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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Everything falls apart on an emotionally brutal The Affair

Illustration for article titled Everything falls apart on an emotionally brutal The Affair

Noah’s biggest mistake throughout the entirety of The Affair so far is thinking that he was going to get out of this thing scot-free. It’s as if as soon as he decided he wanted to make a life with Alison he expected everyone else to fall in line accordingly, with minimal resistance. What Noah can’t see is that removing himself from his family isn’t as easy as just going away; there’s a hole there now where he used to be, and the family he left behind keeps being pulled into the hole, unable to escape its gravitational pull. For what feels like the first time, Noah actually sees just how messy Helen and the kids’ lives have been. The question is, will it change anything?

One of the interesting ways this story is unfolding is that although Noah has remained oblivious to how all of this would turn out, the audience always knew his story was headed for doom due to the police investigation framework. Noah and Alison might have looked perfectly content in the quick shot we got of them in the season one finale, but that happiness was obviously not the whole story, and it was shattered almost immediately by the reality of Noah’s arrest. What this fourth episode of season two makes very clear is that the happiness seen there might have been real, but it came on the back of his family’s pain. It’s an emotionally brutal reminder that you can’t detonate a bomb without somehow affecting everything in that bomb’s blast radius.

This is the best-constructed episode of the season when it comes to telling one complete story, first showing Helen’s slow unraveling in the face of her now-contentious divorce, and then shifting focus to Noah to show just how ignorant he is of what is actually happening in his family’s lives without him. It’s a similar story to the season premiere, but is much more concise and effective because it doesn’t’ have any of the other narrative baggage necessary in a season premiere; it can simply tell one devastating emotional thread and how it weaves its way through every member of the Solloway family.

The devastation begins with Helen, whose perspective starts with the increasingly distressing divorce proceedings and then snowballs from there into what can best be described as a giant clusterfuck. She has to listen to her lawyer continuously refer to Alison as Noah’s “paramour.” She can’t handle Max’s obvious intense interest in her and breaks things off with him, only to have him throw all her worst fears about herself and her inability to be truly happy back in her face. (It is her perspective after all; who knows what he actually said, but that’s what she heard.) She gets sad and drunk and sings angry Lucinda Williams songs in her bedroom. She gets high and forgets to pick up her kids, kicking off a chain of events that leads her to getting into a car accident then getting arrested for possession. It’s perfectly escalated chaos, claustrophobic and horrifying from beginning to end, and could either be Helen’s emotional breaking point before coming out okay on the other side, or the beginning of something much darker. The beauty of her story here is we don’t get to find out; we are left right where she is, alone in a jail cell and wondering just how her life got so far off track.

The easy answer to how Helen’s life got so far off track is Noah, but what I like about The Affair the most is that it doesn’t necessarily demonize anyone’s choices. Because you see events from a specific point of view, you get to draw your own conclusions about what happened in the margins. What taking this route allows them to do is have moments where characters are essentially judging themselves by how they remember certain moments, which is an interesting way to illuminate character. This happens the most in Noah’s perspectives, as he tends to come across incredibly insensitive and naïve at times even in his own memories.

Here that insensitivity comes through when he takes the kids on a visit to his sister’s house, and the entire time adds more chaos to what has already been a very chaotic day for them all. It starts with a genuine enough sentiment to take them to a place where they can be with a loving family, but once Noah realizes his father is there at his sister’s house too, everything goes to hell. This is the first time we’ve seen him do anything more than talk about his family, and it’s immediately obvious that Noah’s relationship with his father is nonexistent, and when they do interact it is antagonistic. Noah’s father lets him no in no uncertain circumstances that he doesn’t approve of Noah’s affair and is firmly on Helen’s side, but the more interesting interaction might be the one between Noah and his sister Nina. While his father is blindly an asshole, Nina isn’t necessarily against what Noah is doing. She simply wants him to remember that his kids are way more important than the fact that he fell in love with another woman.


It’s in these two interactions where it’s easier to see what Noah’s life was probably like growing up, and how much his mother’s absence affected their family dynamic. The irony of this situation is that Noah hasn’t yet seen his own absence from his current family’s life as similar in any way, and it’s in this blindness where he’s making all of his mistakes. When he storms out of his sister’s house—where his kids are happy and content for the first time in the entire episode—he’s just adding chaos on top of chaos, making it so unbearable that Martin has one of his painful stomach attacks in the hotel on the way home.

The key to Noah’s story, though, is what happens during Martin’s attack. Alison calls and tries to help him through the attack, then later shows up at the hotel after the kids are asleep just to be with Noah for a few minutes. It’s the first time he’s truly happy in the entire episode, and it’s as if every moment he’s just experienced is erased. Does that mean that Noah will forget all of the emotional devastation he just witnessed, because Alison makes it better? The two women in Noah’s life both ask him questions in this episode. For Helen, it’s a haunting “Why did you do this to us?” For Alison, a sad “What’s going to happen to us?” These questions are inextricably linked, in ways Noah doesn’t quite seem to fully understand yet. He can only pull on the string that holds the two together for so long before some part of it breaks completely.


Stray observations:

  • Sorry for the confusion last week regarding Noah’s visions. They are obviously happening in the past, so any “guilt” that’s causing them is family related and has nothing to do with Scotty. Everyone’s guess that they are about the ending of his book seems spot-on.
  • So Gottlief is Helen’s divorce attorney and then also ends up representing Noah in his vehicular homicide case? Is his specialty simply “the Butlers?”
  • Margaret’s quiet devastation when telling Helen she “can’t find” Bruce but heard he was with his former student in Tulsa was palpable. She’s such a wonderfully realized character for someone who gets very little screen time.
  • One of the better uses of the multiple perspective gimmick this season was Noah seeing the aftermath of Helen’s drunken afternoon and getting a very different idea of what actually went down. It certainly did look like a messy love nest to him.
  • The present-day scene in this episode was so perfunctory that I wish they didn’t feel compelled to do it. We don’t need it in every episode if it’s just going to be an “oh, they aren’t moving the trial” non-moment.
  • Noah’s dad is Tio Salamanca! Ding.
  • “Would you like to fuck and then open your present or open your present and then fuck?” Max is a charmer.