November 8, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
One of the best things about The Affair is the way it tracks in moral ambiguity. Its shifting perspectives make it more difficult to get a bead on its characters, but this haziness runs deeper than that. This is a show that refuses to judge its characters, even when they are being awful. It presents them as they see themselves and are seen, and implores us to draw our own conclusions. There are, of course, exceptions to this. Whitney and Scotty are universally despised characters that lack any depth beyond one-dimensional awfulness, for example. Yet Noah himself is a character the show cannot get away from judging. We’ve seen Noah from at least three angles at this point (I don’t think he has shown up in a Cole perspective yet, but correct me if I am wrong), and yet, he pretty much always comes across as an asshole. It isn’t clear if this is a manifestation of his self-loathing in his own perspectives, but it doesn’t matter from what angle you look at him. Noah is not great.
“206” is a case in point. Noah shows up at that yoga retreat and expects Alison to drop everything the second he announces the life he threatened to cut her out of is now back on. Yet the episode is trying to do something in these scenes that doesn’t quite work for me. All season, we have been seeing Alison as the calm, centering force in Noah’s perspectives, and suddenly, the show seems to agree with her mother that Noah is just drawn to the darkness in Alison, the chaos he sees behind her eyes and the sense that she will always be dangerous and unstable. Noah takes all of this and pushes it into a new, dark ending that is apparently what he has been envisioning all season so far, where the Alison analogue is run over by his stand-in on a dark road. It’s unclear what, exactly, the show is playing at with Noah here, and at the halfway point of the season, having one of the show’s undisputed leads be this muddled is not really a great sign.
The episode starts off much stronger, with Maura Tierney continuing to kill it in Helen’s expanded role. The relationship between Helen and Margaret is really at the center of the conflict here, as Helen decides to stop fighting Noah and give in to the new status quo, at least partially as a reaction to Margaret’s toxicity. I love how seriously The Affair is taking Helen’s heartbreak this season. Sure, it is milking her tailspin for all of the melodrama it is worth, but at bottom it seems to respect that this is a woman who is recovering from the floor falling out of her life. She truly loved her husband and her life, and all of it is changing right before her eyes. Tierney plays Helen in all of her complexity, making sure her pain, bitterness, sarcasm and vulnerability all land as facets of a complicated personality. Helen feels like a human being, and following her through her journey is one of the chief pleasures of this season so far.
Really, Helen’s half of “206” is a thing of beauty, basically playing out the crisis of Martin’s surgery and Crohn’s diagnosis in all of its stages, from the panic, to the anger, to the quiet acceptance and then the celebration. Seeing Helen and Noah weather this together, hating each other and slowly coming to terms with how they have to change to keep their lives on track was quite a thing to behold. The episode gives us our best glimpse yet of what the Solloways looked like at their best, something we’ve never really seen before. Yet in its second half, it loses the thread. This might have been an episode better served by aping the first season’s structure more closely and replaying the Marting crisis from Noah’s perspective. The more the show uses its bifurcated structure to move the plot forward instead of to explore the character dynamics, the more it threatens to lose what makes it distinctive. I’ve lost where we are with Noah right now, and while there’s a half a season for the show to pull me back in, its distinctly odd that one of the main characters has quietly ceded any complexity and begun to recede into one-dimensionality. It feels like a definitive step in the wrong direction.
- “Anywhere you want to go on vacation next, you can decide.” “Not Montauk.”
The episode gives us our best glimpse yet of what the Solloways looked like at their best, something we’ve never really seen before. Yet in its second half, it loses the thread.