If the first episode of The Affair was about getting to know Noah and Alison—and, most of all, getting to know the show’s storytelling format—episode two is about setting the stage for what is to come. The brilliant thing about this stage-setting is how seamlessly it is integrated into the narrative, and how intelligently the narrative framework is used to do it. Alison and Noah’s story continues to expand here, but all expansion has a greater meaning, both for their characters and for the overarching framework of the show.
Last week I described the pilot as careful, and that continues to be the best description for how the show is structured. But although “careful” could potentially be a hindrance when telling an episodic story like this, there’s something special in the deliberate, thoughtful way The Affair is constructed. Its carefulness is communicated as a sort of tacit nod to the audience that yes, everything you are seeing is important in some way, and yes, every beat of the emotional and narrative arcs of these characters has been meticulously planned. This statement of implied trust is essential when doling out mysterious story beats the way The Affair is; without it, the whole thing could feel completely unmoored. Its to the show’s credit that it never feels less than completely measured, at least through the first two episodes.
What is this mystery, exactly? There are multiple layers to the mystery game The Affair is playing, but the most obvious mystery is tied up in why Noah and Alison are in that interrogation room. A few key details are revealed here: Someone died, potentially the night of the annual party at Noah’s in-laws’ house, a male someone, a male someone Alison misses, and although Noah thought this male someone’s death was an accident, the person interrogating them is trying to determine if anyone had motive to murder him. This should be frustrating—just tell us who it is, already—but it’s more enticing than frustrating, at least at this point in the narrative. This is mostly because although the mystery framework is interesting, and the memory device is a compelling way to tease out the mystery, The Affair is far more interested in using these devices to flesh out their characters than creating a mystery. This tethers the mystery to something far more substantial, because at this point even if the “mystery” it is teasing turns out to not be the best, the character development is strong enough that it likely won’t even matter. Despite the mystery framework, this isn’t a show about a mystery; it’s a show about these two people who just happened to be caught up in this mystery.
As for those two people, this week the focus of Noah and Alison’s stories moves on from their initial impressions of each other to the first step in the titular affair, and although their recollections of the events have their differences, the two stories are far more similar than their extremely divergent recollections of what happened in their beach encounter in the pilot.
Notable in Noah’s retelling to the investigator is how he makes a point to call Alison “bad news” and discuss how he tried to stay away from her, all while his memories point to the fact that he wasn’t really trying to do that at all. As he’s running, he turns when he sees a woman on her bike who might be her. He plays fragments of their beach encounter over and over in his mind. He runs by her house. These are not the actions of someone who is trying to stay away from another person, no matter what his words say. As Noah gets further into his retelling of the affair, it’s becoming more and more clear that although he loves his wife, he doesn’t love his life, or at least he didn’t love his life at that point in time. This is a man obsessed with the idea of his own restlessness, who feels trapped in a world of his own making and isn’t sure how to get out, so he grabs the lifeline of this affair with Alison. Note how every time he mentions anything about Helen’s family, the fact that they have money and influence is a prominent part of that memory, or how Noah makes it a point to mention how Helen was a lifeline for him the last time he was lost, after his mother died and his family fell apart. Note how the Alison of his memory speaks almost as if she’s a part of his subconscious, nailing the fact that his current restlessness comes from his worry that he has nothing to say in his second novel because he already used all of his life experiences in the first. Noah at this point in his life is a man looking for something. It could be that Alison just happened to cross his path, equally desperate to find something of her own.
What’s interesting about the memory device is how it forces the audience to put two similar scenes together and draw conclusions from the parallel narratives. Noah’s searching quality is obvious in his memories, but in Alison’s he seems much more assured. The same for his memories of her; she’s a far more seductive, confident, and carefree person in his memories of her than she ever comes across during her half of the hour. Striking here, though, is where the two stories merge and diverge: In both, Noah kisses Alison (albeit in slightly different circumstances), and in both, Noah finds out Alison is married (in wildly different circumstances). But only in Alison’s does Noah address what he saw in her driveway the week before and what it means. His statement that “married people don’t fuck like that” is as telling about his life as anything that comes from his own perspective, just as how her statement of “marriage means different things to different people” seems like a declaration of sad resignation in her memory, while in his it felt like an invitation.
Because The Affair is so careful, and because that carefulness is so obvious even so early into the series’ run, when mundane things diverge greatly it’s almost played for amusement. When Noah buys jam from Alison in his flashback, he buys one container for 12 dollars. In Alison’s memory, he bought eight containers for 40 dollars. This could very much feel like a “spot the difference” Highlights game, yet it manages to feel more like world-building than a cheap narrative trick. It’s also a consistent, subtle way to nudge the importance of class differences in this story, of “townies” vs. “summer people,” and how Noah doesn’t feel like he quite fits in either box. Had Noah made a different choice than marrying Helen, his life would be far more similar to Alison’s than his own, and it feels as if this is the first time in his life he’s voicing how these differences make him feel trapped.
Noah brings up a time travel story of tangential, parallel universes that are created by the choices we make. Had he made a different decision back then, what would his life be? It’s not a coincidence he tells this story in Alison’s memory, right before he kisses her for the first time. If you’re looking to escape your life, telling yourself a grand story about the escape’s import (or letting yourself believe a story someone else is telling you) is one way to make that choice an easier one to make. As we’ve seen from the interrogation scenes in the future, however, those choices don’t get to live in some grand parallel story. They’re stuck in the one real world just like the rest of us.
- We have main titles! They haunting in a way that appropriately echoes the tone of the show. Fiona Apple was a great choice.
- One scene I could not parse was Alison’s conversation with her mother-in-law. Why would Cole and Alison need “help” if they had another child? Gabriel’s death made the papers, per Alison’s conversation with Noah’s mother-in-law at the party, so is there more to this story?
- Noah’s children are far less obnoxious this week: Martin was like a normal little kid, for the most part, and Whitney was more of a typically precocious television teen girl, albeit one who was about to get herself in a lot of trouble with Scotty. (Related: Scotty, what are you doing?)
- Notable: Helen in Alison’s memories is a much more posh, “summer people” person than she is in any of Noah’s. Cole in Alison’s memories is a far more relaxed person than he is in Noah’s.
- Noah wrote that second book. I wonder if it is about a man who spends the summer on Montauk and falls in love with a local woman?
- This Might Matter In The Future: Alison’s strange fish run, where she made a point to mention Caleb’s unlocked door, and Cole later asked her if there were any incidents; Alison grew up by the beach but says she can’t swim (which seems impossible); Whitney’s new friend Ruby and her troubled past.
- “I felt like I had to be strong for them, because if they knew what I was really thinking they’d be terrified of me.” It’s vague-but-fascinating lines like this that make me desperate to know more about Alison. Well played, show.