The Affair Season 2 Episode 3
This review of The Affair contains spoilers.
“If you’re having difficulty with the end, then you’ve fucked up the beginning.”
First off… Marriage?!?
Did anyone think that was a good idea when Noah all of a sudden got down on one knee? I almost responded as viscerally as Whitney did when I saw what was going on here. Lest we forget that Noah was just telling Helen that he and Alison weren’t even living together, and muddling the waters certainly doesn’t seem like the best way to smooth out his divorce proceedings.
But while it might feel insane for the series to drop something like this so early into its season, the episode strangely makes peace with it. This third episode of the season spends a lot of time talking about how a good ending to a story—the right ending—works out that way because if you’ve done the proper groundwork everything should just fall into place naturally. And while Noah’s proposal may feel like the furthest thing from natural (even to Noah himself, who addresses as much), by the end of the episode I was essentially on board with it. Maybe it doesn’t matter if the inception of certain events feels wonky as long as the dive is landed in the end.
And while we’re talking about endings here, major points deserve to be given for this week’s flash-forward scene that give our best glimpse yet of how the dust will be settled. As Jon Gottlief finally begins to grill Noah on what happened, we’re given some considerable details, including that Scotty was killed on the night of Cole’s wedding (!), and that Scotty had also managed to get Whitney pregnant (!!). For once it feels like we’re not being jerked around with these puzzle pieces and finally starting to get answers. I’ve praised this season’s “new approach” to the flash-forwards already, but they’re continuing to make them engaging and successful. With the angle now shifting from whether or not Noah’s guilty to who in fact killed Scotty, there’s certainly a new energy driving this narrative forward. I’m actually excited for the next flash-forward now as opposed to being all, “Okay, let’s get it over with for this week.”
Let’s jump back a little bit though because this really is a stellar episode of The Affair, and it greatly benefits from the smaller focus that it takes. I’ve voiced my suspicions over the four-tiered perspective that this season has adopted (although ultimately trusting the show with it), but the device actually works pretty well when you segregate the couples into their respective episodes. Clearly every installment won’t be endlessly collapsed in on itself, deconstructed and reconstructed ad infinitum, with the Helen and Cole segments that we’ll get next week obviously covering entirely different material than what we saw here.
With the focus firmly on Noah and Alison this week though, we get a tremendous amount of insight into not only where they’re at, but also their thoughts on the future. It might be worth noting just how many of the introductions of our respective cast this season have begun with characters having sex. However, much like we witnessed with Helen’s introduction last episode, sex hardly means intimacy or that the bond we’re witnessing is golden. Not long after Noah and Alison are sharing some afternoon delight, they’re at odds with one another. That being said, the topic of contention between them is that of swimming.
During the first season of this show, I dug pretty deep into what all of the swimming imagery represented for Noah. It was a frequent device that was turned to throughout the season as Noah attempted to sink away from reality as his adulterous behavior simultaneously mirrored the literal descending his body was doing in the water. Obviously swimming represents a lot of different things for Alison—mainly the unfortunate, painful memory of how she lost her son, but she also brings up that not that long ago she thought about drowning herself from depression.
It might not seem like a huge moment between Noah and Alison, but this brewing schism over swimming could be indicative of a much larger disagreement in the future. Their usually Teflon relationship is beginning to take shrapnel. I’d say it’s also significant that this usually safe bastion for Noah is where he’s now being plagued with visions of his maybe-car accident. This aquatic activity isn’t providing the filter for Noah that it once did, with the culmination of everything that’s been going on in his life surely being to blame. You can only tread water for so long before your legs give out.
Although barely a dent in the season has been made so far, I already feel like the topic of perception has been discussed to death here. That being said, there’s something magical about the way in which Alison ret cons how she and Noah met, picking and choosing the truth from their actual meeting and perverting it with romanticized notions. Not to mention the parallels between this and Alison offering Noah the chance to actually ret con his life, so to speak, by taking back his proposal. Noah just marvels at her the whole time, wholly unable to keep up, in spite of him being the writer. Again, what difference does it make if the beginning of the story is transformed as long as the ending is genuine?
What all of this eventually spills into is one of the larger themes of the episode, the idea of secrets—more specifically, the necessary secrets between loved ones. Alison has always been the closed book of the series and here she insists to Noah that he doesn’t want to know her secrets and who she really is. Noah defends their union though and says that in spite of all the pain that’s been negotiated through there’s still nothing she could tell him that would make him want to leave.
This scene kind of blew me away and is definitely one of my favorite moments from the series so far; certainly one of the crowning Noah scenes, no question. The conversation begins feeling like Alison is acting vindictive and lashing out at Noah, but by the end of it he has said such beautiful, honest things and made such a ringing endorsement of them giving this a go, that even I was on board by the end of it. Alison slams the idea of “true love” through all of Noah’s passion, but it’s more her hard-headed resistance speaking here than how she really feels. Noah instantly picks up on that and understands that this isn’t someone that is all anti-love or thinks that marriage is a broken concept; it’s a scared woman who’s worried about the future.
This scene works so well because it’s not simply Noah praising Alison or the invincibility of their love—if anything, he dresses the both of them down—by talking about how they’re both flawed and there’s always going to be some issue between them. That doesn’t matter though. It’s a scene more about Noah declaring that he finally knows what he wants from life, and taking a damaged version of that is still a lot better than hanging onto the window dressing version of a happy life that he had before. We see that he does want to ret con his life, however not in terms of rescinding his proposal, but rather embracing it as this truer version of himself, Noah 2.0.
Noah might be all about shedding his previous skin this episode, but he’s also still confronted by reminders of his past. For instance, the scene between Noah and Max is all sorts of creepy, and not just because of the very obvious Helen-shaped elephant in the room. Seeing Max try to insert himself in Noah’s life is very peculiar and begins to raise questions as to whether he’s doing any of this because he actually cares about his friend, or if he’s just trying to expedite things along with Helen. Then again, since this is still Noah’s account of things, maybe he’s just trying to create a convenient $50,0000-sized alibi.
While concentrating on unscrupulous motivations, it seems like as good a time as any to shift into Alison’s half of the episode, which is certainly an interesting counterpoint to Noah’s optimistic side of the coin. Alison’s segment is full of her painting the relationships in her life in a much more fractured light. Her version of dinner with Noah, Yvonne, and Robert sees Noah gulping down glass after glass of wine whereas his account sees him politely turning down libations. Something like this might seem minor, but the differences between what they want in the long term only become increasingly accentuated.
Whitney is a giant pill to take down in this episode and while the slandering of her father may be brutal, it’s also tonally necessary and echoing what the audience is thinking. On the other hand, the different word choice that she uses on Alison’s side of events is even more devastating and doesn’t feel as justified. Whitney’s insults are a reflection of Alison’s worst fears as her name calling reduces her to a “stupid slut” and a “dumb waitress” in just another reminder of how worthless Alison thinks she is.
The episode certainly doesn’t squander the opportunity of having Whitney around. Her blackmailing Alison for Scotty’s number is something I certainly could have gone without, not to mention it painting Whitney as the worst version of herself, rather than the reasonably adult one that we saw glimpses of elsewhere in the episode. This feels like a particularly contrived way of bringing Scotty back into the picture, especially by using Alison as the wedge to get him there, but perhaps she’ll stick to her guns and won’t follow up on this (although judging by that future pregnancy, she’s getting it somehow). It’s interesting though that Whitney is still brokering a deal in both sides of the episode, with Noah playing some quid pro quo with her in his half in exchange for help with custody.
Alison’s half of this episode is sorely without Noah’s amazing love speech. This could mean a number of things, such as that it never happened, Noah bolstered it up in his mind accordingly, or that Alison feels that she’s simply not entitled to such a declaration. I’d lean towards the latter opinion though as her segment is consistently painted in this light.
Accordingly, the topic of secrets between spouses is paralleled nicely through Yvonne and Robert, with him hiding the fact that he’s continued to feed his pet dog that she made him get rid of. This begins as a slightly comedic runner through the episode, but it turns into a crucial formative moment between Alison and Robert. Robert’s speech almost acts as the surrogate of Noah’s grand gesture here, as he waxes on about how secrets aren’t always a bad thing. In fact, sometimes they can be helpful.
The revelation given that just because you don’t completely connect with someone doesn’t mean you have to abandon ship or be denied happiness is a colossal one for Alison to realize. With all of the marriage talk going on in the episode, Alison’s intentions might feel a little fuzzy initially. It’s enlightening to learn though that this is in fact about her being worried about embracing a future with someone that never got to know Gabriel, when he is such an integral piece of who she is. With Robert helping her understand that this can be worked through, she finally seems ready to fully accept Noah in the same way that he’s done with her.
To conclude with the swimming motif that’s carried through the episode, after Alison has had her talk with Robert, her and Noah’s disparate opinions on the topic hardly feel like the beginning of the end that they might have at one point. They might actually augment each other. Seeing not only Alison be able to get back into the pool, but Noah and her reigniting their passion within it is powerful stuff and the perfect ending to the episode.
If you can’t share everything completely with someone, sometimes just them trying to understand can be enough.