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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Whitney shows up to cause trouble on The Affair

Ruth Wilson (left), Julia Goldani Telles/Showtime
Ruth Wilson (left), Julia Goldani Telles/Showtime
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If The Affair was like most other television shows, “203” would be a perfectly adequate transitional episode; the kind of episode needed in order to advance the story but necessarily all that compelling on its own. This third episode of season two certainly has all the marks of a transitional episode, focusing on situations and plot points that don’t resonate immediately but seem destined to be building to something in the future. The trouble with The Affair doing an episode that feels transitional is that it isn’t like most other television shows. The dual perspective nature requires each half of the narrative to have a sort of payoff, whether it be emotional or plot-based, otherwise the time spent on that perspective can feel strangely wasted. This is exactly what happens in the case of the Noah half of “203,” and the whole episode suffers as a result.

Part of the issue could be that, after spending two weeks exploring new things in Helen and Cole’s perspectives, it is a tiny bit disappointing to return to the status quo of Noah and Alison. Most of the problem, however, comes from the fact that Noah’s perspective simply isn’t all that immediately enlightening, either emotionally or on a plot level. Big things do happen—like Noah proposing to Alison and Whitney showing up unannounced at the cabin—but nothing manages to resonate in the way it did during his perspective in the season premiere. If anything stands out, it’s the return of the haunting nightmare he had in the season premiere of running down a woman, except this time those visions haunt him while he’s awake. What do they mean? Are they some sort of manifestation of guilt, either for something he did to Scotty, or what he did to his family?


One thing that starts in Noah’s perspective and then is echoed by Alison is the ways this new relationship is testing both of their boundaries. A hallmark of Noah’s character is that he’s convinced he’s a good person, but he’s also tremendously insecure about his station in life and desperately wants to feel like that isn’t important to him. This duality informs almost everything about him. We see it in the opening sex scene, when Noah needs reassurance from Alison every step of the way that she’s having a good time (which can be seen as either a sign of a good partner or of an overbearing, badgering one—both takes can likely be justified in that moment). We see it when Noah and Alison fight after Whitney arrives, and Alison tells him “You’re a good man, you’re kind, you want to fix everyone,” which isn’t something we’ve seen from any perspective on Noah’s character, but he needs to believe Alison believes it in order to convince himself what he’s doing is the right thing. Noah makes a point to tell Alison he’s the happiest he’s ever been in his life, and in a later talk with Max he acts like the biggest inconvenience of his divorce isn’t the emotional devastation of the family he left behind, but that he doesn’t have an apartment in the city. There’s certainly no good and kind man there.

As for Alison, her coming to terms with her new life has far more poignant overtones, which deepens her half of the episode in a way Noah’s just can’t compete with. For Alison, moving on with her life with a new man in a new town was partially about trying to move on from the hole Gabriel’s death left in her soul. What she’s figuring out is that it isn’t quite that easy, pointing out here that while Noah can say he understands, he’ll never quite be able to fully know how moving on with him might not be the emotional salvation and “best time of her life” in the same way it is for him, even if she does love him. Her entire walk in the woods with house owner Robert where she comes to these realizations is wonderfully written and acted, and this—along with true character development when she swims for the first time since Gabriel’s accident—elevates the Alison half of the episode to genuinely compelling.

If one thing stood out as purely plot-driven in this episode it was Whitney and her very inconvenient trip to see her father in the cabin. This checks off a number of boxes the show can use in the future, like Whitney learning Alison is staying at the cabin and the reveal that Scotty changed his number but Whitney still loves him and wants to track him down. It’s Whitney’s scenes that most tie into the present-day segment here, where we learn that Scotty died the night of Cole’s wedding, a wedding that both Alison and Noah attended, and where Noah got drunk and angry and caused a scene. Noah says he hit a deer on the way home, but his visions in the flashbacks show him hitting a woman. How is any of this connected? Is it connected? And the biggest question this present-day scene raised: Why did Alison look so cautious and uncomfortable the entire time in the lawyer’s office?

The flashbacks and present day scenes don’t have the same cohesion they had at the beginning of the series, which becomes less and less of an issue as the show figures out they don’t have to be so closely connected. What The Affair does need to reconcile, however, is how to create fully rounded, rich perspectives in each episode that can stand on their own and feel satisfying. The show accomplished it with Alison’s story this week. Noah’s just didn’t quite hit the mark.


Stray observations:

  • Key moment in Alison’s memory: “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Noah says the affair, but Alison doesn’t answer right away. Instead the POV of the camera shifts to above her face, watching as a tear slowly sits in her eye. Her response, “I’ve done a lot of things,” is very evocative and powerful. These are the moments the show consistently nails.
  • Max giving Noah money to get an apartment is a funny little sly rich guy way of getting the competition out of his way. I’m sure Noah will be extremely pleased to learn Max and Helen are seeing each other now.
  • Yvonne and Robert are great additions to this part of the story but I do wonder where they fit into what is to come. Are they there simply to offer parallels to what Alison and Noah are wrestling with, like the story of Robert lying to Yvonne about the dog echoes Alison lying to Noah? Or is there something more? Also, what was the deal with Robert seeing Alison and Noah in the pool?
  • For a second I truly believed this show was going to kill a dog. I was not ready for the comments if that was the case.
  • Did Whitney tell Helen about Alison? Is that why Helen is suddenly filing for divorce instead of doing mediation? (And is this maybe why Noah has no money in the future?)
  • I really, really like Whitney. I can’t help it, she’s hilarious and manipulative and such a pain in the ass.
  • “Between Grandma and Mom it’s like I live in a coven of depressed witches.”
  • “You hit a deer. Was Scott Lockhart riding the deer at the time?”

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