“But what if I did a lot of bad things? Would that make me a bad person?”
We’re now at the middle of The Affair, which has been an immensely satisfying take on infidelity and self-fulfillment in its first half so far. While the show has fallen into a very comfortable pattern at this point, we begin to see the signs of a seismic shift approaching. This episode, we start with Alison’s side of things for instance, which is something different and hopefully a hint of more to come stylistically and structurally from the series.
We see relationships start to fray almost immediately in the episode (the credits are even still playing out) as Cole returns back home, having forgotten something, and catches his wife in the middle of “lying” to him so to speak. It’s a wonderfully tense moment with an eerie score to punctuate it all. We’ve seen so little of Joshua Jackson’s Cole so far, but based on the hint of what happens in this scene, the moment that Cole and Alison confront each other is going to be beautiful, unnerving stuff.
Alison is seen neurotically stressing over minutiae as she tries to create a comfortable, affable vibe in her “affair house” before Noah shows up. All of this effort going into a carefree impression, which is Alison broken down to the core.
It’s also appreciated to see just how okay Noah and Alison have gotten with having sex with each other. This intimacy, which was surrounded in rules and discretions beforehand, is now done carelessly and constantly. Just like any real affair, they’ve gotten into each other’s bloodstreams, contaminating each other until this affair is something that’s completely second nature.
This idyllic fantasy that Noah and Alison have got going is suddenly shattered by their home lives, with Alison, in the form of her grandmother with Alzheimer’s and her meddlesome mother, Athena (née Shelly); with Noah, its his daughter, Whitney.
The Alzheimer’s material on Alison’s end is pretty devastating, but it’s nice to see her rising into a position of agency and authority. She sees her mother barely checking in on her grandmother, providing her with questionable treatment and just generally distressing Alison. Learning that her mother was a nurse at one point but now practices reiki really says a lot for the sort of environment she grew up in and why she is so internally destructive at times.
So it hits even harder when Athena shows up at the affair house and can almost instantly tell that Alison is having an affair with Noah, but practically encourages it. As Alison sees her mother integrating herself with her family to increasingly effective degree, she seems to drop her guard more and more and it comes across as subtle, comfortable sweetness. That is until it blows up in her face, as Cole seems to be a constant trigger point.
It might be a little too much however when Cole’s mother gives Alison her wedding ring—an heirloom—and repeatedly tells her daughter-in-law how important she is to Cole and how much he truly needs her, just as her affair moves to new levels. It’s a touching scene, but feels far too on-the-nose.
Meanwhile, veiled comments are said to Alison and it appears more and more like Oscar, her boss at the diner, is completely aware of what she’s up to with Noah.
We don’t see a lot of Cole, ever, but that doesn’t mean that he’s still not seeing things and doesn’t have eyes out there. Fantasies can’t last forever. Noah promises to take Alison to Bodega Bay on a gorgeous vacation, assumedly because he’s a huge fan of the Puppet Master franchise, but she’s skeptical if this will ever actually happen. The truth eventually will always seep in, as the intoxication of love can really blind you to everything else that’s going on.
As we shift to Noah’s side of the story, it’s almost surreally comical to see Noah’s son nearly catching him in the exact lie that Alison fumbles over. His son questions why he needs his car keys to go running or why he can’t join him. He nearly screams at his son as he has a hissy fit over daddy needing to get his dick wet, and the episode does strong work in showing how parallel Noah and Alison are, and how badly their relationship is needed as a release point.
And while we’re on the topic of Noah, this week we learn that he went to school on a swimming scholarship. This speaks volumes on the constant water imagery of the show and Noah’s need to submerge himself. Now we know that he literally pulled himself out of his former life to where he is now because of swimming and going under water.
While Alison seems to constantly have her family on her mind to some degree, it’s kind of disgusting to see how quick Noah is to ignore a family emergency text sent from Helen, dismissing that it’s surely nothing. Alison has overwhelmed everything for him, as his addiction to her begins to cloud his judgment and supersede everything else until he can have her. It’s also telling that in Alison’s rendition of all of this they have long, satisfying sex, while in Noah’s version, they’re never not rushing, out of sync, and unable to even get started. Noah’s story is full of being unsatisfied and wanting more, whereas he fulfills Alison.
When Noah gets a flat tire (which feels like an extended metaphor for his blue balls here) and Oscar happens to pull up beside him and offer to kill some time while he waits, there’s the same sense of dread that’s ebbing through Alison’s story whenever he’s present. It’s amazing how tense this show can become with merely the pairing of certain characters, fearing not what will happen, but what might get said accidentally, and the domino effect that it could have. This feeling heightens to the point of nearly exploding when Oscar shows up at Noah’s home, dropping furtive hints and poking holes in his alibi to his wife. That same uncomfortable score from the opening scene with Alison and Cole returns here, as tension continues to tighten in on itself.
More parallels are present between these two secret lovers with the degree of disgusting behavior that goes on with Whitney’s situation. It’s actually shocking to see Noah being the only one that feels any empathy for the cyber-bullied Jodie, who tried to kill herself over the treatment Whitney and some others gave her. As Helen’s parents begin to knock down Jodie’s character piece by piece and begin building a countersuit for a legal case that hasn’t even happened, Noah is the only beacon of justice, and it almost feels like we’re in the hospital room with Alison and her grandmother again.
Parallels can also work for the worse though, as the very heavy-handed, albeit effective scene between Noah and Whitney about being a bad person as she’s about to apologize to Jodie lays it on pretty thick. Dominic West sells this sort of scene better than Ruth Wilson does, as he shows legitimate fear over what his daughter is turning into, and by proxy what he is, due to his affair. It’s no surprise to anyone that he’s mostly talking about himself in this speech, but it still works, even if it’s not necessary.
And when it comes to our “present” timeline this week, it’s interesting to see that Alison has finished her interrogation portion of things, which hopefully means we’ll get someone new in the room next episode. I would imagine it would, as there must be other suspects or viable testimonies in this murder case, and it’s exciting to see how all of this might turn more inward as we move past the series’ halfway point.
“5” ends on the all too romantic note of Noah and Alison basically climaxing to the idea of running away together. It’s no surprise that an episode that’s all about the stresses of their families would see the two of them seeking escape with one another, but them wanting to take this to foolish new levels may be this affair’s downfall and what leads to the death of someone. Matters have never been more suspenseful on this show, and worlds have never been more incestuous. Everything is becoming hopelessly fraught and the snap is inevitable.