This The Affair review contains spoilers.
The Affair Season 4 Episode 1
“It’s sunny every goddamn day.”
In many ways, the The Affair is interested in really digging into the immense field of human memory and how objective events can suddenly become so subjective when they’re filtered through emotion. In the series’ earliest days, this “mandala effect” surrounding memory was integral to the storytelling and episodes often hinged on drastic or miniscule differences presented in the two renditions of events. This device has unfortunately become less crucial as the show has gone on, but it’s still allowed the series its bifurcated structure and The Affair never stopped being interested in how emotion can warp memory. In that sense, it’s very easy to arrive at two different impressions on this episode based on what your history is with this show. This premiere is certainly an improvement over what the last season had to offer, but it still pales in comparison to the show’s first two years.
The last season of The Affair took every character, but particularly Noah, to the rockiest of bottoms and started to turn into a bit of a slog through emotional torture porn. It looked like none of these wounded souls might ever get a happy ending, nor do they even deserve one. There was also a very over the top imaginary Brendan Fraser that haunted Noah last season and made the year considerably more hammy and transparent than the series had intended. There were many problems in The Affair‘s third season and every character backslid in a considerable way that robbed them of some form of happiness (Helen’s downfall was particularly brutal). It was a lot and on top of that, the season went out on the fairly unearned conclusion that Noah’s seen the light, rehabilitated his soul, and that all of this pain was actually meant to bring him to a better place.
Well, The Affair‘s fourth season attempts to begin in this happy place, but to also effectively clean house and give the show a soft reboot of sorts. Not only does this season begin some time after we last saw these characters, but the series has also proudly advertised the fact that most of these characters will find themselves in new relationships, as it became fairly obvious that the show’s core cast of four had gotten as incestuous as possible. It was getting to the point where only a torrid tryst between Noah and Cole was left. While a slew of new characters can understandably steal focus from the show’s more important cast, The Affair is also aware of this and makes sure that nobody new becomes an overbearing presence in this premiere.
One of The Affair’s biggest weaknesses is its obsession with Noah, when he’s in fact often the least interesting character out of the show’s main cast. Clearly Noah isn’t going anywhere and he’s absolutely the focus to this premiere, but it’s nice to see the spotlight get shared a little more. This episode is just as much about Helen’s pain as it is Noah’s and hopefully this shared, larger perspective will continue as the season goes on.
This new season begins with Helen, and now Noah, relocated to Los Angeles. Noah’s made the move in an effort to stay closer with his kids and the change of scenery has led to him teaching public school at Compton Academy. Noah technically has many of the things that he’s desired—his children, a career in teaching—yet his transition to Los Angeles is not going well. Everyone treats Noah like he’s invisible, which is particularly frustrating to him after he feels like he’s finally put himself back together. At the same time, Compton Academy’s Principal doesn’t seem to be Noah’s biggest fan and she becomes another source of stress for him.
Noah teaches Orwell to disinterested students and struggles to get any reaction from out of them at all, yet his passion isn’t entirely deflated. However, it becomes clear pretty quickly just how little these students actually respect him. There are also plenty of female students that treat Noah like a sex object and while he doesn’t exactly discourage their ogling, it does seem like he’s maybe learned from his promiscuous past. During his lesson on Orwell, Noah fixates on a particular passage from Animal Farm that talks about wanting to leave individuals to make their own decisions, but that it can’t be done because they’ll make the wrong decisions. It’s a relevant theme, but it’s also pretty pat that Noah’s teaching his students something that’s also been so applicable to him through the course of the series, yet he’s too oblivious to realize it.
A lot of this episode sees Noah in Stand and Deliver mode as he tries to reach a troubled student, Anton Gatewood, who’s repeating his senior year and is either illiterate or a savant. Noah understands that he’s currently helpless in every other aspect of his life and not being heard, but he sees Anton as someone that he can actually make a difference in. This is a situation where he’s decidedly not invisible.
Noah’s good will and optimism continues to run out as the episode goes on. He might be on the opposite coast of the world now, but his entitled, privileged nature is right there with him. That’s not to say that Noah doesn’t deserve any sympathy here, but he continues to go around and expect that everything will go his way. Noah spends a good portion of his half of this premiere calling individuals assholes, but it seems a little like the writer doth protest too much…
Noah does attempt to be making a genuine effort with his children, which is why the scenes that play out with them at the Mexican restaurant are so gutting. It’s just one big echo chamber that doesn’t care about Noah and even though he tries to handle it maturely and in stride, it’s brutal to see his family slowly chip away at him. Of course, he did bring all of this on himself, but does that mean redemption’s impossible? It feels like Noah wants to call his son Squealer during their dinner together just so he can hammer the Animal Farm point home here.
Noah’s half of the premiere is a considerable downer, but Helen’s story manages to be more depressing, even if it looks like everything is perfect on the outside. Vic’s been promoted to Chief Surgeon and they have a stupidly gorgeous home to live in. The two of them have become very LA people, yet Helen is slowly losing her mind and developing vendettas against the Pacific Ocean, just so she has something to rebel against.
Helen fills her days with yoga, therapy, and all sorts of meditation to help alleviate her anxiety and while she seems to be making headway, there’s still a mammoth obstacle in her way. Helen now has a substantial phobia of earthquakes and how they’re capable of turning her happy, new life into rubble. This extends so far that Helen doesn’t even feel safe living in Los Angeles and while she’s clearly projecting a ton, perhaps it’s the fact that her life is back on track that actually worries her so much. This premiere also hints that Helen might actually be confused about her sexuality and that she has some much deeper anxiety that revolves around what she’s possibly repressed through her life.
“401” doesn’t try to hold back how much Helen’s over Noah (which is a complete reversal from her addiction to him last season). It’s typical for Noah’s side of events to present a more judgmental version of Helen, but even in her own portion of this episode her disdain for Noah becomes even more severe. Curiously enough, the biggest difference in this premiere in regard to the discrepancies between Noah and Helen’s versions of events is definitely in Noah’s behavior. In Helen’s side of the story he’s practically a caricature that exists solely to destroy joy, which makes it seem like her rendition is a little clouded over everything else that’s on her mind. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about this episode is that Helen gains some massive clarity about just how poisonous Noah is to her life. Helen figures out that Noah is her earthquake, but just because she’s realized this doesn’t mean that it will save her.
This premiere succeeds at throwing the audience into Noah and Helen’s latest changes, but a lot of this episode is just setting the table for the season’s new focus and what these characters are dealing with this year. It’s an encouraging, yet slow start. It’s still early on in the season, but the issues that the characters deal with here are the same problems that have always plagued them. You can change your surroundings or your partner, but that doesn’t change who you are.
For those that are curious if The Affair tones down its more ambitious, non-linear narrative tendencies this season, there is once again a larger frame mystery that will come into play in a big way. The premiere shows us that six weeks in the future Alison ends up missing for 72 hours and that Noah and Cole are in some kind of agreement to sort all of this out. Cole and Alison don’t really enter the picture until next week, so this flashforward is merely meant to tease the audience. This mystery has its work cut out for it, but at least it seems like a natural fit for the story. Plus, the prospect that we might get to see Noah and Cole working together this year is actually exciting.
The Affair might find a way to make this all cleanly come together, but this isn’t a show that should have to resort to things like murder mysteries or life in prison in order to generate its stakes. It’s a series that started by telling honest, complicated love stories and that was enough. While the show’s new season seems to have regained its footing and remembered what made it work in the first place, some of the program’s trademark problems are beginning to rear their heads. Much like Noah, I want to believe that things are going to get better. Helen might be ready to finally cut Noah out of her life, but it’s not quite time to cut out The Affair.