Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

This is a bizarre episode of The Affair, no question. While I always love me some more Helen time, I don’t think I really need to see her in the desert attempting a transformative experience. It’s good for a bunch of East Coast eyerolls from Helen about the moon circle at the Joshua Tree, though, and one of the most claustrophobic scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

One of the main themes of The Affair is other people’s perceptions of us: Helen in Alison’s viewpoint, like last week, is inimitably calm and wise. According to Helen this week, her life is a total fucking wreck, but to Sierra, she’s a smart, sophisticated, beautiful woman who appears to have it all. She’s hating this new age summit until her age and knowledge from experience wins over all of the other (younger) women: They immediately glom onto her like the font of wisdom that she is. To them, she’s a much better guru than young, clueless Gaella.

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About that experience: We also learn this episode that Helen isn’t over, and will likely never get over, Noah’s affair with Alison: “It’s not just a moment, it’s years of his life and hers and the promise they made to each other and their kids, and it’s everything.” Noah remains the love of her life, and she is not about to overcome the loss of that family she spent all those years building, and everything horrific that happened afterward.

Now, Noah is just an interloper into not one but two families. Helen’s (now explained) lingering resentment means that he is not really welcome in her home, and Trevor, at least, has his own resentments toward Noah’s abandonment of their family. It’s like those long-term effects that Helen was explaining to Sierra personified: Much as he wants to, Noah can’t walk right back in to his family after leaving them for Alison and Joanie years ago.

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Maybe that’s why he’s so eager to help Anton, who actually wants Noah’s help so much he tracks down his address in his mother’s files. Anton who actually is psyched to drive Noah’s car, unlike Trevor. Maybe there’s something here about the families we make versus the ones we’re related to, and I really do like Anton as a character. I also respect the showrunners’ desires to expand The Affair past the problems of ridiculously well-off white people. But Noah feels shoehorned into that storyline; in all of those scenes with Carl and Janelle he’s standing foolishly in the background, until we are all as flummoxed as Carl as to what he’s actually doing there.

As the show does every season, it tries to propel Noah into a meaningful relationship. Alison, again with Helen, SexFrench, and now Janelle (Principal Stern). The show’s worst conceit is that Noah Solloway’s magical penis is enough to make these otherwise reasonable women lose their minds and jump right into bed (and why does Noah get such a long sex scene, when Helen’s sexual encounters this episode were so much more meaningful?). He apparently loves Janelle so much that he’s taking her son cross-country, but we know the real reason. It’s that helping the prospectively brilliant Anton makes him feel important (he even listens to Noah’s book!), something Noah hasn’t felt in quite some time.

It’s a bit ironic that the backup characters from season one—Helen and Cole—are now the most interesting of the series. Both of them went to California and at least got some traction on what they’ve been grappling with, by burning sage or incense or whatever. Cole realized that he’ll never be happy until he works things out with Alison; even after all the moon circle mumbo jumbo, and especially the terrifying floatation tank, Helen can’t go on watching Vik die without at least some effort on his side to stay alive. Interestingly, her matter-of-fact tone with Noah, though, means that she’s already accepted the loss on some level—yet another scene this episode (along with a few affecting monologues) that make Maura Tierney absolutely compelling to watch. In comparison, Noah and Alison are just flailing, caught in their old familiar patterns, not even actually realizing what they need to change. Helen and Cole are far ahead.

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Stray observations

  • Man, Helen can be such a shrew in Noah’s perspective.
  • I assume that this will be cleared up in the final three episodes of the season, but what did Alison do after walking up on that couch?
  • “Malcolm X napkins!” “They make those?” My thoughts exactly, Noah.
  • I was not impressed with my own overnight oats experience, but I also didn’t use peanut butter and chia seeds.
  • Julia Goldani Telles is still in the credits, but her first appearance this season is in episode seven, with an under-10-word voicemail message under 10 words.
  • Helen telling Sierra that Vik wants a kid just about clinches that pregnancy, right?
  • C’mon, even I know what a sensory deprivation tank is.
  • I so wanted Helen to run into Cole and/or Alison at that party for just some weird rando reason.
  • “Hey!” “No…” “Sorry.”
  • Maybe it’s my own Midwestern skepticism, but who pays for all the moon circle stuff? Who sets up the yurts? Does someone take it down when it’s over? I have a lot of questions.
  • I think it’s funny that Sierra is just supposed to be the nebulous offspring of some unnamed celebrity mother.
  • Stacey is the cutest.
  • Next week: Finally, we get to see the three guys on the road. Frankly, I have been waiting all season for the Cole-Noah-Anton matchup.

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