October 4, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
Every interaction is a clash of perspectives. We all bring our own worldviews to bear on our daily lives, from the broadest perspective to the narrowest. We are all, always, building our own narrative, tweaking reality to fit our perceptions, to stoke our own egos or feed our own insecurities. We are unreliable narrators of our own lives, but ultimately, the only story we are privy to is our own. In its best moments, The Affair is about that fundamental disconnect between perception and reality, and about the ways that its characters’ experiences are warped by their own world views. This show is at its height in small moments, little shifts that key you into how one character’s experience defines them, and how they are shaping their own narrative in the moment.
In “201,” that means the peak of the episode is in the two versions of Helen and Noah’s mediation we are privy to. In Noah’s version, the mediator inappropriately jokes the whole time and is shocked by how cooperative the two are being. In Helen’s, he is visibly on Noah’s side (sitting on Noah’s side of the table, in fact) while she tries to be pragmatic. Both versions of events include anxieties about money, and in both, the person whose perspective we are witnessing is the one with the anxieties. Noah thinks Helen looks down on him for his inability to afford an apartment in New York. Helen thinks Noah doesn’t believe her store can be successful. But Noah gets to be self-righteous about the size of his advance in his version of events, while Helen meekly admits her store would not pay for his new apartment in her own.
The decision to grant Helen and Cole perspectives this season is a good one, and Maura Tierney immediately seizes the opportunity she has been given to build Helen out independently of how Noah and Alison see her. Helen views herself as adrift in the mess Noah has made of her life, blasé about her new relationship with Max and barely holding together the disintegrating life of her children. Helen’s half of the episode is great in part because it reminds us that The Affair is, at least ostensibly, committed to the idea that there are no villains in this story. Everyone is just a person, with all of the flaws and hangups that entails, and each of them is just trying to get through an awful situation.
But then, the “mystery” rears its ugly head. The part of the show that I find least interesting by far is the ongoing investigation of Scotty’s death and the possible role Noah played in it. The time-jumping portion of the narrative doesn’t hang together nearly as well as the perspective-hopping, and it feels like an unnecessary gimmick on top of the show’s already high-concept base. I care about how Noah, Alison, Helen, and Cole weather the emotional devastation of their two marriages coming apart and how all four of them struggle to reconstitute their lives after they have changed drastically. But every time the show pulls away from that compelling narrative to do things about Cole’s family trying to keep the ranch and organized crime and murder mysteries, it loses me. It’s not that these things can’t be interesting (plenty of shows I watch are about those things), but that is not where the strengths of The Affair lie. In season one, it felt like something creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi threw in to liven things up in case people didn’t care about the relationship drama. But by this point, it should be clear that the emotional mechanics of this affair and its aftermath are the show’s bread and butter. The murder mystery is rotten jam that sours the taste of everything else.
Not every moment of the relationship stuff here works, but for the most part, “201” is a reminder of the best and worst things about The Affair. I could have done without the gathering storm clouds at the end of Noah’s portion of the episode, or the on-the-nose dream that opens the season. I could also have used a bit more of Alison in the episode. She is reduced to being Noah’s angel here, a force for calm in his chaotic life, but even from Noah’s perspective she usually registers as more of a human being than she does here. The show also runs the risk of separating its narrative too much. Four perspectives is a lot to cover, and with Helen in New York, Cole presumably in Montauk, and Noah and Alison in their new cabin, there may be less overlap than last season, where both perspectives were focused on Montauk for much of the time. It’s too early to say whether this will be an issue, but if the murder mystery continues to eat up chunks of every episode, it may squeeze out the room the show’s real, better narrative needs to breathe. There are plenty of clashes that work on The Affair. I am just hopeful the show’s struggle between being itself and papering on a more conventionally suspenseful narrative takes a back seat to the ones that work.
- “Have you read Of Mice and Men?” “Is that a rhetorical question?”
- “Margaret, I gotta ask you. How the fuck do you face yourself in the mirror in the morning?” “How the fuck do you?”
- “It’s the only thing I am asking for. It’s all I want.” “Well, you may not get to have everything you want, Helen.”
- “How long have you been a mediator?” “About ten years.” “And you enjoy it?” “Not really…”
- “We’re getting a divorce because he’s having an affair.” “Yeah. Symptom, not disease.”