Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Affair: “Episode Three”

Hi Pacey. Hi.
Joshua Jackson, Ruth Wilson
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The main limitation of The Affair’s dual perspective structure is how it restricts how much can be done with its secondary, non-perspective characters. If everything we see is filtered through either Noah or Alison’s memories, what does that mean for the people who populate their stories? The first two episodes started to explore how the people they are describing can change depending on who is remembering them, but it was almost more in service of defining what type of show The Affair planned on being than building out its world beyond the show’s framework. Episode three begins the show’s attempt to make the world of Montauk that surrounds Noah and Alison as much of a character in their stories as the people who surround them, and for the most part it is very successful. As for rounding out the other people, well, The Affair is still working that part out.

After dropping a lot of information about the investigation in the last episode, the interrogation scenes take a big step back here for the most part, with the only new revelation being that the party mentioned last week was likely not the party the murder victim attended at all. Instead, a wedding is mentioned, one that seemed to involve locals, and one the detective was surprised Alison attended. The investigation continues to be mysterious, but by backing off from focusing on the who of the murder victim like last week’s focus, it’s almost as if the writers are extending the life of how long they can play coy. It helps that it’s only three episodes into the show and the murder investigation feels more like a bonus story on top of exploring who Noah and Alison are, and not the whole point of the show. This balance remains crucial to making this mystery work at all.

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As for Noah and Alison, this was the first week that it felt like Noah’s story was significantly less illuminating than Alison’s. This is mostly due to his central character conflict hitting many of the same beats over the first three episodes, while Alison’s seems to always have a new wrinkle to add. What’s most interesting about their stories this week is how their individual stories converge, in ways both situational and emotional. The Affair is taking its time with the actual affair part of it all, which in turn is making room to fully explore how the external forces in both Noah and Alison’s lives keep pushing them toward each other, bit by bit. Here we see how Noah’s insecurities about his second novel—intensified by living with his very critical in-laws while he’s in the midst of writing it—are taking over his mental and emotional life, while his wife and children are mostly oblivious. It isn’t a coincidence that every time Noah has an emasculating encounter with his wife, children, or in-laws, he finds a way to run into Alison. This subtext even becomes actual text when, in a memory Noah details but Alison doesn’t even mention in her side of the story, they have a sexual encounter where he insists on taking charge. Also significant is both Noan and Alison having sex with their respective spouses while thinking about the other person, insisting to their partner “don’t wake up” so they don’t have to acknowledge the difference between their fantasies and reality.

While Noah’s story hits familiar beats, Alison’s is used almost as a vehicle to expand the world of Montauk as a place with its own identity. There have been vague mentions of the tension between locals and summer people, but more compelling is the internal tension between the locals who want to keep everything the same and those who want to evolve to cater to the summer visitors who they rely on for their livelihood. Alison finds herself in the middle of the fight between her boss Oliver—who wants to develop his land—and her husband Cole’s family—who want to keep the character of Montauk the same.

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As a sucker for small-town politics and the politics of development, this turn in the story is highly exciting to me personally, especially when it takes place at a local town hall meeting and involves feuds between families that go back for generations. If those things don’t fascinate you, however, the show smartly keeps the focus on characterization by having Cole mention the death of Gabriel in his town hall plea against the new development, to which Alison reacts negatively. Gabriel’s death informs everything about Alison, and about Alison and Cole’s relationship, and this is a good and suitably subtle reminder of that.

Still compelling as well is how Alison’s story is so steeped in grief, but somehow manages to not feel oppressive in this grief. It was startling to see Alison so happy at the beginning of her story in this episode, smiling and singing along to the radio, but that is a very specific choice to contrast with how low she gets only hours later. The Alison who was singing had hope that she could move forward, that she could go back to her old job, that she could not see Gabriel’s face on every hurt or dying child she comes in contact with as a nurse. The Alison who fled the hospital and ran to a beach to hurt herself is someone who has given up that hope almost immediately upon seeing that she isn’t quite that evolved yet.

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As all of this character building of Noah and Alison—both together and separately—and the world that surrounds them continues, the one thing that still feels slighted is the characters around them, particularly Cole and Helen. Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson are giving good performances, but it’s hard to know anything about them as characters, not really. We see them filtered through Noah and Alison’s eyes, which is interesting in relation to Noah and Alison’s characters, but it’s hard to know if Cole and Helen will ever be able to become more than that given the framework of the show. The writers have earned a fair amount of trust in only these three episodes, but it’s hard not to wonder how this limiting perspective will play out when it comes to characters like Cole and Helen in future episodes. It’s something easily done in a film where characterizations don’t deepen and evolve on an episodic basis, but much trickier for an ongoing series to navigate. The Affair isn’t quite there, not yet.

Stray observations:

  • Noah’s novel is exactly as autobiographical as expected, except somehow even more pretentious. How he could describe it as the “death of the American pastoral” without rolling his eyes is impressive. The twist of the man killing the woman in the end is a totally creepy wrinkle I hope we learn more about in the future. Considering Noah’s insistence the detective read his book, I’m sure we will.
  • Was this the first hint of Helen’s job? And what is her job, exactly? Does she curate a shop? Interior design? Help me.
  • Proof Noah’s family might secretly be monsters: their laughter at Cameron’s horror when his dad’s car goes through the garage windows in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
  • This Might Matter In The Future: Scotty brings what looks like an envelope of cash to fisherman Will; Oscar Hodges notices Noah’s lie about visiting Alison at the restaurant; Cole suddenly has cash to give Alison for a new wardrobe; “Unlike your husband, you understand that people need to change in order to survive.”
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