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The Affair’s greatest pairing is Helen and Alison

Illustration for article titled iThe Affair’/iem/ems greatest pairing is Helen and Alison
Photo: Patrick Wymore (Showtime)
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Season four of The Affair is running into the same problems as season three (have the showrunners learned nothing?). Last year, the show brought in a new character (Professor SexFrench) who received her own viewpoint and storyline, involving her older, very sick husband. Viewers, from what Sarah Treem said in a recent interview, were less than thrilled. Vik’s viewpoint from last week, for example—a character that’s at least been around for awhile—feels earned. SexFrench’s did not. Janelle doesn’t get her own perspective (yet), but her family sure gets a lot of screentime this season, and not in the most effective manner.

Because we’ve also had time to get to know and like Vik, so that scenes with his parents are still compelling. But as great as Sanaa Lathan is (to read: pretty great) at this stage in The Affair game, the last thing we need is to drag in a whole new family drama, with Anton rebelling against his dad Carl and Janelle trying to get him on the right path. I thought it was hilarious this week when their family was fighting and Noah’s phone kept going off and Carl seems actually astounded as to why Noah is there right in the middle of their private family drama. Carl, we all had the same question. Especially since Janelle seems to bring out the absolute worst in Noah’s white-knight complex: His tendency to talk over her in front of TV cameras at the protest he ignited, or on the phone to the board this episode, is nothing less than maddening. A confident, powerful woman like Janelle ought to find that annoying, not endearing.


Alison’s family drama is much more compelling this episode, as it’s revealed that she’s the product of rape when her mother was a teenage nanny. While this does have the effect of absolving her guilt that she had a premonition about Gabriel’s death, it sends her down an uncharted spiral, especially when it turns out that her dad’s really only interested in her for her kidney. Then Breeda Wool (in a much more effective appearance than her spot on UnREAL’s final season) shows up as Ben’s adorably nice wife, and Alison unravels almost completely.

Yes, this is a lot to take in. But she really hasn’t known Ben that long. Also: She has already gotten in huge amounts of trouble for abandoning Joanie once before, and had to undergo a contentious custody battle to get her back. With Cole (also) in California and Luisa already on the warpath, ditching her child right now is a horrible move for Alison to make, especially considering how hard she had to fight to get Joanie back and how she swore she’d never leave her again. Yes, Alison’s mental stability takes some giant hits this episode, so she’s not thinking clearly. But the move to California sees like a contrived machination to get our four main players all together on another coast, in addition to just being an idiotic move by Alison on a personal level.

But having everyone out in California together means that I get my favorite matchup in the series: Alison and Helen. Previously they encountered each other in a Montauk bar, in one of my favorite Affair double scenes from season three. In Helen’s version, Alison is no-nonsense, and Helen’s a little drunk. In Alison’s version, Helen is wearing glasses and seems all-knowing, if a little bitter, while Alison is totally vulnerable (the best part is when they toast with Long Island Iced Teas over their respective divorces from Noah Solloway). In this episode, we see a return of that calm, collected Helen, with Alison in meek, insecure mode again, asking Helen why these horrible events with guys always happen to her. (It’s why in her viewpoint she’s always in these dowdy, blandly colored dresses and outfits, in marked contrast to how others see her.)


Granted, there’s a long list at this point. Cole. Noah. Scotty. Now Ben, who almost immediately pegged her as an easy mark. And the guy on the plane perks up as soon as she sits down next to him. Sure, she was drinking a bit, but even so, no one should have to deal with unwanted advances. (Noah keeps his asshole title because he’s dubious about Alison’s story behind her arrest.) Which makes me wonder about Helen’s advice: that we draw in what we expect to draw in. Alison expects bad things to happen, so they always do. She’s vulnerable to men for some reason (could be that long-lost father), and they sense that. Re-watching Alison and Helen’s season-three conversation in Montauk, it’s interesting that Alison saw Noah as someone who could take care of her, and Helen saw Noah as someone who needed taking care of. Alison can do whatever she wants, as Helen wisely notes, but if she wants to change her life, she has to change it now.

As long as we’ve seen Alison in this series, she has been the passive participant in her relationships. She might have flirted with Noah, but he was a bored husband and father who pursued the relationship (the first time we see him in the series, he’s checking out another woman at the pool). She slept with Cole, who went back to his wife. Ben mysteriously showed up at her office doorstep, and didn’t even stick to his five-month AA celibacy deadline. What would happen if Alison had some say in her relationships, instead of just letting them happen to her?


Stray observations

  • Had to howl at Noah cramming on Ed Sheeran’s “Castle On The Hill” in the car. I know you wanted to spend time with your kid, Noah, but maybe Trevor did you a favor by bailing. (That video has 327 million YouTube views, btw.)
  • Another thing these separate characters do is take us away from our fun double viewpoints, which was one of the first draws of the series. I think the last one this season was when Cole jumped Alison’s car in episode two.
  • Alison seems to sense a renewed chemistry between Helen and Noah. And Helen, like myself, is a Cole and Alison shipper.
  • It was killing me trying to figure out who Julie was, the much younger wife of Alison’s dad (expertly payed by Tim Matheson). Turns out it’s Dina Meyer! You may remember her as the professor’s wife that Brandon slept with on 90210 or the stage actress Joey had a crush on on Friends. If you’re me, that is.
  • Next week: I am out of screeners, so these last four reviews may be going up a bit later than the first six.

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

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