This review of The Affair contains spoilers
The Affair Season 3 Episode 3
“That’s what we do when we fall off horses. We get right back on.”
The Affair explores the evolving dynamics in relationships; how something beloved can sour into something venomous and vice versa. With that comes the consideration of second chances, and whether handing them out is the right idea or not. Often there are complicated places that lie between the answer and this episode, more than any other this season, is about that place where past intersects with present and a decision must be made.
Four episodes into this season, we finally get to spend some quality time with Cole. Funny enough though, this focus on him ends up feeling a lot more like your typical Noah installment. Watching Cole feign ignorance with Luisa over Alison immediately brings up shades of Noah’s attempts at subterfuge back when this show began. I love that Cole, this wounded free spirit character, has ostensibly turned into the earliest iterations of Noah in a lot of ways. It’s a parallel that speaks volumes on the idea that this might be an inevitability that everyone goes through.
Luisa gets put in the spotlight a bunch in this episode. I really want to like her and for her to feel like more than a plot device and obstacle to Alison. She gets humanized a little this week, but as the show doubles down on her, it seems to be clear that Cole’s most recent wife is not going anywhere. That being said, neither is his previous wife, and that’s kind of what this Cole/Alison structured installment is all about. The past keeps intervening with the present and trying to insist that it’s not actually the past.
There’s a crucial scene in the second half of the episode that sees Cole nearly flinching at the compliment that people have never seen him this happy before. It’s just devastating. He’s somehow fallen into this “perfect” life that’s a warped, funhouse mirror of everything that he cares about. It’s like telling Frankenstein that his monster has made him the happiest that you’ve ever seen him. Cole doesn’t want to keep living a confusing lie with this abomination. But as everyone in this episode continues to learn, we can’t help it if the past sometimes comes back to us. We might be able to stab it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s dead.
This week, they really dig into the murky territory of Cole’s daughter, Joanie, and her shared, yet fractured bond with Alison. The episode presents situations where Cole tries to facilitate a hospitable environment that includes Alison, and yet she seems to come with a number of accompanying obstacles.
It’s painful to watch these two hurt individuals that obviously still have unresolved feelings between each other try to act normal. There are constant reminders that their relationship is not normal. Someone is literally taking notes and keeping score of Alison’s parenting ability while she tries to spend time with her daughter. No one is willing to give Alison the benefit of the doubt after her blow-up between seasons, which sees Cole constantly taking up the role of her defender. It’s crushing to see Cole’s happy life that he’s put together becoming eroded away over the topic of Alison and the past that comes along with her.
Some people might view this as evidence of Cole not being able to let ago—and I’d say with someone like Alison, or even Noah, that this would be the case—but I truly feel that Cole just wants a pleasant environment for his daughter. It’s heartbreaking that he seems to be put in situations where it’s his daughter—and Alison, by proxy—or his wife. It’s enlightening to see that Alison simultaneously finds herself in a similar situation in her half of the episode where she learns that her custody specifics with Joanie would improve if she officially divorced Noah. The episode’s message of past versus present only becomes stronger here.
This episode does some dazzling perspective work by taking Joanie’s trip across the monkey bars and depicting it as a mere passing moment for Cole and yet it nearly gives Alison a panic attack. It’s even shot in a more startling, epic manner as if Joanie is spanning the Grand Canyon rather than jungle gym equipment. Unsurprisingly, when the follow-up incident to this—Joanie horseback riding—takes place, all of this is cranked up to an even more alarming degree. Alison can’t even bring herself to watch her daughter’s accident and it’s still as if an earthquake is coursing through her. It’s rather telling that during Alison’s rendition of the horseback riding incident, she’s paralyzed in fear and not the one to run to Joanie’s aid. She’s unable to help and doesn’t see herself as being deserving of that savior role due to how much the world has been knocking her down lately.
It’s even harder to watch Alison grapple with the reality that even if her behavior here is sterling, forensic evidence outside of anyone’s control could still ultimately keep her from her child. This is a character that so desperately needs a win and the gauntlet that she’s going through is exactly the sort of thing that could reverse all the progress that she’s made. As painful as this episode can be at times, it is nice to see Alison being able to watch her daughter do gymnastics or be able to bake a cake for her birthday. Even if these are moments that painfully crash down around her, these brief crystalized moments of happiness are glowing.
A lot of this episode falls down to the big arguments and shit hitting the fan that you’ve been waiting to happen since the premiere, but Joshua Jackson and Ruth Wilson are just such goddamn powerhouses that even if the reasons they’re exploding over are a little melodramatic, I’m still eating it up. I’d still like to see Alison’s material move a little further beyond her being in stuck in some insurmountable stage of grief. Wilson can sell the hell out of it, but there’s a lot more to the character that is getting lost here. Furthermore, with the structural rules of this show changing with each new year, it wouldn’t even be the worst idea for some episodes—like this one, for instance—featuring three perspectives. It’d be another interesting way of playing with things and getting creative with the formula.
For a moment, I was going to touch on the fact that while this reunion with Cole and Alison is more than appreciated, it’s a rather slower episode in the larger scope of the season. But then it dawned on me that this stuff is the season—watching Alison getting closer with her daughter, following the success of Cole’s marriage. Yes, there’s an attempted murder mystery that’s also afoot but this more lethargic season is starting to feel that it’s less about the sprawling mystery and the mechanics behind it, but rather just the people involved in it all.
Then again, once we’re back with the Solloways next week all bets might be off. Those guys are all about sweeping plot twists over tender emotional breakthroughs.