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The Affair improves this week thanks to minimal Noah and no Joanie

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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With two main cast members departing, it’s not too surprising that The Affair would have to turn to other characters to fill in narratives, otherwise it would just be Noah and Helen every week until the series ended (although that’s the way it started out in season one, between Noah and Alison). So the show now has to delve into characters we weren’t as invented in as Cole and Alison. Janelle’s perspective a few weeks ago was interesting, and I even appreciated the closer look into Whitney’s life last episode (even though that ended in a really terrible way). Joanie’s segments (which we were thankfully spared this week) aren’t really engaging because we don’t know her at all. But this week, with few other options, we get… Sierra?

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Was anyone really looking for a deeper dive into Sierra? Especially one that is unfortunately soundtracked by a screaming child, one of the most annoying sounds imaginable? This season is making me go back to previous seasons, to try to map all this out. Sierra, understandably, seems overwhelmed by single motherhood. She has an indeterminate source of income, a huge house, a flock of earth mother friends that appears to have checked out. But she also knew that the father of her child had a fatal illness, so that she was bound to be a single mother. Is she that young that she didn’t know how hard that was going to be? She told Helen in the season three finale, “I want to keep it. I want to be a mother,” based on her talk with Helen in the desert. That’s really the only evidence we have of any sort of maternal feelings from her prior to this.

This season of The Affair just seems committed to showing us really, really unpleasant things. Not just Noah’s dumbfuckery, but Whitney’s entanglement with Furkat last episode, and Sierra’s series of unfortunate events in this one. As a twins mom, I had two of these screaming kids at once, and even several years later, I really can’t stand the sound of a screeching baby. Maybe I was also reacting as a mother, but I hated all the “psyche!” moments of a baby in peril. Leaving him in the car? Opening the door after a car crash? Sierra’s segment was like a mom horror movie.

The only good part of Sierra’s segment was the scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh as her mom, because Jason Leigh is such a master of her craft—and even then it was uncomfortable. The calculating way she tries to undermine her daughter under the guise of helping, systematically picking apart Sierra’s performance so that she cannot help but doubt her own instincts. The clear envy she has for her daughter that cancels out any positive maternal feelings, classifying the child as an albatross around her neck, for both her and her daughter. That whole mother-daughter scene was amazing. It’s also nice to peek behind the curtain and see all the different takes and ways for Sierra (and Emily Browning) to transmit those Bovary lines—of course, dialogue that reveals a non-lateral type as well.

Sierra does appear to love Eddie, but also mourns her young, carefree lifestyle—she clearly has a faulty sense of responsibility, leaving her baby with a 12-year-old so that she can go to a club and snort drugs and have ill-advised sex with her director in the bathroom. Only someone completely sleep-deprived and at the end of her rope would get Eddie in a car that late, in the hopeful attempt to get him to fall asleep during the drive, and of course it ends up in (almost) the worst case imaginable. What can actually happen there? Will Helen step up more after Sierra’s accident? Will Sierra use her new actor’s salary to hire a goddamn babysitter, which is really not so difficult? (When I had the twins, there was the Dr. Sears attachment parenting that Sierra mentions, and the Dr. Spock more matter-of-fact way. I went with Dr. Spock.)

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Helen’s depiction is also troublesome, and is also saved by the fact that Maura Tierney is an amazing actress, and usually a joy to watch. We are told over and over again how much Helen gives to everyone, never takes time for herself—but the fact remains that, like Sierra, she is a woman of tremendous privilege, hasn’t worked in years, $3 million house by the ocean. Two of her kids are out of the house already. So it’s exciting to see Helen build up her business, and even have fun with Sasha, even as the cracks start to open up to reveal that Sasha may not be the dream man she imagined. Sure, it’s fun to introduce a movie star to your ex-husband’s old publicist that he was probably having sex with as your new boyfriend, but there Sasha’s value seems to die out. He seems cruel to his dead lover’s daughter, for one thing, and completely squashes the career of a supposed friend for another, barely giving it a second thought. This is what I love about Maura Tierney’s performance: We instantly knew that Helen was not happy about saying no to Vik’s mom, but actually in agony about it (and ironically, wouldn’t taking Eddie to that dinner have solved Sierra’s whole problem? Maybe Vik’s mom can be Eddie’s caretaker. That would help a lot of people all at once.) Oh, Helen would have hated it, and bitched about it, but she would have done it—for the memory of Vik, for the mother who’s lost her son. Sasha’s self-involved lifestyle is not who Helen is, and she knows it, so the writing is on the wall for the end of that relationship.

There’s one area where Helen has the absolute right to be as selfish as she wants, though, and that is in relation to one Noah Solloway. He tracks her down at a client’s house? Pathetic. No, I don’t think he’s really in love with her, and no he shouldn’t get his five-millionth second chance, after his love has hurt her so many times over. Noah just wants her because he can’t have her. But if the show isn’t actually winding up with Noah and Helen together again, then where is this all headed?

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Honestly, I still can see this all ending with Noah and Helen reuniting and then Noah scoping someone out at the pool again in the final scene. I just wouldn’t put anything past The Affair this point.

Stray observations

  • That’s Jessica Hecht, probably best known as Ross’ ex-wife’s new wife Susan on Friends, as Helen’s almost-pal Carolina.
  • Helen did look great in that jumpsuit, although I don’t know how it fit her because she’s about a foot shorter than Carolina.
  • “I didn’t know men like you existed.” Except for Vik, right Helen?
  • Also in Sasha-as-an-asshole category: “You don’t need anyone else, you’ve got me.” Run Helen!
  • Look for my interview with Sanaa Lathan (Janelle) to go up on this site tomorrow.
  • Next week: Joanie at the cemetery, ugh.
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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.