When The Affair premiered last fall, it was one of the best shows I had ever seen. The Rashomon-style format was the gimmick, along with the wildly misleading posters of Dominic West and Ruth Wilson getting sexy in a pool, but the execution was anything but gimmicky, as the first few episodes utilized the premise to its full potential. Every subtle yet glaring discrepancy within the emotionally charged memories was attributable to a cannily observed limitation of individual perception, whether the result of personality traits, class, gender, etc. The result was an incisive, often devastating exploration of human frailty, cognitive dissonance, and self-deception.
But over the course of the first season, The Affair became as profoundly confused as its most fallible characters. The differences between Alison and Noah’s accounts became either insignificant or divergent to the point of incredulity, culminating in that embarrassingly melodramatic gun-waving scene in the finale. At its nadir, The Affair was a soap opera, a well-acted and relatively well-written soap opera, but a soap opera nonetheless.
The second season premiere (full TV-14 version above) is a return to form for The Affair, if a qualified one. The episode is notable for adding Helen’s perspective to contrast with Noah’s—Cole’s presumably to be added next week opposite Alison’s—just in time for each couple to negotiate an acrimonious divorce. While an extramarital affair, or any romantic engagement for that matter, provides plenty of opportunity for unreliable narration, nothing distorts perspective and memory like the end of a long-term relationship. And while the first episode doesn’t live up to the promise of the earliest episodes, it reverses some of the devolution of the later episodes.
(By the way, Showtime’s official summary for the premiere reads, “Noah and Helen’s divorce is complicated by conflict.” NO SHIT SHOWTIME. The end of their 20-year marriage is complicated? And… and there’s a conflict? Who’s writing these summaries? They’re worse than Netflix.)
We open on a perplexing hint about the murder mystery, which is not a good start. Noah has an ominous, blue-tinted dream sequence/flashback from the perspective of the driver in a hit-and-run involving a dark-haired young woman. This appears to be apropos of nothing, as Scotty Lockhart is a man, although Detective Jeffries does mention later that the judge in Scotty’s case lost his wife in a hit-and-run. Are the two events connected? Is there any plausible reason they would be? (Spoiler: no.) Does anyone even really care at this point?
Sidebar: I’ve always found the murder plot to be unnecessary, shoehorned into a show that, at its best, was primarily concerned with the psychological landscapes of relatable characters. It’s occasionally intriguing, but often tempts the writers into succumbing to their most sensationalist tendencies.
Noah leaves his unfairly halcyon cabin in the woods for a meeting with his editor, Harry (who was his agent last season, but whatever), to bicker about the book’s ending. Harry wants him to use the murder ending from a previous draft, Noah snoots that murder is “salacious” and “cheap,” Harry tells him that his new ending—two characters “sitting down to dinner with an unimaginable secret between them”—lacks a punch. He feeds Noah the common wisdom about crafting a satisfying ending: it needs to feel surprising in the moment but inevitable in retrospect. (They also get some healthy literary snobbery out of their systems: Editor: “Have you read Of Mice and Men?” Noah: “Is that a rhetorical question?” Shut up, Noah. [KHT: Come on, that’s funny!])
The conversation surrounding subtlety versus potency is interesting, but it also feels like the show’s meta defense of its own melodrama. It’s true that many of the great endings in literature end with a murder—The Great Gatsby, Lolita, Hamlet, to name a few—but those murders are rendered inevitable by the scaffolding of the rest of the story. The Scotty Lockhart murder, on the other hand, was tonally jarring from the start. Perhaps The Affair could have earned a murder after a few seasons of build-up, but it didn’t do the necessary legwork. (And in the context of this scene, if we’re supposed to believe that Harry thinks Noah can pull off the same tricks as Steinbeck, he can just simmer the fuck down.)
As he’s leaving the meeting, Noah has an utterly conventional run-in with a married friend who actually says, “We must have you and Helen over for dinner sometime” or some shit like that. Dominic West is great in this scene, his shifty eyes telling the audience very clearly that Noah can’t accept the reality of being a “divorced guy” (or “Divorcer,” it’s just cooler). He can’t bring himself to tell the friend that he and Helen are no longer, not because he misses Helen, but because he misses the cold comfort of the beaten path.
As always, Noah has to be dragged kicking and screaming into reality, which handily occurs when his equally terrible mother-in-law prevents him from removing most of his belongings from his house until they are appraised. Noah does a lot of pouting, first when Helen isn’t there to dutifully greet him at the door, and then because Helen’s mother sent his children away. The more Noah opens his mouth, the more he makes it clear that he just doesn’t get it. It never occurs to him that he has no claim over Helen anymore, or that it might have been upsetting for the kids to watch their father move out of the house.
Margaret and Noah proceed to get into a screaming match, which Margaret incites, but Noah escalates when he threatens through bared teeth to “push [her] down a fucking flight of stairs and tell the coroners that it was a fucking accident.” Martin comes out of his room and plaintively asks, “Dad?” and Noah eats some crow. Margaret is a sociopath, so she smiles triumphantly and says, “Oops.” But for the record, Noah, you probably shouldn’t have been threatening to murder an elderly woman, even if your children weren’t around. Just saying.
Ever the communicator, Noah attempts to smooth things over with Martin by calling him Buddy, plastering a smile on his face, and reiterating their plans to go to a Yankees game, which are promptly cancelled for Martin’s therapy appointment. Noah, of course, interprets this appointment as a personal affront, even though his poor son just heard him threaten to murder his grandmother and has a patently psychosomatic “stomachache.” He and Margaret proceed to have a hushed, profanity-laced argument about the infringement on his Daddy time RIGHT IN FRONT OF MARTIN’S ROOM. I give up.
Noah tries to leave, but the universe isn’t letting him get off that easy, as he runs into the absolutely adorable Trevor, who breaks my little heart by telling Noah that his theater camp was “too sporty” because they wanted him to play “movement games” in the park and “three kids have already gotten ticks.” Aw. Whitney told Trevor that their parents were getting divorced (with the utmost sensitivity, I’m sure), but Trevor scoffs at the very idea that they wouldn’t work it out. He looks up at Noah with pitifully hopeful eyes, and Noah has no choice but to shatter his illusions.
Helen told Trevor that Noah was just having a midlife crisis, and that he would be home once he had taken the time to “get his head out of his ass,” which makes the conversation that much more difficult. Noah, to his credit, rips off the band-aid and tells Trevor that they’re getting a divorce. Little Trevor impressively veers from denial to sadness to anger in the space of two minutes, and when he starts to place the blame on Helen, Noah confesses that he’s fallen in love with someone else. This is probably ill-advised, as Trevor is too young to understand the complexities of adult relationships, but at least Noah is being honest for a change. Trevor asks how that could possibly happen, and Dominic West starts crying like a pro when he’s forced to say, “I don’t know how, I just did.” Noah finally seems to be facing the reality of what he’s done, even if he’ll probably go back to his old patterns of behavior the moment Trevor’s devastation isn’t staring him in the face. Trevor worries that if Noah could stop loving his wife, he could stop loving his children, too. Noah assures him that this isn’t the case, but Trevor still hauls off and slugs him. Usually, I want to punch Noah in the face, too, but he was actually acting like a human being in this scene. Chalk it up to unreliable narration.
Noah arrives at mediation with a bloody nose, but doesn’t mention Trevor’s violent outburst. Helen’s demeanor is cold and haughty, and honestly, who could blame her, but she doesn’t resemble the Helen we’ve seen in any of Noah’s reminiscences. She has much more in common with the version of Helen that appeared in Alison’s flashbacks, which is fascinating. The scene plays up her wealth and elitism, both of which have caused Noah deep-seated insecurity for many years. She baldly claims the house as her own, as it was purchased with her trust, and expresses incredulity at the idea of Noah finding a suitable living space for their children in Manhattan. She snarks, “Where in the city are you looking, Coney Island?” As a Manhattan transplant from Brooklyn, this makes me laugh. NYC snobbery at its finest.
I think we’re supposed to believe that Noah didn’t notice Helen’s objectively pompous qualities before their marriage fell apart, if only because he shared in her privilege. Now he views her as the enemy, and his hackles are up whenever she’s involved, so he perceives (and probably exaggerates) these qualities, both because they’re unattractive and because they may cause her to judge him for his lack of material wealth. Alison may have also exaggerated Helen’s trust fund babyism in order to justify her own actions, but she also notices others’ privilege more than Noah would simply because she is a townie in a tourist town. The real-life Helen likely falls somewhere between the two perceptions, and viewing events from her own perspective will add a whole new dimension to her character (but let’s not get ahead of ourselves).
Although I’m sure there’s some truth to Noah’s perception of Helen, there are clear signs that he is demonizing her to some extent. Noah and Helen’s exchange about his book is classic wish fulfillment; it is exactly the kind of conversation between exes that only occurs in the mind’s eye. Helen is openly disrespectful of his writing ambitions, scoffing at the very idea that his book would make a profit and laughing that his advance could never rent a decent apartment in Manhattan. He shoots back that his advance is $400,000, she’s immediately chastened, and the entire interaction seems tailor-made to allow Noah to rub her nose in his success. The point of the show, of course, is to illustrate the unreliability of every person’s recollection and self-perception, but Noah’s vast, illimitable ego makes his memories the most untrustworthy by far.
The mediator, who is the most problematic part of the differing perspectives in this episode, is unctuous in an unrealistic, socially unacceptable way. He’s inappropriately chipper, smiling like a lobotomy victim and making trite divorce jokes like, “You want nothing from him, but would you take half of nothing?” (He also flat-out states that “we don’t get too many couples coming through here with four children,” which, a) yes, you do, I don’t believe that for a second, and b) … what?) Helen and Noah’s withering stares are amusing, but this character is completely over-the-top. There’s no way someone could sustain that level of aggressive cheerfulness while dealing with divorcing couples all day.
But still, Noah and Helen decide to go back to him, because they both want the divorce to be as quick and painless as possible, and, of course, because the mediator handled the Jonathan Safran Foer/Nicole Krauss divorce “and now they live in adjacent brownstones in Brooklyn” (that got another laugh out of me). Noah is clueless once again when he complains that Whitney won’t answer his calls, and he “can’t fix it unless she talks to [him].” He never stops to consider that Whitney could use some time or space, or that she’s too old for this to be easily fixed, period. Helen asks if he’s still seeing Alison, and makes a steely-eyed demand that Alison doesn’t come anywhere near her kids. He can’t promise that, which makes sense, as it’s probably unrealistic if he and Alison are in a serious relationship (and especially since he lied about him and Alison living together). But then he gets defensive and snotty, saying, “Maybe you won’t get everything you want.” You cheated on her, Noah, so let’s cool it on the righteous indignation.
And then she delivers the parting blow: “You are so selfish. How did I not see it all these years?” Not only does this characterization cut to the bone, because it’s absolutely true, but it reconciles this version of Helen with the Helen we’ve known all along. At this point, she’s long-suffering and filled with resentment, and it’s easy to see how Noah’s monstrous self-absorption would induce a deep freeze in an otherwise warm person.
Alison shows up for her one scene with Noah, in which they are cutesy and domestic together, eating dinner and asking each other about their days. I’m sure it’s been said before, but for a show called The Affair, the central relationship is by far the least interesting part of the show. In fact, when Noah and Alison are together, they each become less compelling as individual characters. The show is far more captivating when it explores the relationship as a manifestation of each character’s dissatisfactions and personal weaknesses, but now that they’re supposedly “true love,” the interplay between them is neither illuminating nor shipper fuel.
So it’s the perfect time to add the spouses’ perspectives to the mix. Part II opens on Helen lying in bed with Uncle Max in a wonderfully trashed hotel room, filled with regret, or at least conflicted feelings. They have sex (again, presumably), and it’s deeply uncomfortable to watch; Max is either madly in love with her or just really into the sex, paying her graphic compliments on her body and insistently pulling her closer. She’s visibly annoyed and bored, and physically pushes him away throughout. He says he’s “literally never enjoyed sex that much with anyone,” and seems to think that they’re having some kind of spiritual experience. Helen seems to be getting back at Noah, or less simplistically, reminding herself that she’s a sexual being.
She’s shocked at the state of the room, saying they “destroyed” it, and he goes in for the cuddle, kissing her on the neck and calling her adorable. She’s actually cringing, and it makes me wonder a little bit about this Max person. He has a very nice smile, and seems like a well-meaning doof, but his inability to perceive her obvious disinterest may be a sign of Noah-like self-absorption. But then he starts praising Helen’s “hatred” of money and her “bohemian” qualities, and he’s just a doof again. Rich people “hating money” is like supermodels singing the praises of the “natural look” that takes hours to pull off.
Max overwhelms Helen when he reveals that he still has the dreamcatcher she made for him in college, but strangely acts a little squirrelly when she talks about a benefit she doesn’t want to attend alone. Instead of offering to take her, he tells her not to go, but she has to go because it’s important to her mother. “You’re too nice,” he tells her, which serves as the thesis of Helen’s entire section. Not that Helen’s a saint, but that she’s an approval-seeking WASP, which allows reprehensible people like Noah and her parents to control her life.
After a good cry in the shower, Helen smokes pot in Washington Square Park, as you do. Between Max and the pot, it’s as if she’s trying to regress back to her college self and retroactively reverse her decision to choose Noah and the life they built together. She’s certainly not “bohemian,” and it’s hilarious that Max would believe that, but it’s possible that she’s choosing Max because on some level, she wants to live up to his perception of her.
Then we see what happened while Helen and the mediator were waiting for Noah, and the character is 100% more realistic in Helen’s version. He’s jaded, bored, grumpy, and everything else you’d expect from a man who pays the bills by “listening to couples bicker about who gets the dog at Christmas.” He gleans that Noah and Helen are getting divorced for the same reason that Noah is late, because he’s “disrespectful, irresponsible, and generally unconcerned with anyone else’s needs but his own.” Which, okay. He’s right, and I suppose his job may allow him to spot Noahs from a mile away, but it’s still pretty damn presumptuous to say out loud. Helen defends Noah (sort of) by admitting that they are ending their nuptials because he had an affair, and the mediator brusquely corrects her, “Symptom, not disease.” Again, he’s absolutely right, but I can’t imagine him being this weirdly confrontational with a perfect stranger, especially right before Noah gets there. Maybe he knows Helen is the one who will be paying him?
Noah comes in all blase about being late, sans bloody nose. I guess Helen really meant it when she said she wasn’t worried. Interestingly, Helen remembers the mediator sitting on Noah’s side of the table, where Noah’s section had the mediator sitting between them. It would make sense that Helen would feel that the world was judging her, although the mediator seemed pretty squarely on Helen’s side before Noah arrived.
In Helen’s version, she doesn’t mention the house or her store, but rather skips straight ahead to “making sure the kids maintain a good relationship with their father, so their lives are disrupted as little as possible.” From Helen’s characterization last season, I tend to believe this version of events more than Noah’s, with the exception of the omission of the house and store. Since money is a non-issue for her, it’s entirely fitting that she doesn’t recall the discussion of money-related issues. The fact that she gets to keep the house wouldn’t even register with her, which is a perfect depiction of WASPy privilege. It was always her house, it was always her parents’ money, no matter how much she told herself that she and Noah shared everything.
Where in Noah’s version, he prioritized custody of his children above all else, Helen’s version paints him as a burgeoning deadbeat. He’s the one who expresses hesitation about Manhattan prices, rather than Helen, and doesn’t seem to care about a feasible joint custody agreement very much. This time, Helen doesn’t mock him for believing that his book could make a profit, but rather Noah mocks Helen for the “negative income” she makes at her store, and smiles bitterly when she offers to help out with an apartment, saying he’s “done taking fucking money from [her] fucking parents.” In contrast to the first mediation scene, in which Noah comes across as agitated but sad, his demeanor here is much more hostile and arrogantly casual. She asks him why he’s being so awful, and he feeds her some bullshit about having a “busy schedule” and not wanting to be late for a meeting with his editor. I absolutely believe Noah said that, in spite of the fact that he remembers the editor meeting occurring before the mediation. He would want to show off that he’s an extremely important writer with extremely important writer obligations, and Helen wouldn’t give him a prime opportunity to show off his huge advance, as she did in Noah’s version.
Helen asks if he even wants custody of his children, and he insists that he needs time to finish his book so he can obtain the rest of his advance, but doesn’t appear to have a plan for spending time with his children until then. Noah’s version painted his desire to receive his advance as a noble effort to be able to afford an apartment that would accommodate his children, and conveniently omits the glaring issue that he will apparently forego custody until then. This is the most illuminating discrepancy of the episode (with the possible exception of the omission of money talk in Helen’s version), because it serves as a puzzle piece of the conversation that was noticeably missing in Noah’s version. Just as Helen is much more spoiled than she can possibly observe in herself, Noah is much less concerned with the wellbeing of his children than he likes to think he is.
All of these inconsistencies make sense from a psychological standpoint, with the exception of the mediator. It makes sense that they would each feel the mediator was taking the other’s side, but his dual personalities were both cartoonish in opposite ways, for no apparent reason. Memory is unreliable, but if a person is as invasively cheesy as the human who appeared in Noah’s flashbacks, you don’t mistake him or her for a run-of-the-mill dead-eyed lawyer.
Helen attends her daughter’s dance class, where she overhears gossipy vultures picking apart her dead marriage. She ignores it at first, but then announces her presence when they start to analyze whether she and Noah ever seemed happy, or whether he always had a “dead look in his eyes.” Helen must be wondering herself whether she and Noah were ever happy, which makes it all the more appalling when one of the women approaches her after class to pry out some prurient details. She has the nerve to ask Helen if she knew Noah was having an affair, if there were clues that “in retrospect seem really obvious,” whether she had a “sixth sense” for it, or an “aura,” and is just supremely obnoxious until Helen finally stops being “too nice” and says, “You know, come to think of it, he did have a rainbow shooting out of his dick last summer. I probably should have paid more attention to that.” Awesome.
At home, the children are in shambles. Poor Trevor is weeping in the fetal position after his encounter with Noah, Martin is too depressed to come down for dinner, and Whitney screams over Trevor’s sobs that she should be able to write about the gun-waving incident for her college essay. Helen’s mother proves herself once again to be the most toxic person on this show when she threatens not to pay for Whitney’s college if she “exploits the family shame.” Better hope she doesn’t find out about that whole statutory rape/abortion incident, or the villagers are going to start getting out the stones.
(Is it weird that I love everything Whitney says in this scene, right down to the bratty, “They WANT me to EXPRESS MYSELF!!”? But seriously, colleges love that shit, just let her exploit your shame, Grandma.)
Helen is inexpressibly weary, but still resists her mother’s attempts to push her into litigation. She stands up to Margaret—a little, not a lot—when she insists on having dinner with the kids, who are silent and sullen and not having any of it. She smokes some pot in one more tiny act of rebellion before acquiescing and attending the benefit. A chirpy young girl checks her in, asking, “Mr. Solloway couldn’t make it?” Helen says no, and the girl effervesces, “Don’t have too much fun without him!” Like Noah, Helen can’t bring herself to correct the misconception that her marriage is still intact, nor is she far enough removed for a mischievous joke. So she just says, “Thanks.” Once again, the outward stability and social status that accompanies marriage is almost as difficult to give up as the marriage itself.
Helen arrives at the table and is surprised to find Max, who acts as if she shouldn’t be surprised at all. All of a sudden, I like them. From the look on her face, it’s clearly dawning on her that Max is a man who will be there for her in a way that Noah could never hope to be, someone who will be kind to her without needing to be asked. At the beginning of the episode, this seemed to be a simple case of unrequited love/rebound, but by the end she seems to be considering some sort of happiness with Max, who, again, has a very nice smile.
The conversation at the dinner table further convinces me that Max and Helen could have a real relationship, at least for now. He recalls his idealistic “tree hugger” days, back when Helen was the Upper East Side girl whom he would take on nature adventures, in spite of her protests. Helen mentions Noah and her mother kicks her, which is perhaps the only time I’ve ever liked Margaret (although, side note: is Helen’s relationship with Max public knowledge? I suppose her mother is fine with it because he’s rich and his tree-hugging days are long behind him). Max explains that he came to the groundbreaking realization that “money makes the world go round,” he got rich, and now he’s wearing a bow tie (okay, I added that last part). He openly admits that he sold out, but then begins to give the usual rationalizations, “my resources allow me to do so much more good,” etc., as his voice is tellingly drowned out in favor of a close-up on Helen’s conflicted face.
Whether these two will make a relationship work will depend on Helen’s character arc this season. Maura Tierney described her newly front-and-center journey as “coming to terms with her wealth and her privilege and her lack of ever coming up against any real serious challenges.” If “coming to terms” indicates that she will actively rebel against it, then she will likely throw Max out with the bathwater, and maybe she should. But if she will simply realize that privilege plays a much larger role in her psychology than she would like to think, then Max is exactly the type of person she should choose. For better and for worse, Noah is the type of person she thinks she wants, while Max is the type of person who will actually fit into her lifestyle and make her happy.
I yo-yo back and forth about these two over the next few minutes. Margaret gushes that she always wanted Helen to pick Max and was shocked when she picked Noah, and I get the icky sense that dating Max would be the ultimate conformity to everything Helen’s parents wanted for her. Then Max recalls that Helen was the girl every boy at Williams lusted after, that it became “something of a campus activity,” and that he “can’t believe [he] finally got her. This reminds me that he appreciates her and could help repair some of her psychic wounds, but also that he idealizes her to the point that he may never actually get to know her. And then he gives her a pot lozenge, and I’m entirely on board again. Even if he doesn’t completely understand her, he seems to accept her, even the tepidly rebellious parts of her.
Max and Helen say goodnight to Margaret, who oozes that Max should join some kind of charity board, all while being strangely affectionate with her grown daughter. The show does a great job of using body language to illustrate that Helen is still infantilized and controlled by her parents, probably because she never stopped taking their money and never truly gained independence. Then Helen says goodnight to Max, hesitantly but genuinely thanking him for “being there.” He’s completely guileless when he says, “It’s my pleasure,” and makes eyes at her. They kiss good night, and for the first time it seems like they’re doing something other than fucking. There we go.
Maura Tierney absolutely kills it in the wordless scene in her bedroom, first smiling to herself, as her relationship with Max is clearly improving her self-esteem, and then abruptly transitioning when she sees the empty space on the wall that used to be occupied by Noah’s father’s painting. She doesn’t look sad, just empty, and frustrated that reminders of him are holding her back from moving on.
In the present scenes, Detective Jeffries tells Noah he should take a plea. Since there’s no evidence, he’d probably get probation. It sounds like a good deal to me, but Noah wants a fucking lawyer. Helen comes to visit Noah in his cell, accompanied by a lawyer who calls her his “associate.” Yes! I love that Helen’s a lawyer now. Noah is shocked to see her, and even more thrown when she reveals that she’s paying for his defense (whether it’s her own money or her parents’ money remains to be seen). But by this point in his story, he’s either humbled or mellowed, and instead of giving her pretentious bluster about taking her money, he simply says, “Thank you.”
See you next week!