“Never finished that one.”
It’s not surprising that the season one finale of The Affair starts just as the first one did, with Noah swimming. The action has long symbolized his need to cleanse himself and shed his sinful image, so it’s only appropriate that we see it intermingled in a montage of Noah having random sex and trying to be a good dad to his kids. Only now that submersion isn’t to cleanse Noah, it’s to refresh him, as he’s no longer trying to hide who he is.
Both sides of Noah are in full swing, as if the tightrope he walked while in affair mode with Alison is his permanent concrete now. It’s a little disappointing to see how comfortable Noah is with being separated, but there’s also something to be said for him making the best out of the situation and being able to just be honest with himself, and getting to act unencumbered now. We don’t see him moaning over the loss of Helen at all, and other than a fleeting disapproving image of her as he picks up the kids–almost acting like a ghost that now haunts his relationship with them—she seems to be out of his mind entirely. When he’s point blank asked if he misses Helen, flashes of Alison go through his mind.
This new unencumbered attitude ends up getting Noah in trouble when he has sex with a fellow faculty member. Even though this should be a wake-up call, and a reminder of past behaviors and that actions have consequences, Noah acts nonplussed and above it all. He finds himself bonding with Victor, another tenured professor exiled to the badlands of the Department of Education while they wait for assessment on the rest of their occupational lives.
The scenes very much play like everyone being trapped in purgatory as they wait for their lives to restart, but Noah cuts through it all, his productivity pulling him above. Leave it to Noah to find a way to turn a workplace infraction into a creative rejuvenation; forcing him to work as he’s unable to leave a room. He gets called a “hero” for it even, as if Noah wasn’t already making the best out of a bad situation. His publisher essentially tells him the same thing as he fawns over his new life. Then he���s told his manuscript’s extraordinary, and going to make him at least a million dollars, as good fortune seems to keep falling in Noah’s lap. Maybe he is a hero. Maybe he should have gotten separated forever ago, with all the wonders it’s doing for his life.
When Noah begins work on his novel though, Victor bemuses at him, “Ah, yeah…Good luck with that.” Another of many constant signs and pieces of evidence showing him that everything he’s doing is derivative and predictable, as he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into an undertow, even if he doesn’t realize it yet. He’s living fast and loose, but the faster you thrash those limbs, the harder that tow is going to pull you under in the end.
And on this topic, all of Noah’s scenes with the needling Detective Jeffries have a restored energy to them as you know this is all going to finally have to bear fruit. Jeffries has been used so sparingly in the back-end of the season that he could have been off in his own standalone universe and I wouldn’t have been surprised. It bends a little credibility that Noah remembers the tow truck driver that helped him out so long ago (and if we weren’t greeted with a reminder of the scene in the “Previously On” package, I’m sure many people would have been clueless), and that such a minor event is holding such significance now. But the fact that Noah is willing to pay him $20,000 so he’ll deny having seen him certainly doesn’t look good in Noah’s favor.
When Helen gets back into the picture, it’s equally exciting to see Maura Tierney let loose here. Her performance in these final few episodes has been marvelous, but it’s so crushingly devastating while in the middle of screaming at Noah about their divorce case she breaks down and says that she wants him back. That she hates her life without him in it, as she proceeds to try to convince him back into loving her, in a humiliating, humbling scene. I nearly cried as she reveals that she’s been going to therapy twice a week now to fix herself and gain new tools so she can adapt to the “new Noah.” That after everything that’s gone on, she views herself as the problem as she spirals deeper into dysfunction without Noah. And for once, the new frail Helen draws many parallels to Alison’s self-esteem, and you can even imagine a Helen that was even more like her had all of this happened to her fifteen years ago, for instance.
This breakdown ends up being the catalyst that reignites their intimacy. They make jokes, they’re raw, and they have sex again. You can’t help but feel that it’s these Alison-esque traits in Helen that bring Noah back to her. Noah found it difficult to turn off the switch so to speak when he started his relationship with Alison, and with him acting out even more freely than he did before, you would think these urges would be even harder to stop now. Let’s not forget that it was also only four months ago that Noah told Helen that he didn’t want this life anymore. It was only four months ago that he “deliberately destroyed their lives” according to Helen, as articulated by Whitney.
It’s encouraging to see on Alison’s side of things that she’s trying to be responsible, secluding herself, and thinking clearly. She returns to being single, trying to figure out life on her own, but is constantly lost in the alluring thoughts of what she had with Noah. How he truly got her, and if those moments and feelings can ever be recaptured. When her and Cole share a very bristly reunion, she talks about the feelings they shared before they lost Gabriel and how those will never be able to be recaptured either. That all of this has just been trying to scramble things back together since then. In a deeply cathartic moment Alison finally gets the courage to ask Cole about what happened when Gabriel died, and although she doesn’t get an answer, her ability to even broach the topic shows how far she’s come and the independence she’s managed to find through all of this.
When the events of all of this finally begin to start distorting, the final scenes have a nervous tension to them. The confrontation that the Solloways have with the Lockharts when they pick up Whitney the second time we’re shown it, it’s not with Alison and Mrs. Lockhart, but rather Alison and Cole. And in Alison’s rendition of events, Cole is far too happy to be wielding his gun at the Solloways, ready to do something drastic.
The most telling difference here is that in Noah’s version of events, he attacks Scotty and Cole turns the gun onto him, but in Alison’s, Noah has hardly done anything wrong at all, with Cole very prematurely drawing his gun, as if that was his plan all along.
It’s a tremendously powerful scene, but Alison talking Cole down from it all by preaching about how Gabriel lives on through them every day feels a little reductive here. Joshua Jackson’s grueling performance sells it all, but it feels like something a little more original could have been done here.
So as this show wraps up its first season, what was it trying to say all of this time? There have been so many shows on infidelity and marriage that a show simply interested in commenting on that is no longer enough. Obviously the topic of perspective has been a fundamental part of the show, but quite honestly it’s never felt like a concept that’s been embraced as fully as it could be. The same can be said for the bifurcated timeline approach, and while it’s injected a great deal of mystery to the story, it didn’t amount to be the insane clusterfuck sort of revelation that some people predicted it would be. Sure, we found out that the interrogations were happening from different time periods, but it’s still the same case, and hardly as shocking.
So as some flashy devices gave this show about infidelity a little more weight, it was still really about identity and honesty in the end. That might sound like a glib statement, but this finale is all about people making decisions and discoveries that they’ve known, deep down, for some time now. That while water and cleansing has been so integral to the show, it doesn’t change who you are deep down. That in the end, Noah and Alison were drawn together, and no matter what they or others tried to tell themselves, they couldn’t fight was going on at their core. This still doesn’t amount to the most original take on affairs, which is forgivable, since this show was so expertly acted, and in spite of the manipulative flourishes, they did hook me in.
So let’s talk about them. Because flashforwards and storytelling like this only work if it’s going somewhere. And while I have no doubt that The Affair is aware of what this destination is, this finale isn’t the best indication of that. It’s the ending of this episode that everyone is going to talk about, as we see that Alison and Noah have ended up together after all of this, chiseling a life away together once all of that static quieted down. It’s clear to see how all of this trauma brought them together once again, but what sort of ending is this? Many threads are still up in the air as the overwhelming evidence seems to pretty much confirm that Noah killed Scotty (although that almost surely means he didn’t). As he’s taken away from Alison at the end, he tells her to “leave him out of this” and while many have analyzed the miniscule differences in the stories the two of them have told every week, I would hardly qualify Alison as having left Noah out of the events. If anything she minimized her own role in things.
But at the same time, she has absolutely no reason to be trying to implicate Noah or pull something over on him. She seems to genuinely love him and this doesn’t feel like a game of any sort. If I had to guess something, it’s that Alison somehow ended up killing Scotty, but there’s also been very little evidence on that front either.
The biggest surprise though is that this all isn’t getting wrapped up here. I know myself and many other viewers assumed this would be a relatively contained one-season show. With the wealth of anthology programs that have taken over television, or what the showrunners’ previous effort, In Treatment, would indicate, continuing this show with a different affair every season would be all too easy. That obviously isn’t the plan here, and while there’s a lot to be answered next season (like what Noah is trying to hide with $20,000 if he didn’t kill Scotty), it feels like the core and soul of the show will inevitably be gone. Much of the magic of this show was watching the shifting perspectives of a relationship in bloom while two others were in decay, but with that seeming to be done, and the focus apparently now on a murder charge, the next season is certainly going to be interesting. It could pay off greatly to prolong this sort of story, or perhaps wrapping it all up in one year would have been the better decision.
Or, to fall back on the frame of perspective once again, maybe this is the end, albeit a subtle, open-ended one. Maybe we’re just to assume that Noah did kill Scotty, and even though he and Alison found happiness together, it eventually came back to plague him. She can say everything she wants in her interrogation to sway the truth. She can leave Noah out as much as possible, but none of that matters if Detective Jeffries has the evidence that he needs.
Until next year. With or without the Solloways and Lockharts.
Overall Season Grade: 4 Stars