This The Affair review contains spoilers.
The Affair Season 3 Episode 2
“So what the fuck happened?”
Last week’s premiere might have been a veritable Noahpalooza, but this second episode wisely spreads the wealth effectively and ends up feeling a lot more natural and like a typical installment. In my review of last week’s premiere, I compared the series’ recent storytelling “games” to that of Damages, but on further investigation, Kessler, Zelman, and Kessler’s other series, Bloodlines, is perhaps a more apt analogy. All of The Affair’s characters have gone through so much already (especially Alison) that to continually be putting them through more Big Events runs the risk of plausibility snapping in half. The show isn’t at that point yet, but you can feel it wanting to jump at the opportunity. I swear, simply watching these layered, real characters exist can be enough. It doesn’t always have to be murders and illegitimate children.
So for example, this episode, which focuses on Helen and Alison, is set one year prior to Noah’s material in the premiere, but still set two years after the events of last year’s finale. Jumping around this much in the show’s timeline, in the second episode no less, seems a little needlessly complicated, but the stories filling it is are least strong. On top of that though, it easily feels like Helen’s content could have been incorporated into the premiere. The degree of catch-up that is being played with Helen also feels more consistent with the previous episode, rather than inserting the somewhat awkward “One Year Earlier” prologue here.
Furthermore, letting the Alison material breathe more and even getting a chance to check in with Cole feels like a much more fitting second episode. It’d also actually lend itself to the show’s concept a little better too, as Helen and Alison’s stories share no overlap. That being said, all of this material still connects, regardless of how it’s being presented or in what order.
The episode shows a seemingly happy Helen, closer than ever with Vic, the doctor, and having chiseled out a nice life for themselves. This happiness with Vic is surely meant to play in contrast to Helen’s behavior of being more than ready to get back with Noah when we saw their reunion in the previous episode. But this is a show all about reconciling differences in character like that. Everything that Helen does here screams that she is looking to move on from Noah and become some new person. She’s even the one leaking out divorce gossip and spreading rumors, rather than the being the recipient of it. In spite of all of this, things that Helen just can’t get away from (ie. her children) keep trying to remind her of her old life with Noah.
At one point, in reference to her new life with Vic, Helen boasts, “No headache. No strings. I don’t know why I ever got married in the first place.” Helen continues on about how she’s never been happier, but then in the next scene she is heading off to see Noah in jail. On the topic of Noah, it’s nice to see reality setting in a little regarding his prison sentence. Then again, since this is all filtered through Helen’s perspective, maybe she’s just depicting things as being a little more grueling for Noah than they are as she’s playing the role of protector through all of this. In Alison’s side of the episode, we too see glimpses of a broken, frightened Noah though, so it’s likely something that can be trusted.
Much like the nature of the show, Helen is very much living a double life and behind her surface-level “perfect” life with Vic, she seems even more committed to Noah than ever now that he’s stuck in prison. It’s like her life is the Cuban version of The Tempest that her children are putting on at school; a familiar setting cast in an unknown light. It’s a telling moment worth highlighting when Helen’s family gangs up on her for visiting Noah in jail while she tries to defend why he deserves their time. The cover story that Helen pulls out regarding what happened with Scotty’s death isn’t even that justifiable (she is clearly no Skyler White in this department). She fails to create culpability when she’s nearly imploding from the guilt that she’s feeling inside, especially after Noah’s fallen on the sword for her. Noah might be alone in a jail cell, but Helen feels just as alone in her home with Vic in bed.
Alison’s half of the episode—also set a year ago—is framed around her finally returning to Montauk after her blowout with Noah and the events of last season going down. Ruth Wilson kills it right out of the gate here. She looks visibly shaken to be back to where her life fell apart—was rebuilt—and fell apart again. Alison, like Helen, is looking to move past her previous life and get on with a new one. She’s even given a half-hearted “Welcome to Montauk” as if she’s new to this rodeo.
Interestingly, Alison’s version of starting over is still steeped in the past. She brings Gabriel’s old toys with her to her new place, and much like it seems how Helen may be longing to be back with Noah, Alison seems to share similar pangs towards Cole. I still think it’s bonkers that the original couples from the series’ starting point have started to find themselves back to one another. Also much like in Helen’s case, you want to see Alison pick up the pieces and find some happiness here. It’s just kind of ironic that both of these very different women have been slighted by the same man.
Alison (who genuinely seems to have improved some) has to fight for so much in this episode and it’s devastating to see her losing and scrambling to hold onto any remaining sanity. At the same time, it sounds like Alison and Cole’s daughter also has legitimately been going through a lot of hell and possibly even developing the same issues that Alison herself has, so perhaps the grim news that Alison receives is for the greater good.
While events largely move in the matter that you’d expect them to with this episode with characters filling in some of the gaps felt from last year’s finale with predictable behavior, it’s just nice to be around these people again. Tierney and Wilson are both powerhouses that the show consistently knows how to use well, and if nothing else it’s just nice to be expanding their characters’ stories. This season is still a little murky, but it’s showing promise and at least seems to be embracing the decisions that it’s making. In the end, things always come down to one’s kids versus another’s cactus. With this season, we just don’t know exactly how sharp those needles are yet.