This review of The Affair contains spoilers.
The Affair Season 3 Episode 9
“I thought it made sense. I tried to make it make sense.”
Jesus Christ, can we just give Maura Tierney an Emmy?
Helen’s half of this episode basically had me breaking out into a panic attack. Her segment is a claustrophobic, frightening, honest attack. I was vocal a number of times throughout it. It feels like a nightmare and even plays like a horror film as Helen’s family gangs up on her. We even get the inverse of Alison and Helen’s bar scene from last episode, but this time it feels angry and dripping in ulterior motive rather than the almost playful moment from before.
I’ve commented on Helen’s destructive, desperate behavior over the course of the past few episodes, and while the amount of focus it received might have frustrated me at times, this episode practically makes up for all of that. This installment is all about addressing Helen’s behavior and how drastic a spiral she’s gone down. It’s basically a gigantic intervention for her as the weight of the season and burden of carrying her guilt for so long finally causes her to break. The echo chamber that Helen experiences over how great Vic is also simultaneously reiterates how messed up she’s become.
The anxiety felt through the episode begins in subtle ways like Helen driving past Scotty’s memorial on the side of the road. Soon it becomes mounting and invasive…. literally slapping Helen in the face.
It’s a lot to take in and the tag team of a freshly in sync Bruce and Margaret versus Helen and white wine is a painful battle to endure. I was about to lose it when Helen’s daughter, Stacey, begins crying over all of this chaos and then apologizes to Helen for doing so. It’s a punch in the gut that is necessary to get to the desperate point Helen reaches where she’s raw enough to confess to her role in Scotty’s death. There’s a lot of powerful, emotional performances on The Affair. It’s even presented in a very theatrical nature. This is by far Tierney’s best work of the season and a satisfying companion piece to the work done by Ruth Wilson last episode.
Helen’s decision to cleanse her soul is a breakthrough for the character that feels necessary, not some manic episode like how her parents treat it. That being said, Helen’s fleeting thought of telling the Lockharts that’s she’s responsible for Scotty’s death is as misguided as they say it is. Noah served jail time. It’s not as if there was no justice of any sort.
As much as Helen opening up and not being afraid to be honest is a great step for her, she is also still likely in some degree of shock from everything that’s gone on lately with her life. There’s so much as going too far with honesty and Helen dangerously tows that line this week. A great deal of tension is drawn from being worried about what she might do next. There’s tremendous relief felt when her portion concludes with her mind on rebuilding rather than destruction. It’s only a matter of whether she can rebuild.
While Helen is still tearing down the pillars of her life, a further epiphany is reached during her conversation with Alison. As Helen and Alison are able to fully share their scars with one another, they bond in yet another way in this incestuous show. Their discussion attempts to hit home the fact that everyone can only be responsible for themselves. It’s a hopeless endeavor to try and control someone else’s choices or save someone else because it’s all ultimately out of your hands. It’s a realization that is especially poignant considering this is what Helen has been attempting to do for the entire season and it takes Alison—not anyone in her family—to open her eyes. This material resonates even more once the truth about Noah and Gunther is exposed. Helen’s work becomes all the more unfortunate when you realize what’s been going on with Noah since his incarceration.
On that note, let’s shift over to Noah and his oh-so fractured mental state. Evidently, what I suspected last week regarding Gunther proves to actually be the case. Noah’s gone off the deep end. Sure, Gunther exists, but he’s barely been a presence in Noah’s life. He might not even be responsible for his busted shoulder. For a show that throws incongruent perspectives in your face all the time, it’s still pretty unnerving to see the normal life that Gunther struggles to work through that Noah almost overturns.
This reveal works as a rather seismic double-edged sword. On one hand, I sort of love the idea that Noah is so fundamentally broken that all of this fear was based on nothing at all and that his stabbing was actually some sort of suicide attempt. While I approve of the content, the way it’s executed still leaves something to be desired. I’d like to think if you hadn’t figured out what was going on with Gunther by now, then the “Previously On” package at the start of this episode pretty much prepares you for the direction that’s going to be gone down.
I’m just happy this wasn’t left until the finale to be resolved. There’s now the opportunity for some much-needed healing from all of this trauma. The news regarding Gunther is certainly huge, but it’s really all being used as the dressing for digging into Noah’s trauma with his mother.
Noah’s half of the episode acts as a meditation on how his actions to help his mother end her pained life are what also ended up destroying his. He never fully recovered from it. A glimpse into Noah’s prison novel is finally seen and it appears to be more so therapy and coming to terms with what he did than it is the next great American novel. This version of himself that Noah gets to explore through his approximate, Jack Hunter, in his manuscript speaks volumes on who Noah actually is. Dominic West brings a ton to Noah’s pained experience here but doesn’t quite hit the same level that Tierney does, with his decidedly broader material. Fraser however rises to the occasion while playing this clueless, concerned side of Gunther perfectly, while also representing the scary version within Noah’s mind.
Noah gets lost in his mind over whether he actually subconsciously pushed his mother into the idea of killing herself so he could get on with his life and not be tied down to aiding her. He more or less makes that choice for her, which is something that Alison spends the episode claiming is impossible. Whether it is or it isn’t, it doesn’t change the fact that Noah making someone else’s decision for them ends up severely stunting his life. Going to jail and again trying to make a decision for someone else might have subconsciously been his way of atoning for this other death on his hands. In fact, the show goes one step further by once again positing that Noah’s actions with his mother are the reason that his affair with Alison happened in the first place. This entire series has just been Noah grieving over his mother.
With one episode of the season left and what appears to be all of the major “mysteries” now out of the way, it’s interesting to see this season ending on the image of Helen and Noah at their absolute rock bottoms. But in spite of the damage they’ve been through, they’re both in these extremely similar places. It’s been a grueling ride to get them to this point, but with both Noah and Helen dealing with much of their baggage this episode, maybe—somehow—this season will end on an optimistic note.
Or maybe Cole will kill Whitney or something.