From the beginning, The Affair has steadfastly refused to judge its own characters. Actions presented as monstrous in one point of view are shown in a more understanding light in another, creating if not a full perspective, then at least as rounded of a one as possible and then letting the audience sort out their own feelings about a characters actions and motivations. This has been especially effective with the addition of Helen and Cole’s perspectives this season, but the one puzzling exception to this is Noah. Noah is the character consistently shown in the worst light, often coming off worse in his own point of view segments than in others. This could be a powerful statement on how Noah views himself, but the show’s structure so prohibits actual, linear answers that it’s almost impossible to tell if this is the intent. The events of Noah’s perspective this week leave the lingering questions: Who the hell is Noah Solloway, and what the hell is wrong with him?

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This is a pretty important question, considering the entire show rests on the back of his choice to blow up his entire life by embarking on an affair with Alison. It’s a fact he’s personally obsessed with, using it as a weapon in any argument with Alison, as if his point of view should automatically count more because he left four children behind so they could be together. But while last season focused strongly on the reasons Noah was drawn to Alison, this season those reasons feel a bit murkier and less developed. Part of this is because most of Noah’s season hasn’t really had much to do with Alison on a plot and thematic level, centering more on his book and his divorce. Now the show is attempting to loop all of these threads together with his feelings for Alison, and it isn’t quite connecting as well as it should.

Perhaps one reason Noah’s story isn’t connecting is simply that the more we learn about Noah, the more his selfishness comes through. Noah goes to find Alison at her yoga retreat, happy as can be that everything in his life is working out and ready to fetch her and bring her back with him, and is absolutely floored when she doesn’t automatically want to pack up her things and leave. In his mind, everything he’s done in the six weeks they’ve been apart is preparation so they could be together. The problem is that it appears he never actually asked Alison what she wanted in these last six weeks, what was going on in her life, or what her plans were.

This is also the first time this season we see Noah’s feelings toward Alison as something dark and dangerous, and we see Noah’s perception of Alison as someone dark. This is in stark contrast to what she has been for him since the first episode of season two, where she was consistently presented as the calm and centering presence he needed in contrast to his chaotic family life. Now that his family chaos is resolved, it’s almost as if he expects—and needs—the chaos she brought into his life when they first met to return. This shift is so abrupt, however, that it doesn’t quite work, especially when this chaos manifests as him essentially manhandling and then raping Alison against a tree. This moment is a pretty neat parallel to what Noah saw between Alison and Cole in the pilot, almost as if he needs to return her to that person to fulfill something within himself.

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Noah’s reason for this fulfillment—so he can finally write the “dark” ending his novel needs to become a big success—is the most confounding thing of all, in regards to how the show presents his character. Writers overtly telling viewers how to feel about their characters at every moment isn’t ideal, but after these events the intentions with regards to Noah’s character are so muddled that it’s difficult to tell what the show is trying to accomplish. Are we supposed to love Noah or hate him? Are we supposed to understand him or be confused by him? We’re only about halfway through the season but everything about his perspective this week was troubling, to say the least.

Noah’s actions were especially jarring after coming off of what was a very emotionally intense opening with his family. Starting the episode with Helen’s point of view was a great choice, considering Noah’s might have been expected following his conspicuous absence in the previous episode. Everything that happens here lays the groundwork for Noah and Alison’s story in the second half, like a barrage of mutating chaos that builds throughout, then levels off into happiness, before building again into chaos in Noah’s half of the episode.

The chaos in Helen’s opening half of the episode is largely due to the bucket of toxicity that is her mother, who is taking all of her feelings about her own divorce and placing them squarely on Helen’s shoulders. It’s Margaret who is convinced Martin is only having health issues because he’s so distraught over the divorce, it’s Margaret who keeps putting Noah down in front of the children, and it’s Margaret who keeps telling them they don’t have to see their father if they don’t want to. The key to Helen’s story here, though, is that it’s Helen who keeps letting her mother get away with it. It isn’t until Martin has to be rushed to the emergency room for a perforated bowel that Helen finally gets the nerve to tell her mother exactly what she thinks of her, and the result isn’t pretty but it’s both emotionally cathartic for Helen and extremely enlightening for her character.

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Helen standing up to her mother was far more than simply her being fed up at the moment; it was like over 40 years of slow-building resentment at her parents and how she allowed them to affect her own viewpoints and experiences boiled over into one nasty confrontation that ended with Helen telling her mother she hated her and kicking her out of the house. It’s an uncomfortable moment, simultaneously triumphant and yet still brutal and sad, mostly because of how it feels like Helen woke up too late. Like she lived her whole life in this cocoon of her parents’ influence and wealth, and didn’t think of the consequences of what that meant until her entire life blew up. She blames her mother here for slowly poisoning her against Noah, but Helen’s extreme outburst here makes it pretty clear that she blames herself, too, for being allowed to be so influenced. Hearing Helen say she loved Noah and still let herself be poisoned is gutting, because even though Noah cheating is not her fault, she knows she can’t walk back the clock on all the things she actually could control, like the way she viewed him when she had him.

This is an episode full of brutal moments, but there is a beauty to be found here, too. Through Martin’s ordeal and its aftermath, the show does an incredible job of showing this family in all their stages—chaos, crisis, and then glorious happiness when it’s all resolved. The family sitting at the table together, happily welcoming Martin home and then eating cake, is maybe the first time they’ve been presented as a fully functional unit in the history of the series. The spell is broken when Noah has to leave, returning them all to their new reality. Noah did blow up his family for Alison. After seeing moments like this—then moments like what he did to Alison at the yoga retreat—what we need to better understand now is why.

Stray observations:

  • Hi, Sebastian Junger! Your surprise pop-in made me laugh.
  • Whitney hugging Helen and Helen breaking down was where I broke. Maura Tierney was so incredibly vulnerable in that moment.
  • Oscar wants $100,000 to keep a key piece of evidence in the Scotty case away from the prosecutors. I enjoy his commitment to blackmail.
  • Hearing that Noah and Alison have been separated for six weeks was surprising, as that didn’t really come across well in the show’s actual timeline. So is that kid Cole’s or what?
  • Athena is an obnoxious character at times but I enjoy that she’s always so spot-on about other people’s emotions and life troubles.
  • Alison refusing to read Noah’s book is interesting, but I feel like we can’t trust it simply because it’s so hard to take anything on face value in this show.
  • “Martin. You can tell your father you hate him. It will make you feel better.” Jesus, Margaret.
  • “Anywhere you want to go on vacation next, you can decide.” “Not Montauk.” Martin’s got jokes!

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