October 11, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
There’s a weird conflict at the heart of The Affair. The vast majority of the show is focused on the inherent ambiguity of human interactions, on the way we all bend our own experiences, and on the impossibility of any objective answers to any question involving two or more people. But then, there’s the murder mystery aspect of the show, which is inherently at odds with everything else going on. I talked a lot last week about how little I care about Noah being put on trial, but this week I found myself troubled by the conceit at a more base level. The Affair is a show that revels in how unknowable the truth is, yet it is consistently hamstrung by flash-forwards that hinge on us caring about the sort of objective answers this show purposefully avoids in favor of gray areas. It’s not just that this doesn’t work as a story; it introduces a tension at the heart of the show that I’m not sure the creative team is even aware of, much less that they are using to shed light on the show’s major thematic concerns.
That being said, I do have to pause in any discussion of this week’s flash forward to mention how much I am enjoying Richard Schiff’s turn as Noah’s lawyer. Schiff is only in each episode briefly, and yet he is immediately among the most compelling characters on the show for the way he effuses cynical competence and seems somehow above all of the melodrama going on around him. Let’s get a Jon Gottlief perspective, ASAP, please.
“202” is a functional continuation of last week’s episode, rounding out the quartet of perspectives while focusing on roughly the same period. We see Alison’s perspective on Noah’s return from the city, where he is angry and confrontational until the two have sex on the kitchen counter, contrasted with Noah’s idyllic view of cabin-life last week. What’s interesting here is how both characters remember getting basically what they want out of the interaction, even though they remember it in fundamentally different ways. Noah is calmed by Alison’s presence, and Alison is made to feel alive by Noah’s passion for her. The experience is totally different, but the emotional impact is functionally the same. This is an instance where the truth is almost irrelevant—these interactions aren’t about playing “spot the differences,” but about seeing how the characters’ own feelings and needs are reflected back to them by their reality. Both Noah and Alison are happy with each other right now, so their every experience is tinted by the fulfillment of their current needs.
That reflects across the other major replayed scene in the episode, the interaction between Cole and Alison. When we see it from her perspective, Cole is unhinged, dangerous, an intense guy who lashes out at her with the memory of their dead son when he isn’t threatening her with physical violence. Alison sees Cole as the broken part of her, and she sees him as destroyed by her absence. Yet Cole still sees Alison as a kind, nurturing force in his life, someone who wants him to be happy and wants to help him find peace. The Cole we see in his perspective is in many ways the broken man Alison sees when he shows up unannounced, but from his side of things, there is far more hope that he might be put back together again, given the right set of circumstances. The episode smartly situates Cole’s take on the interaction deep into his half of the episode, once we’ve seen how tired, resigned, and adrift he is in a life where he has lost basically everything. He needs to feel hope, in that moment. He needs to feel like there’s a way forward for him, even if it is not with Alison. The truth of this interaction is immaterial to “202.” What matters is how each character’s take on it reflects their current emotional state. It doesn’t matter what happened, it matters how the experience reflects on the characters and will change them going forward.
This is all largely lost in those flash-forwards, which feel more objective because they are keeping as much as possible shrouded in secret. They also feel geared toward making us ask questions of an entirely different stripe than those we ask in the rest of the episode, and indeed, in the vast majority of the series. I’ve said before that I think the murder plotline is here as a more conventional trapping on which to hang the show’s more unconventional interests, but that only works insofar as it dovetails with the show’s chief concerns, and at the moment, it feels antithetical to the rest of what the show is doing. The Affair wants us to ask questions, but what sort of question depends on where in the episode we find ourselves. And until this conflict is resolved, portions of every episode will still feel jarring, the whiplash of objectivity intruding into one of the most fascinatingly subjective series on television.
- “You seem a little nervous to see me.” “Well, do you have any weapons on you?” “Do you want to come check?” “No.”
- “What, he doesn’t have tools?”
- “It’s a horrible thing to love a writer. All their secret worlds, their fantasies.”
- “I guess I’m still trying to figure it out.” “Welcome to the club.”
- “Does that taste…fishy?” “Well, it’s a fish…”
- “She shouldn’t be getting involved. I’m his wife now.” “Yes, we’re all painfully aware of that.”
- “That’s the terrible thing about living. You never get to go back no matter how bad you miss it. Just gotta keep moving forward.”
- “I’ve been married for over forty years. Forty wasted years.”
- “Are you ever coming home?” “I don’t think so.”
What matters is how each character’s take on it reflects their current emotional state. It doesn’t matter what happened, it matters how the experience reflects on the characters and will change them going forward.