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The women are by far the most interesting characters on The Affair

Photo: Paul Sarkis (Showtime)
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If we can throw some shade at The Affair’s four-plus seasons (oh, and I think we can), the show’s main flaw is that it has focused much too much on the longings, desires, and shortcomings of one Noah Solloway. No offense to Dominic West, but it’s clear that the women in Noah’s life are far more interesting than he is. It looks like season five may get this, wisely turning the perception wheel toward the two main women in Noah’s life in episode two: his ex-wife Helen and his “girlfriend,” Janelle.

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Both offer valuable insights into some woefully underused characters. especially Janelle. In our third trip to Vik’s funeral, we see how much Janelle is an outsider, made to stand out even more so by not wearing white. (Classic Noah: “Who knew that wearing white at a funeral was a Hindu tradition? It’s crazy that Helen didn’t tell me.”) In Janelle’s version, Noah is a self-absorbed goofball, who barely addresses the fact that his senile ex-father-in-law assumes that Janelle is the help (“You think that’s bad, you should see how he treats me”) and thanks Janelle for coming with him to the funeral because “This is so fucking weird to me, with no thought on how awkward the whole event reads to her. Even worse are Whitney’s condescending compliments: “I had no idea. You’re gorgeous,” and “I just wanted to say that I think it’s so awesome that you’re my dad’s girlfriend. Dating a woman of color might be one of the coolest things he’s ever done.” Between that and Helen’s frosty welcome, is it any wonder that Janelle hightails it out of there as fast as she can, away from Vik’s now-unsmiling portrait, like the force that’s looming over the whole thing?

Unfortunately, where she’s headed isn’t much better: an interview for the job she already has at Compton Academy. If the students love her, isn’t she already doing a great job? And in what way in the world is awkward Joel “so fantastic with people”? Also, let no one forget that the student walkout Janelle’s now getting blamed for was Noah’s fault. As Janelle later despairs to her ex, “When is it gonna be enough?”—meaning when will she be enough, instead of getting disrespected for her multiple degrees and 20 years of teaching by having to split her job in half with someone just barely out of school. In her talk with Carl (the first of two instances this episode wherein the women in Noah’s life are better served by conversations with someone else), Janelle fortunately realizes that she doesn’t have to stay in this subservient position, in this lesser role, and Carl is going to help her reclaim a position of power. Carl gets what she’s going through; remember in Noah’s version of the funeral, Janelle is just vaguely complaining about her work situation, and he’s barely paying attention at all. Carl puts the focus back where it belongs, on her. Hell yes, I think that’s reason enough for her to reconcile with her ex-husband, leaving Noah in the dust.

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Three months later, Noah’s not faring much better with Helen, either. She’s still emotionally exhausted after Vik’s death (leading to physical exhaustion), spending her time sitting in on Noah’s movie set and Trevor’s play rehearsal instead of actually dealing with her partner’s passing. The meta version of Noah and Helen’s breakup is a bit surreal to witness, but Helen’s observations are absolutely right. There was a lot more anger there.

More focus on Helen means more of Maura Tierney, fortunately, and she’s riveting in the whole Sasha scene, perfectly encapsulating how lost someone feels after a loss like that. (Although her line “I really don’t understand my life,” with a bloody nose and a glass of pinot noir was hilariously spot-on.) “He made his point, he died, so when’s he coming back?” hit really hard, as did Sasha’s response: “Death is relentless.” If you’ve suffered that kind of loss, it’s only too relatable: How can the world keep turning, how can things keep moving forward, when your favorite person is no longer here, and isn’t coming back? I didn’t really bawl over Vik’s funeral last week—like I said, I found the ending a bit cloying—but the Sasha conversation, and Vik’s final message to Helen, really hit me hard, especially the way she kept responding to hm like they were having an actual conversation. The only thing that stuck out at me was Vik’s appearance at Sasha’s house: “Helen, I’m so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen.” Isn’t that the same thing that Noah has said to her many times over?

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From Helen’s perspective, Sasha is a polite, eager-to-please charmer, so while I fear that he’s actually just an advantageous actor looking to better his performance by getting closer to the woman his current co-star is based on, I’m glad their conversation went from disastrous to insightful. And if their relationship means more Helen this Affair season, I’m all for it.

Still not sold on the futuristic Joanie storyline, though: Really, a toilet that rattles off the contents of everything in it? And her next assignment just happens to be in Montauk, of all places? What are the odds? But the climate change damage is interesting, like how the train tracks keep getting flooded. And I’m assuming that’s what happened to Montauk. When you’re out there, all the souvenirs call it “The End Of The World” because it’s the eastern-most part of New York. So if water levels rose the way people are predicting, it seems a safe bet that Montauk would have been washed away. Maybe that’s what happened to Cole? So it now seems even less likely that Joanie will find the answer to all her questions out there, but even The Affair would not leave us hanging that badly. There have to still be some Lockharts around there, right? I just wish Joanie’s few minutes each episode didn’t feel like they’re from an entirely different show; hopefully as the season moves along, these stories will become more unified.

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Stray observations

  • Anton made it to Princeton, yay.
  • Sasha’s made-up movie titles are fun: “The Maze movies. Snake Junction? Fortitude?”
  • Have you tasted mulch?”
  • Besides helpful conversation with men who aren’t Noah Solloway, another parallel this episode: vomiting. Joanie has to be pregnant, right? She’ll probably be conflicted about it, given her spiteful carbon-footprint comments to her co-worker about her own pregnancy, but may have to be snacking on crickets soon herself.
  • Hey, there are still books in the future! Good to know, even if they just have simple, on-the-nose names like Montauk.
  • Next week: Yay, karaoke! And boo, Joel.
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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

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