One of the most compelling things The Affair is doing with the expanded perspectives in season two is how it is using them to play with the timeline. Last week, Helen and Noah’s perspectives combined to cover essentially the same time period; here, Alison and Cole pick up right after those events, with everything that happened between Noah and Helen quietly reverberating through their stories as well. The writers are compressing and expanding individual stories as a tool for both advancing the plot and diving deep into specific bits of character exploration, and it’s both a continuation of the work they did in the first season and a smart development of the conceit.

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Alison’s story kicks off the morning after her hotel parking lot rendezvous with Noah, and his absence from Alison’s story is the most important influence on it. With Noah completely out of touch, Alison is forced to deal with who she is now—who she perceives herself to be, and what others perceive her to be—without the distraction of him. The conclusion that she comes to is not kind, to say the least. When Noah is around she can either convince or distract herself enough to justify the difficult circumstances in which they came together, but without him there she only has the judgment she perceives to see in other people’s eyes.

At Yvonne and Robert’s house, Alison feels surrounded by this judgment, mostly because of Noah’s novel. It’s unclear just how much Alison knows about the plot of the novel, but is obviously enough for her to be suspicious as to her influence on the female character, exacerbated by the fact that Noah won’t let her read it yet. As soon as she notices Yvonne reading it, Yvonne treats Alison differently: Colder, more dismissive, and more judgmental. Alison’s neuroses in regards to the novel manifest as a bit of an obsession with it; she asks Yvonne what she thinks, she asks Robert if he’s read it, and eventually she sneaks a peek at a few passages herself. And it isn’t just Yvonne’s treatment of her that she perceives differently once she knows about the book; after Robert admits Yvonne has been reading him passages, she sees that her previously-innocent physical therapy manipulations have given him an erection.

It isn’t until Yvonne has Robert fire her as their assistant that Alison really starts spiraling even further into her panic. This is when she rushes into Yvonne’s office, finds Noah’s novel sitting there, and starts to pick out passages to skim. These passages are full of descriptions of the main female character that are steeped in sex; to Alison, they are the final brushstroke that paints her as the evil temptress, the “slut” who can’t keep her legs closed or her hands off another woman’s man. She spirals so far she desperately goes to find Noah in Brooklyn, and instead runs into Helen (who pointedly confirms all her fears about Noah), then winds up retreating back to Montauk.

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Alison’s story is certainly interesting, but it doesn’t quite feel as well-developed as some of the previous ones the show has explored. The part that resonates most is Alison finally being forced to come to terms with who she is as a person following Gabriel’s death, which is something she didn’t know before her affair and she certainly still doesn’t know now. Without the comfort of Noah’s affections, she’s forced to confront the fact that she might know one part of Noah but she certainly doesn’t know all of him, and from what she sees in her book she’s not sure he knows much more about her.

What’s gorgeous about her story, though, is how perfectly it dovetails with Cole’s. Alison is dealing with perception issues following her participating in an affair that broke up two marriages. Cole is dealing with perception on a smaller scale, as he attempts to differentiate himself from his brother Scotty. As has been shown time and time again over the course of the series, Scotty is a bit of a shitbag, and Cole has always defined himself by his loyalty to family and dedication to being true to his family business and the town of Montauk. Now that Montauk is changing and their family business is devastated, Cole finds himself very easily slipping into the same sort of behavior he’s always looked down on Scotty for engaging in.

It isn’t until he runs into Luisa not once but two times—the second time coming out of Scotty’s houseboat—that Cole seems to want to start changing the perception of himself back to that of the “good” brother. He even comes out and tells Luisa he’s nothing like Scotty, before performing good deeds for her and then sitting at her bar all day simply getting to know her—even if he does it in his own brooding, angry Cole way. Luisa feels like his way to begin moving on from Alison, if only he’ll let himself, and if only Alison will let him. Cole comes home from that night at The End with Luisa to the lights on in his house, and the audience knows it is Alison even though he fears it’s an intruder. Cole finds Alison in their bed, vulnerable from her own battle with perception, and his comforting her turns into more.

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The most heartbreaking thing about the split perspectives here is how obvious it was Alison would end up here, and how obvious it is that this encounter means something completely different to Alison than it does to Cole. To Alison, it is a confirmation she isn’t the horrible person she thinks everyone else perceives her to be. To Cole, it’s a potential reopening for him to return to the life he had with Alison, and the man he used to be. He had sex with his wife with another woman’s number on his hand, but his gaze at that number doesn’t feel like betrayal to either woman, just a weird rumination on coincidence and fate. The present-day scenes make it clear Cole’s fate isn’t going to end up where he thinks it will. What we don’t know is whether or not that fate is something Cole can live with peacefully.

Stray observations:

  • The present-day scenes here were my favorite of the season. Finding out Cole somehow screwed Scotty out of his business deal and that the Lobster Roll is now called Lockhart’s Lobster Roll and Oscar works there in a shirt that’s emblazoned with the Lockhart name is trolling of the highest order. Cole, I approve.
  • Scotty is such an asshole I’m surprised he didn’t die sooner.
  • Loved the moment of Alison looking in the mirror trying to see what other people saw when they look at her. Ruth Wilson was wonderful in that whole sequence.
  • Helen’s blond streaks were a great touch.

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