Irène Jacob, Dominic West (Photo: Showtime)

Almost a year after it last left us, The Affair returns with the aftermath of Noah’s dramatic (and fake) courtroom confession to the murder of Scotty Lockhart. It was a decision in which he tossed his ever-fluctuating loyalty from new love Alison to old love Helen: Alison may have pushed Scotty in front of the car, but Helen’s the one who ran over him like a roadkill possum. Unsurprisingly, this passionate but perhaps misguided courtroom stunt landed Noah in jail for three years, and we pick up with him after his recent release, where he’s stymied by a really unfortunate beard.

Unlike The Affair’s usual spilt hour, this entire first episode revolves around Noah, and honestly, that’s likely to its detriment. Of the four main players—Noah, Alison, Helen, and Alison’s ex, Cole—Noah has always been the least sympathetic. Over the course of two seasons, we’ve seen him blossom from an unsuccessful, bitter novelist to become even worse, a completely arrogant asshole novelist, fleeing from his family to start a new one with Alison. Cole, Alison, Helen, all appear to have reasons behind even their most heinous actions, but not Noah, except for the cause of his own assholery.

The show seems simultaneously aware and not aware of this fact. There’s a great meta shoutout at a heady college dinner party that calls out Noah’s controversial grab of Alison last season, forcibly having sex with her standing against a tree. His student Audrey (played by Sarah Ramos—Haddie from Parenthood has been found, everyone!) calls him out on just that moment, while also describing his book as “a training manual in how to be an asshole.” The dinner only seems to point out how removed Noah is from anyone else ‘s perspective, or about thinking of the woman’s side of it at all (When asked about the opposite sex at dinner, he condescendingly and faintly enthuses, ”I approve of women; I think you’re all great.” Chee, thanks). To the treeside tryst he self-absorbedly answers, “I think she enjoyed it.” As self-absorbed as they are themselves, we really have to applaud those dinner-table college students as they explode, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

That dinner party also offers a valuable allegory to Noah and how he sees himself, with all the discussion of “courtly love” and Lancelot types. Check out Noah and how full of himself he is at Helen’s first prison visit. He’s practically beaming with pride. He threw himself on a knife to save his ex, and also his kids from their mom possibly going to prison. After years of primarily feeling guilty about deceit, it’s understandable that the act of finally being punished would be ironically freeing for Noah. He even tells Helen as much in the visit: “I owe you that, after all I put you through.” He also tells her to “wait,” as if there’s something romantic about her pining for him all those months he’s in jail like he’s The Count Of Monte-frickin’ Cristo or something. Or, more appropriately, like Lancelot: cocky, full of himself, telling Helen that he’s strong enough to handle this, that he’ll be out before she knows it.

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His manner at the funeral, and the fact that the three-year absence is mentioned, tells us that none of that came to pass. Not even their star-crossed love story, as Helen asks “What about us?” and he gapes at her incredulously. The three years changed Noah much more than he thought they would, and Helen is now irrevocably branded as the person who put him there. Never mind the fact that she didn’t ask him to lie for her, or that she tried to talk him out of it. That she did just exactly what he asked her to do. Classic Noah.

Because, to his mind, a clean slate is always best—moving forward beats going backward—and one fortunately pops up almost immediately with a French classics professor (Irène Jacob). That’s one of the main problems with this premiere and the series overall: That Noah Solloway is somehow so instantly irresistible to women. Helen has thrown away any number of possibilities in favor of her philandering ex. Alison also upended her whole life. Now Juliette almost immediately invites him into her home and her bed, based on his novel and his convict status. It’s mind-numbing.

Are we being too hard on Noah? He’s obviously had a hard time of it. Most prominently in some random glimpses and flashbacks at the hands of a prison guard, played by Brendan Fraser with a previously unseen level of menace (and eyebrows). The guard figure hulks around Noah’s father’s funeral, outside his class, even a wine store, but at this point we have no idea if he really exists, or is just a figment—although the episode’s shocking ending veers toward the former.

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After Noah “eviscerates” Audrey in class, it’s nice to see her get that chance for some payback, not just at the dinner, but on the porch afterward. Noah chides her about getting out of her comfort zone, when she tries to explain what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated society: You never have a comfort zone. Noah gets to feel a bit of that himself (loudly emphasized with some discordant jazz) when he realizes he also is not safe on the street, in his class, in a wine store, even in his own home. The guard looming behind him symbolizes Noah’s past, his misdeeds, the things he just can’t get away from, even as he tries his hardest. As Juliette describes in the church, it’s “shadow upon shadow upon shadow.”

His stabbing then seems—to him and to us—somehow inevitable. Maybe it’s a lesson about karma. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale that even though he was doing it for ostensibly the right reasons, this level of deception was never going to turn out the way that he hoped. Like so many things in his life, Noah’s hopeful fantasy again gets trumped by a shockingly brutal reality.

Stray observations

  • Really loved Jennifer Esposito as Noah’s sister Nina, who believes in his innocence even though she doesn’t know the whole story. She also offered one of this bleak episode’s only laughs: “To grieve.”
  • The other laugh: When all the students turn around to stare incredulously at Noah.
  • Much as we like Helen, she’s kind of a stuck-up rich person, right? Pretty rude to Nina at her own dad’s funeral. Helen leaving with the kids though, was not about any of that: It was about the fact that Noah so clearly didn’t want her there.
  • At least there’s one woman Noah can’t win over: His parole officer.
  • Why wasn’t Whitney at the funeral? Still mad at Noah for that hot-tub incident that none of us will ever get over?
  • Was Noah’s rant against “She couldn’t help but wonder…” a knock against Sex And The City, which used that phrase just about every episode?
  • This was just a check-in for the premiere, but I’m sure I will be watching every week, so I might possibly check in again. Have to say, even when I don’t agree with all of the show’s choices, it’s a lot of fun to write about, just because there’s so much there. And the performances are always spectacular.
  • UPDATE: Due to the numerous requests in the comments below, we’ll do a comments space for The Affair’s remaining nine episodes this season. See, the system works! See you next week!

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