Colin Donnell (left), Joshua Jackson

As season one of The Affair continues to unfold, one of the most compelling things about the show is how it doesn’t feel obligated to be one thing. It isn’t just a relationship story, or a character study, or a mystery, or a commentary on how gender influences perception; at some times it is all of those things and other times it is only one or two of those things, depending on the specific goals of the episode. The pilot established the show as a search for truth—or at least a recognition that the search for truth between two people is an impossible task—and it buttressed this search by giving the season a mystery to unravel, and giving that mystery a face in the police detective interrogation scenes. As episode six proves by stripping out the framework altogether, those interrogation scenes aren’t a crutch. They’re a tool, and for the first time they just weren’t necessary in order to tell the story. That The Affair has the confidence and freedom to recognize this and adjust the episode structure accordingly, well, that’s the most compelling thing of all.

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To be honest, until this episode the mystery portion of the show was by far the least interesting thing about it for me. The framework did a great job of keeping a nice background hum of intrigue during the times when the writers were working on fleshing out Noah and Alison as people, but the question of who was killed was never my takeaway from watching an episode. Now that we know it was Scotty, it frees the writers to take away the cat-and-mouse game of the interrogation scenes and just tell a story about how the Lockharts got to a place where Scotty could be murdered. There’s no need to interrupt the narrative here with the detective asking Noah or Alison oblique questions; those questions have already been asked, and sometimes those lies have already been told. We just have to put it all together here, just like Noah puts together what is going on, sending his affair with Alison into a tailspin.

One thing that is telling is how, as Noah and Alison’s lies pile on top of each other trying to keep this affair a secret, Noah lies to people he probably doesn’t have to. The presence of Noah’s best friend Max here sets up a reason for Noah to be suspicious of the Lockharts when Max buys cocaine from a cab driver whom Noah later connects to Alison’s strange delivery from the fishing docks to the taxi company. But his presence also doubles as a mirror for Noah to look into and see his future: If Noah’s affair is found out, will he end up divorced and without his kids like Max? The most interesting thing about Max, at least in this setting, is that he’s Noah’s best friend but Noah doesn’t appear to reveal himself at all to him. He especially doesn’t tell Max about his affair, letting him go on believing that Helen and Noah are aliens from a planet where marriages work. Max sees Noah and his relationship with Helen as something aspirational, and even though Max is his best friend, Noah can’t bring himself to shatter that image.

Noah himself seems to still think of his marriage as this perfect, enviable thing, and his affair with Alison wholly separate from that thing, but that notion comes crashing down twofold. First, when Helen indicates Noah has been distant and not interested in sex, which it’s clear Noah had no idea he was projecting. Then, when Noah realizes the Lockharts are dealing drugs and he might know absolutely nothing about the woman he is having an affair with. It’s as if Noah sees Alison as this escape he can go to in order to fix his current life—look at how well his writing is going since they started the affair, and how eager he is to continue the affair to seemingly help facilitate his writing once he gets back to the city—but he has no real concept until now of how that fix can so very easily ruin everything. Noah sees Alison as some kind of dream, even tells her as much, but despite everything he’s seen from her—all the sadness, all the pain—he still doesn’t see her as much as he sees how she affects him. Learning she’s involved with a drug operation makes her complicated and real in a way he can’t quite comprehend, and that realization sends him back to his wife’s arms and running in the opposite direction from her.

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As for Alison, her affair with Noah might also be an escape from her life, but it’s an escape she would actually be willing to make permanent. Everything about Noah’s life that’s stable is the exact opposite in hers, with a family drowning in debt and a husband who would rather sell drugs than the family ranch in order to get them out of it. The money could help them all get new lives and move on, but that’s something Cole doesn’t think is possible. His inability to move on—and contentment in living in all the misery that means—is exactly what Alison is reacting to in her affair, and she tells Noah as much when she tells him she’s ready to move on with her life with him. This scene shows the enormity of the gulf between them; they might have both started this affair to get a little lost, but Alison is the only one who feels like she’s been found, at least for right now.

And then there’s Oscar. Oscar continues to be the main driver of the season-long plot, this time by pretending to call the cops on the Lockharts within earshot of Noah. He’s like this weirdly Machiavellian villain in the middle of a bunch of regular people, but with just enough of a sheen of small-town slime around him to make it not feel so glaringly out of place. Did Oscar really place a fake call to the cops to see if Noah would tell Alison, therefore exposing their affair? Or am I overthinking things here? If he did, he certainly earned his previous crack about being the smartest guy in the room. The bright side here is although Oscar’s schemes are a bit too pat, at least he isn’t inserting himself in strange ways like he did in the last episode, with his presence feeling much more natural here. He’s still the most awkward part of a collection of characters that mostly feel like a cohesive world.

Stray observations:

  • The Affair was officially renewed for a second season, so that will be an interesting thing to consider as the season moves forward. Where do they go from here?
  • Maura Tierney is doing great, great work creating a character for Helen despite the very difficult task of doing it through someone else’s eyes.
  • No interrogation scenes at all this week, but I loved the show using Noah’s lie about never going to The End in the previously on segment right before you see him go into the club in the current episode.
  • Why did Martin let the horse go free? Other than to unwittingly facilitate a nice metaphor for Alison’s life?
  • This Might Matter In The Future: Will was missing at the docks; they buried the drugs somewhere on the edge of the ranch; the Lockharts have “eyes and ears at the precinct.”

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