Previously on The Affair, “301”
Evolution is an integral part of creating good serialized television. Mysteries need to be solved, characters need to develop and change, villains must be vanquished, and plot lines need not be recycled. For a show to remain fresh and intriguing, it must figure out how to grow and adapt. Last season, The Affair managed to progress by expanding on its signature format to introduce Cole and Helen’s perspectives into the mix. This allowed for broader storytelling opportunities, and helped to improve our understanding of Alison and Noah’s exes. This year, so far anyways, the show hasn’t been able to find it’s next evolution. There’s no more Montauk murder mystery, there’s no more affair, and, after this episode, there’s no more debate on who Joanie’s father is. So, it’s still unclear what that really leaves for the show to explore. On top of that, The Affair has essentially abandoned its original structure of dueling perspectives, which is a huge part of what made the show so interesting and unique in the first place.
Now, it could be argued that last week’s singular focus on Noah was an example of the show trying to move forward and shake things up. As annoying as it was to watch the Garbage Monster for an entire hour, it was a step in the right direction towards keeping the show from becoming stagnant. This week however, we’re back to the split narratives and it just doesn’t work the same as it used to. It wasn’t an episode that explored two people’s different perceptions on the same event – which is fair since Alison and Helen likely have zero contact with each other. Instead, it was a glimpse into these women’s lives, a year prior to Noah being released from prison, and it left a lot to be desired. There was simply no connective tissue; not with the characters, and not with the story overall. I mean, aside from their shared traumas (being married to Noah, being involved in Scott’s death) what do Alison and Helen really have in common? Loneliness? Insecurity? I guess, but the show didn’t bother to illustrate these possible parallels with any notable depth. In the end, there was no point to seeing their narratives in the same episode. Had The Affair given Helen half of the spotlight last week, and paired Alison with Cole this week, perhaps the season would be a little closer to feeling like a cohesive unit.
“The woman is a master of illusion.”
Helen’s half of this episode was a slow burn that led to practically nowhere. While this glimpse into her state of mind was technically interesting – great writing, directing, and acting – it didn’t do much to advance the story overall. The Affair has always been more of a character study than something driven by plot, but we typically get at least some small bit of story progression per episode. Here, Helen seems to wind up at the same place she started, despite the development in her relationship with Vic. Perhaps if she hadn’t been a part of the future timeline shown in last week’s episode, the ending impression may have been different. Unfortunately, it looks as though no matter how much bullshit he’s put her through (and will continue to put her through) Helen is blinded by her love for Noah.
She claims to be happier than ever in her “situation” with Vic – he’s renting the room in her basement, which allows for sex whenever they please, while also providing them with space to lead separate lives. Honestly it doesn’t sound awful, but it’s clear Helen is only doing this to keep him at a distance. On top of the lingering feelings she still has for Noah, there’s also a sense of obligation to stand by him because of what he sacrificed for her. A sacrifice that only causes further confusion for Helen, as she believes he took the fall because there was still a chance for them. Even if that did factor into Noah’s original decision, he feels much differently about her after a couple of years behind bars. In fact, he no longer wants anything to do with her, unless their children are involved. A family reunion is far from becoming a reality, though.
Whitney, in particular, is ready to completely forget about her father. She’s already moved out and is now dating, living and working with a man named Furkat. Yep. A man who is at least twice Whitney’s age, and has got to be every mother’s worst nightmare personified. Thankfully, their dinner conversation wasn’t entirely focused on this relationship Whitney will no doubt come to regret, because all roads lead back to Noah. Even after the cold shoulder he gave her at the prison, Helen still chooses to defend him. She implies there was more to the night of Scott’s murder than everyone knows, but quickly realizes she needs to dial back the honesty. She’s trapped by the guilt she feels for killing Scott and for Noah taking the blame, but the consequences of coming clean would be quite considerable. She’d lose her kids and Vic, and Noah would hate her even more because his time in jail would have been for nothing.
Helen has lost control over many aspects in her life, so it’s fitting that she’s tried to exert some in her relationship with Vic. Even she finally realizes what they have can’t be sustained though, and she tells him as much. It’s unclear whether she meant to end it or allow it to become something more, but Vic took it to mean the latter and she doesn’t stop him from acting on it. Vic may have moved his things into her room, and she may have promised to steer clear of Noah, but the look on Helen’s face assures us this isn’t the key to her happiness; nothing about her emotional state has changed.
“I made a mistake. I’m still her mother.”
Alison’s half of the hour was frustrating, to say the least. In the same timeline as Helen’s story, Alison is just returning to Montauk after spending six months in an “institute.” She looks healthier than we’ve seen her in a while, but she’s still very clearly burdened by the grief in her past. In fact, it’s her fear of that past repeating itself that caused her to leave Montauk in the first place. Shortly after Joanie turned 4 – the age Gabriel was when he died – she became very ill and Alison blamed herself. The timing of Joanie’s illness was enough to convince Alison that she was causing it, that her daughter would die if she stayed with her. Ultimately, Alison suffered a nervous breakdown and went away to get help. This admission was downright heartbreaking, and Ruth Wilson sold every second of its reveal. What’s frustrating was the way in which this information came to light, and in how it doesn’t quite fit into the tenuous situation being presented with Cole and Luisa.
First of all, are we really supposed to believe Alison would open up about this to Oscar? Of all the people she could have had this conversation with, why was he the final choice? Despite Wilson’s genuine sorrow in that moment, the scene doesn’t quite hit the emotional mark it could have. Instead, it comes across as a very convenient way to unload a ton of exposition, in order to explain Alison’s side of the story. An explanation which Cole and Luisa seem unaware of; or are they? It’s hard to tell.
With the way Luisa talks to Alison, it seems like she and Cole knew nothing about where Alison went or why she felt compelled to leave. They act as if Alison disappeared in the night and was unreachable for 6 months. Except we also know Alison signed custody of Joanie over to the Lockharts when she was at the “institute.” So, they must at least have a small idea of where Alison has been, and you’d think that might come along with a little sympathy. If it becomes clear Alison did in fact flee in the night with zero explanation, Cole and Luisa’s resistance to having Alison back in Joanie’s life, will be entirely understandable and warranted. As its stands, it comes across that Alison was seeking help for her mental instability and is now being harshly, almost cruelly punished for it. The ambiguity of this situation isn’t the thought-provoking kind The Affair uses to spark conversation about character. No, it’s just a strange and distracting hiccup in the plot.
Possibly the most irksome part of all, is that both of the aforementioned problems could have been avoided. Instead of having Alison confide in Oscar, why not have her tell Cole and Luisa the whole story? At the very least, this would solve the problem of Alison’s reveal not delivering on all of its potential emotional impact. It could also, hopefully, provide clarity on Cole and Luisa’s strong stance against Alison. It’s just not super believable that they know the whole story, and yet are so unwilling to allow Alison to prove herself. If Cole and Luisa are being petty, fine. I just want to know for sure, instead of being left under the impression that this was a behind the scenes error. I mean, is it really better for Joanie to grow up thinking her mother never even tried to make things right? Cole clearly doesn’t think so, because by the end of the episode he’s brought Joanie to see Alison.
The Affair S3E2 = 7.2/10