This review of The Affair contains spoilers.
The Affair Season 3 Episode 1
“Besides, I think you’re innocent.”
And doesn’t that say it all?
Noah might not actually be guilty for the crime that he went to prison for (at least not fully), but he is certainly responsible for a glossary section full of other crimes and misdoings. So are a lot of people on this delightfully despicable little show, and that’s sort of the point.
The Affair is constantly trying to re-invent itself, which is sometimes the case with concept-centered series. The drama has gone from presenting two warring perspectives to four in its second season. This year decides to complicate things in a whole other manner that still effectively toys with your idea of perception. This might be a show that operates with a near Damages-esque abandon for wanting to play with the schism between what the audience thinks is going on and what is actually going on.
During the first two seasons, The Affair would mine material from presenting two perspectives of mostly the same event, letting the small differences blossom into topics of debate. This season continues that tradition, but also propels the show three years into the future after the bonkers event of last year’s finale. As we try and pick up the pieces from what has gone on between then and now, the show also flashes back to three years ago as Noah is first going to prison, offering you bits of story from both ends with you left to reconcile the middle.
I can see the need for this show to want to up the ante a little, but I’m not sure if this back-and-forth time jump is ultimately the right direction to go down. A lot of shows have implemented this sort of device whereas The Affair is the only program doing this bifurcated perspective. This is still a show that I deeply enjoy and this new angle is certainly giving a burst of energy to the storytelling this year in a way that’s very exciting. I just hope the show doesn’t complicate things too much or end up feeling like any other generic show in the process. We want Noah Solloway’s A Person Who Visits A Place, not Dissent, essentially.
Interestingly, this premiere episode chooses to abandon its main construct in order to play catch-up and reacquaint you to this changed world. The episode still begins with “Part One: Noah,” but there’s no Part Two or second perspective to be seen here. Alison and the Lockharts don’t even get a mention until the very final minutes. This is not the first time that this has been done, but it feels like this is going to be a particularly busy season, so we’ll see if this approach of taking its time is the right decision. For the moment, this slow re-entry into things works just fine, but it doesn’t exactly function like an Affair episode.
The show returns at the interesting starting point of the death of Noah’s father, shortly after Noah’s release from prison. Tight close-ups with an unstable camera catch Noah stammering through a eulogy where he’s clearly shaken up. Surely he can’t help but think about his own mortality and the words that his children might deliver at his funeral, as he continues to incinerate any good will that he has with his family.
As time goes on, we learn that Noah’s disheveled demeanor might have nothing to do with his father’s passing at all. As Helen tries to reconnect with Noah, the show dangles unfinished business in our faces as they talk around big events. Like usual with this show, this premiere is interested in making you put together a puzzle as it occasionally throws you pieces of this narrative and then watches you scramble to put them together until it gives you another necessary detail. While this approach can work to a certain point with a show, you also have to be careful to not burn up all of your trust, and The Affair is getting dangerously close to this line. Yes, there are many changes and gaps to fill in coming into this season, but the show has to be careful to make those answers seem exciting rather than exhausting.
One answer that is given pretty clearly though is that the reason the show has jumped ahead three years is because Noah has been in prison for Scott Lockhart’s murder. It’s a little comforting to see the show actually going down that road rather than cheating their way out of Noah’s incarceration and the mammoth note that last season ended on.
Skipping the time actually spent in prison between seasons is a strategy that I’m more than fine with in order to help this story move along. Besides, slowly learning of all the people on the sidelines that were hurt by Noah’s actions and ensuing prison time (such as his father) especially speaks to the show’s themes regarding consequences.
Noah has never been the most rational individual (he’s still suffering from tortured dreams, and added an unhealthy penchant for pill popping), but he’s displaying some prime paranoia in this episode. He continues to think that he’s being watched and followed—clearly a symptom of whatever has recently gone on with him in prison—which should be a major plot point for the first few episodes. I’m not sure if Noah is seeing everything that he thinks he’s seeing, but I’m sure someone is keeping tabs on him in some respect.
Noah has also been living with his sister, Nina. It’s nice to see the boundaries of Noah’s family expanding a little just as he seems to be experiencing so much loss. A lot of this episode is understandably devoted to Noah and Helen’s dynamic and it’s still pretty painful to watch these two try to co-exist. The end of last season saw the tables irrevocably being turned as Noah and Helen are forced into an arrangement that sees the broken couple needing to act as a union once more. This year we see Helen continuing to try and get closer with Noah, even if it’s just an inch, while Noah still seems reluctant on the whole matter. They’ve certainly done this dance before on the show, but Tierney just kills the apathetic pain so well that it’s nice to have this back.
A lot of this premiere focuses on showing you the new, lackluster life that Noah has following prison and how he longs so much for the former life that he once had (either of them). That’s a brooding, self-important place to play in but it feels like necessary table setting for the journey that Noah’s likely to be put through this year. So much of Noah’s arc has been about status and appearances, so showing him at his desperate worst, eager to reclaim what he thinks he deserves is a crucial step.
Naturally there are a few choice flashbacks to three years earlier when Noah is first going to prison as Helen tries to wrap her head around his decision. The fact that Noah doesn’t even seem to be that unpleasant in jail, treating the isolation as a sort of writer’s retreat is almost too perfect. He continually jokes that his new situation and life is “better than prison,” but I wonder if he actually means that.
Seeing the extra stress that Noah is putting on his sister’s marriage is also heartbreaking. Noah is just trying to get by with the little that he has and watching lives splinter around him is crippling. If nothing else, it’s nice to see how much his sister loves him, and Jennifer Esposito is killing it right out of the gates in this role. And speaking of which, Sarah Ramos of Parenthood fame is also along this year as a struggling student of Noah’s that happens to get thrust into the spotlight. Noah gets to hear this mentor and contemporary wax on about the writer’s darkness becoming a physical manifestation, hitting territory that resonates far too close to home for Noah.
Actually, on this note, the idea of Noah being in yet another relationship so quickly here feels a little reductive, but I give the show a lot of credit for going to this place. This speaks volumes towards who Noah is and the rut he’s fallen into. It also casts his behavior with Alison in a whole new light and says a ton about how he operates in general. There is just so much TV at this point that The Affair often gets left out of a lot of conversations, but it’s plotting like this that should act as a reminder that this show has some of the most strongly defined characters on the medium.
Noah jokes at one point that part of the reason that his current university job hired him is because he’s an ex-con and that carries a certain appeal. The show plays with Noah’s dalliance with danger in the same way by treating him like a sideshow attraction while at Juliette’s (Irene Jacob) dinner party. We’re treated to a lengthy scene here about the nature of consent that might stumble more than it’d like to, but it’s nice for this show to now have an outlet to start getting into some headier conversations that are intrinsically linked to the bigger issues at hand in this show.
It’s cathartic to see Noah get lambasted over his approach to consent when considering his actions over the past two seasons. He muses that, “I think sex can be about wanting and not wanting…That’s what makes it so interesting,” which is an illuminating point for Noah to make. As is seeing several guests refer to Noah’s latest novel as a training manual on how to be an asshole. These criticisms can’t help but feel like the show is reflecting the audience’s reaction to Noah last year, a little bit.
Noah has lost a lot through the years, but he’s at least always felt safe. For the first time that necessity seems to be gone and it’s a startling loss for him. In perfect Affair fashion the show ends on yet another huge cliffhanger, one that may or may not be everything that it appears to be, but is sure to be the first of many surprises this season. After all, you can shave off the psycho beard, but what’s left underneath?