The Affair Season 2 Premiere: 201 Review

The season premiere of The Affair shows us that perspective is a tricky thing…

This review of The Affair contains spoilers…

The Affair Season 2 Episode 1

“But would you take half of nothing?”

The Affair was a complicated show last season. It was a competent, emotional adult drama that took the reasonably relatable concept of infidelity and explored it through the inspired device of presenting both sides of the affair. While it handled a lot of this relationship drama and the unreliable narrative device very well, it also threw in a murder mystery and flash forwards into a broken timeline. That’s a lot to undertake, especially when your show is all about perspective. Thankfully, as this season kicks off, this feels like a more focused, confident version of the show that has learned from its first season. 

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In fact, it almost feels like Noah’s publisher telling him that the murder at the end of his story felt forced and lacking motivation is a sly way for the show to critique itself in response to the murder mystery that many viewers seemed to think was unnecessary, or at the least, jarring. I wasn’t entirely against it (although I admit that Scotty being the victim, when we’ve barely been given an opportunity to care about him might not have been the best idea), but to see that the show is perhaps more self-aware and rebalanced is certainly encouraging (and we definitely get the sparsest inclusion of the murder business this week). After all, this isn’t Of Mice and Men

Even if the show seemingly learned from its previous mistakes, have its characters?  Right from the start, we see Noah is now suffering from nightmares. Just like how the bifurcated perspective structure of the series is an escape from reality as the truth invades, the same thing is happening as Noah’s subconscious refuses to let him have peace. As much as he wants to be comfortable or hide behind rationalization, the truth won’t let him be. The first few scenes of the episode pointedly show Noah alone. He’s dominated by wide shots and plenty of empty space in the framing to show how powerless and small he’s become. The fact that these shots that cinematically “talk down” to Noah are then followed by him being scolded and turned down by his publisher is no coincidence. The show wants you to understand that Noah is starting out at his bottom here.

Noah’s side of the premiere is about him trying to find his voice and then figure out how to move forward in life with that. The ending of his novel is struggling to land, he’s emotionally in stasis, and he doesn’t know how to stake a claim with what’s left of his family. This is perhaps best personified when Noah tries to move out of Helen’s home, which becomes all about him being voiceless or speaking to deaf ears.

The moving scene is kind of a master class in subtext and escalation. “Is this all your stuff?” Noah’s movers ask him, and you can see him feeling condescended to—like he’s been slapped in the face—and then funneling this into alpha behavior towards his inconsequential items while he tries to be heard. It’s brutal, and Dominic West sells the hell out of it. The scene is one big pissing contest between Helen’s mother, Margaret, and Noah and quickly turns into an example of just how damaged his family seems to be by his actions. As despicable of a set piece as this is, Margaret is simply clinging onto a narrative for support just like Noah is (and is echoed again in his son, Ben, and the story that he’s held on to for safety). As the scene ends with Noah and the grandmother of his children as mirror versions of each other, we’re left with the message of how deluded we can become when we only listen to ourselves. 

Noah and Helen’s divorce mediation meeting is a truly bizarre scene unlike anything that the first season of the show offered up, mostly due to the beyond-chipper official that’s mitigating between the two of them. The scene starts off innocently enough with a deep vein of dark humor coursing through it, but by the end this jovial middleman has only highlighted how bleak things are between Noah and Helen now. They keep getting told to congratulate each other on being so swift and sterile through everything, but they’re simply removing every piece of themselves. The only thing Noah wants is his children, and naturally Helen’s only request in their divorce is equally concerned with their kids—the one possession of theirs that they’re physically unable to remove the other one from.

Of course though, like everything else in this show, nothing is as it initially appears. After Noah has been completely dressed down by life itself and had a sufficiently awful day, he returns home to Alison and simply glows. He’s anything but alone, and even if he has nothing—or half of nothing—that’s enough for him if it means it’s with her. Then again, the shots of Noah looking content and finally satisfied with his life serenely pan over to a troubled sky that show a huge storm is very much brewing. At this point, it might be an on-the-nose transition to shift into our “future” timeline depicting Noah in jail and this “storm” in full swing, but in spite of its heavy-handedness it’s still an effective segue. 

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As the episode’s trademark shift to the other side of the story occurs, it almost feels like there’s a new playfulness to it. They hold back from telling you whose story this is for a few moments before ultimately revealing that we’re getting Helen’s side of the day now, rather than immediately going to Alison like in the past. And boy is the change nice, because as talented as Ruth Wilson is, Maura Tierney simply crushes this material. Never getting enough of her (and Cole) last season was one of my biggest grievances with the show, so to see that immediately getting remedied and how completely Tierney is diving into the material is super encouraging.

Helen’s first scene almost depicts as lonely of an existence for her as the one that Noah seems to initially have. In spite of us seeing Helen literally connecting her body with her fancy new lover, Max, it’s completely one-sided. Helen too, is voiceless, and it’s painful to see her face clearly show how out of body and unconnected she is with Max during their sex as she grimaces through his bedroom talk. As his manhood later dominates her point of view, she can’t even stand to look at it, resorting to turn away from it as some sort of escape. He throws the word “love” around at her constantly and Helen struggles to figure out how she actually feels about this guy.

More than anything, Helen just seems exhausted by all of this. She seems fed up to be having to deal with the rigmaroles of dating once more as she tries to move on and accept the life that the world (and her mother) are pushing on her. Only it’s not what she wants at all. She wants her damaged, messed up ex-husband, as wrong as that is. Just like Noah not wanting her is its own kind of wrong, too.

In spite of the rough introduction of Max, by the end of everything he does seem to understand her. He relieves her tension and makes her feel less alone, and he knows when to slip her a pot lozenge when the time calls for it. This would be more than capable of working if Helen were only able to truly move on and accept this life for herself.

Watching how the divorce mediation scene plays out from Helen’s perspective is exactly the sort of switch that you’d expect from this show. In the moments that Helen shares with him before Noah arrives, we see a bitter, discouraged man who hates his job and is drowning in apathy, rather than the happy-go-lucky individual that Noah presents to us. This pivotal scene essentially acts as the centerpiece of the episode in terms of how perspective is utilized. The scene almost operates in the complete opposite manner, with this time Helen as the one who’s concerned about maintaining her children’s relationship with their father. 

Considering how raw and damaged Helen is at the moment, it makes sense to see this scene being filtered this way. It’s also worth mentioning that in her version of things, Noah says he’s seeing his publisher after the meeting, whereas in his version of events, not only has he already been there and been chewed out, he brings up the $400,000 he’s receiving for it, whereas money is nowhere to be mentioned here. Someone wants to forget about this large sum of money, or make sure that we’re very much aware of it. However, after Noah’s bad day, his processing of this moment in a much lighter way is certainly revealing. Perhaps it’s because he knows he has someone he loves that he’s returning to at the end of the day, whereas Helen doesn’t know what she’s doing with her love life.

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We perhaps should be led to believe that not everything from Helen’s perspective should be taken at face value. The scene in her daughter’s ballet class where two mothers are outright discussing Noah’s infidelity and her divorce in front of her is a bit much. Likewise for when she tries to swallow her pride and go to this benefit for her mother and the hostess highlights how she’s without Mr. Solloway. That’s not to say that the hostess doesn’t actually bring this up, but Helen’s focus on it and how it informs the rest of her behavior is no doubt significant.

This is a good way to get into the larger conversation about the nature of perspective, and how hindsight is a major component this season too. Helen snipes at Noah that she never realized how selfish he was through all of these years. There’s not only different recollections of the present that are going on now, but even the past is getting reconstructed due to the damage that’s been done here. There’s a beautiful moment where Whitney is discussing what to write her college essay on. She wants to write about the events of last season’s finale that involved her being held at gunpoint. Her grandmother shouts at her to not write about when her father pointed a gun at her, when she quickly shouts back, “He didn’t put a gun to my head, Cole did!” 

It seems that the show is intentionally trying to play with our recollection of events that we’ve seen, trying to inject even more perspectives into what we’re familiar with. Even if we think we know what we’ve seen and chiseled it out of Noah and Alison’s perspectives, we’re now left reeling that there are countless other renditions of what happened even if we didn’t focus on them at the time (seeing what Margaret’s version of the finale would look like, could be truly flummoxing stuff…). When Noah and Alison reunite after a long day, they share the exchange:

“How was your day?”

“It was awful… How was your day?”

“It was good.” 

The show never wants this duality to leave our minds.

Similarly, it’s absolutely important that Helen and Margaret discuss how she’s 70 years old, and yet a few scenes later when she’s with Max, she tells him that she’s 62. These sorts of things are constantly happening and it feels like the show more than ever wants you to be questioning everything that you see. 

It was revealed rather early on that this season of The Affair would be including four perspectives rather than how its first season was made up of two. I initially had reservations about this as it could lead to less story being spread out, or more storylines dividing our screen time. This could end up being a messy, repetitive season, but if that’s the case, this premiere certainly isn’t indicative of that. There’s wonderful balance demonstrated here, but I’m just concerned that when we shift into stories from Alison and Cole’s perspective, it might begin to get a lot more convoluted.

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As Helen’s half of things begin to conclude, it too is met with the same brutal storm that ends Noah’s version, however here we actually see the storm raging. While Noah’s story cuts away before the damage is done, Helen wallows in it here. Even if her life seems to be getting back together, she’s feeling the chaos and damage that’s thundering down atop of her. 

The episode ends, predictably with another “future scene,” but they still managed to genuinely hook me back in. Seeing that Helen and Noah are somehow working together in the future, or have somehow put their animosity aside is very interesting to me. There’s also pangs of some sort of long con going on with this perhaps being Helen’s plan to take down Alison (or Cole), using Noah as an ally. This narrative is sure to be shaken up more than a gimpy Etch-A-Sketch in the coming weeks, but this premiere does a wonderful job of not only resetting the table, but also focusing on what’s important to tell this story. 

Not featuring Cole, and the briefest tease of Alison is the right move here rather than overcrowding the first episode (you have no idea how frustrated I’d have been if the episode began with Noah and Alison’s new fancy life that we saw teased in last year’s finale), and the new positions that our characters seem to be inhabiting has me eager for more. 

While The Affair certainly became problematic towards the end of its last season, it feels like much course correction has been done, with the show ready to put its best foot forward.

Now the fun is just in watching whose foot it’s going to put forward, first.

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4 out of 5