One of the biggest questions I had after the first few episodes of the season was whether or not Helen and Cole would find out about the affair, and what that would mean. It’s kind of a silly thought, in retrospect; this is television, of course they were going to find out because it makes the most dramatically interesting story. Once Oscar and his mustache-twirling schemes got involved, it was less a question of if the spouses would find out than when, and appropriately Oscar is the impetus behind both revelations. For as much of a problem as Oscar is as a character—the performance and motivations are just too far into cartoon to really fit into this world—there is just enough of an established precedent for his blackmail of Noah to make sense, and his decision to tell Cole in an outburst of rage to make sense. Oscar might be over the top, but at least it’s a consistent, maddening type of over the top so it mostly works.
What works a bit less here is the perspective switch between the detective investigating Scotty’s murder in the present day and Noah and Alison’ stories in the past. When the show completely dropped the interrogation framework last week and just continued to tell Noah and Alison’s stories it felt like a natural evolution, but the issue is that the murder is still not solved, and the detective is still part of the story. Therefore, he has to make a reappearance. Having him randomly pop up reading Noah’s novel, or going to The End to check the roster and find out Noah never stayed there, feels bizarre and off-putting in a way the interrogation scenes never did, and the absence of any framework last week didn’t. The writers set this up as a season-long mystery, set it up with a great device in the interrogations to keep that mystery afloat, but having the detective scenes pop in and out like this doesn’t feel like the solution for the next evolution of the device.
But while the detective scenes didn’t work at all, almost everything else about this episode did. The decision to have everyone find out about the affair in one episode was a smart one, as it puts both Noah and Alison in the same place in their stories even when they are totally apart. Although they are in the same place in their stories, however, Noah and Alison have starkly different feelings about the end of the affair. For Noah, it’s something he feels guilty about and doesn’t quite understand; like the revelation Alison was involved in dealing coke jarred something loose in his brain that made him realize his real life was far more appealing than the fantasy of his affair. For Alison, she is still desperate for an escape from her oppressive life and still has a feeling Noah is that escape. While Noah spends his time feeling so guilty he gives himself panic attacks, Alison is contemplating how her life with Noah now feels more real than her actual life in Montauk. Noah confesses to Helen because he’s so cripplingly guilty it sends him to the hospital; Alison is only revealed when Oscar tells Cole how she really found out about his fake phone call to the police. Noah wants to blow up his life in order to get back to something real, while Alison is happy to live in the same fake place she and Cole have been in since Gabriel died.
What everyone finding out gives the show is a way to take these two marriages and explore them in a way it couldn’t when the focus was on the affair. Noah’s relationship with Helen was always in the background, with the audience seeing only how her family money and her sort-of blasé attitude toward Noah’s writing led him to a mindset where an affair seemed plausible. Seeing her here, though—and seeing Maura Tierney’s fantastic work in this episode—does nothing but make all of Noah’s self-aggrandizement, and all of his internalization of the things she said to him, seem like the twisted self-loathing it actually is. After Noah confesses and Helen asks for more details, his excuses are all wrapped up in how he perceives Helen to be (a perception we’ve been seeing all season, through his eyes) but it’s clear from her face and response in that moment this is something he never saw: That any perceived pressure she put on him to be something more, to accomplish more, was simply her parroting the pressure he put upon himself. And Noah’s very own self-fulfilling prophecy might be the thing that implodes his entire life.
While Noah spends his hour repentant, Alison is far more contemplative of what the affair actually meant. After Cole finds out, she retreats to the city and ends up seeking out what Noah’s life is like separate from the affair, first dropping in at Helen’s store and then standing outside of his window watching while he interacts with his family. Alison is a very inactive participant in her life after Cole finds out, first fleeing the confrontation and then immediately going back to Montauk once Cole shows up to talk. It’s tough to get any sort of read on where Alison’s head is at, but the key feels like it is in the scene with Cole and Alison on the New York City streets when he finally talks about what he felt like in the aftermath of Gabriel’s death. Alison says nothing in this scene, letting Cole break down in a way that feels like he is cracking wide open for the first time since Gabriel died. She barely knows how to react, or even how to comfort him; this isn’t a Cole she understands, not really. When she leaves the city with him to go back home, when she stands by his side in the hospital as he turns a new page and insists they need to sell the ranch and move on, and when she puts her birth control pills away in what looks like a silent agreement to start over with him, it seems like Alison is less making the decision to move forward with Cole and leave Noah behind than to let that happen to her.
Just like Noah’s relationship with Helen is up in the air, Alison’s marriage still feels unsettled, despite what looked like an agreement to start over. It’s not a coincidence that the first scene in Alison’s half of the story was her attempting to fix a porch railing that was rotted from the inside, and Cole letting her know that the whole thing needed to be replaced because painting it wouldn’t make it look better, only painted. Both of these marriages just got more interesting, because instead of silently rotting from the inside while being covered up with layers and layers of paint, all their rot is out in the open, waiting to either be fixed or simply torn down completely.
- What was in the note? Dammit, Cherry.
- Speaking of Cherry, she is absolutely fascinating to me. She obviously knows all about the drug operation and even encourages it, not wanting Cole to sell the ranch and continue dealing instead. She manipulates the hell out of Alison with her seemingly innocuous stories about being the most intuitive mother that ever roamed the earth. Then she drops the hammer about knowing about the affair. It’s easy to see where Scotty and Cole’s pathology comes from.
- I like that Noah’s memory is always so self-serving when it comes to his belief he’s a good father. Here, Alison’s version includes Noah reacting with shock when Cole praises Martin; in Noah’s version, he simply smiles.
- Hal, you don’t return drugs to drug suppliers. Haven’t you seen any movies, like, ever?
- This Might Matter In The Future: Scotty was seen with “some little brunette” (Whitney, maybe?); No record of Noah staying at The End.