Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)

In a way, The Affair has been preparing us for this moment since the first time we heard the theme song—with a woman (Fiona Apple, but still) singing, “I have only one thing to do and that’s/Be the wave that I am and then/Sink back into the ocean.” Still, it’s a shock (considerable understatement) when the menacing water motif that dominates this show finally plays its largest part, claiming the life of Alison Bailey.

I was already on my way to considering this the most enjoyable Affair episode I’d ever seen (I LOLed three times in the first half-hour: The last time I did that was never) when the show absolutely pulled the rug out from under me, and everyone. This ranks up there with Will Gardner getting shot in a courtroom and Henry Blake’s helicopter crashing as one of the most shocking character deaths ever on a TV show. Especially since Alison has been one of our main characters (second only to Noah) from the very beginning.

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The devastation may be even more acute juxtaposed against the brilliance of the three-men-on-the-road plot that prefaced it. This season started off with the hint of the unlikely pairing of Cole and Noah, but the fruition of that matchup was every bit as good as I was hoping for. Noah seems to have genuine compassion for Cole’s obvious pain and anger (offering to get him food at the gas station, for example), while Cole’s view of Noah as this cocky, toothpick-chomping womanizer at the diner is straight-up hilarious. Even Noah’s description of Cole is brilliant:

Classic moper… His thing is to belly up to the bar, order a drink—really intensely like he’s ordering a missile strike—and then stare into the glass really intense like he’s reading tea leaves and can see the future in there. Before you know it, women are falling all over themselves to cheer him up.

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Only to be topped by:

Let me guess. You’re fucking his mother.

Just an awesome combination of inspired banter steeped in years of resentment and an antagonistic past (not only did Noah sleep with Cole’s wife, he went to jail for the killing of Cole’s brother). This episode of The Affair was helmed by two first-timers to the show (near as I can tell from the IMBD)—playwright Itamar Moses and longtime TV director Michael Engler—and everything they bring to this episode is exemplary (note the sweet yet sad plastic-wrapped bunch of blue flowers signifying the chance that Cole will now never get with Alison). The “posing as a married couple with adopted kid” skirted a little close to Three’s Company territory for me (Cole’s quick insistence that that kind of family would be watching Say Yes To The Dress over The Weather Channel)—but the two longtime rivals calling each other “honey” was so strangely funny, I’ll allow it. Also the way that they immediately clamored together to get Anton out of the motel away from the crazed proprietor.

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So yes, there’s a lot of fun to be had—until it suddenly seems like nothing will ever be funny again. The vast majority of this episode is Cole’s viewpoint, and it’s really Joshua Jackson’s episode all the way. The frantic grooming from the car. The way he can barely mask his relief when Ben reveals that he and Alison broke up. His glowering resentment of Noah. His unbridled anger coming to a head with a tirade at Alison’s father, who correctly points out, “You’re looking for someone to blame.” When he can’t turn the doorknob to get into the morgue. Joshua Jackson, I will never call you Pacey again.

Dominic West, knowing a showcase when he sees one, wisely steps back and lets Jackson take over. The Affair’s greatest strength (give-or-take beautiful ocean-swept scenery) has always been the considerable acting talents of its four main leads. West is a smart enough performer to only augment Jackson’s performance by letting him take the lead. (And Christopher Meyer is perfect as the befuddled kid who wants to help, only to realize that he’s wandered into something that’s way over his head.) Noah here is as compassionate as we’ve ever seen him: checking in on Anton even as he desperately tries to help his ex-wife’s first husband (the shock that greets everyone when they realize that the two are hanging out only adds to the comedy). He literally picks Cole up when he falls, stops him from killing Ben and pummeling the shit out of himself, and, in the greatest act of humanity ever witnessed on The Affair: goes into the morgue to identify Alison’s body in an amazing, emotionally grueling moment. I’m still not over it.

In fact, it took me a whole day to gather up the emotional strength to give this episode a rewatch, much as I gleefully enjoyed that first half-hour. Like Cole, I did not believe that was going to be Alison in the morgue. I thought the tragedy in store would be that she’d had a breakdown, or that Ben was hiding her, or even that she’d killed her father. Because, like Cole, I didn’t want to believe that she was gone. Even when all the signs were there: the left-behind wallet and phone, and most tellingly, the switch of the money accounts to Joanie. But Alison had a long history of disappearing and mental-health issues—so that her death seems almost inevitable even as it is completely surprising.

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I just have to sit with it for a minute. I am not expert enough about depression or mental health to offer anything except the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number at the bottom of this piece and to urge anyone who feels that they need help to please, please call it. I suspect, in the two episodes we have left in this season (season five, I have no fucking clue), we will probably see Alison’s final moments, that last fight with Ben, maybe her memorial service. For now, I can’t get over Cole’s pain, his desperation to pin this on someone else, but I believe Ben, and the familiar detective: This was something Alison did to herself. One of the most painful parts, to me, is Helen’s comment to Alison two episodes ago that she thought Cole and Alison would get back together eventually, and Alison brushes it off. She didn’t know that the (married to someone else) love of her life was still waiting for her. That even with all the literal grief they had been through, Cole, unlike every other man she’d ever known, would still be there for her. Maybe it would have been enough; maybe not.

But the sad blue flowers were too late. If I take anything from this episode—from Cole writhing in emotional pain, yelling at Noah he had Alison in his hands, why didn’t he do more—it’s that if you love someone, you need to tell them. Don’t wait. None of us ever know what’s going to happen. Cole wasted years trying to do the right thing for Luisa, but by doing so he was only hurting himself and everyone else (I predict he and Luisa break up after this, leaving him to raise Joanie by himself—in my dreams, with Noah helping out).

Also, that your reckless actions matter. That what you’re doing affects other people. It’s why that final, five-minute segment of Noah’s viewpoint was so perfect, witnessing a glowing nostalgic glimpse of Alison (remember, he’s had visions before), only underlined by the happy, dark-haired family in the diner that resembles an early version of Noah’s own. There was beautiful Alison the Lobster Roll waitress, saving Stacey’s life, full of life herself. Would she and Cole been able to find a way to get through the death of Gabriel together if Noah hadn’t intervened? (Note Cole’s immediate defense of the small-town waitress that Anton ends up hooking up with, that she’s a grown person who doesn’t need to be impressed by someone from out of town.) Would Alison be, to Ben’s point, less hurt, less damaged, and still alive then? Since Noah will never be able to answer that question, his devastation at the end of the episode—like all of ours—is complete.

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If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.