This review contains spoilers.
“It takes time…”
“Are you okay?” It’s a very simple question, but it’s kind of the antithesis of what this finale — and the series as a whole — is all about. As The Affair checks in with these characters one last time this year, it wants to examine how everyone is doing as they prepare to ride off into the horizon. Tragic events have shaken up everyone’s world and so it’s only natural to look at the consequences of those events, but this has been a fundamental question ever since the start of the series. If Noah and Alison were “okay” then would they have even embarked on their affair in the first place?
This finale begins in a very fractured place and rather than hide from the rampant pain, the episode leans into it when it’s appropriate. Noah appears to be okay, but there are still moments where he breaks down and the loss overcomes him. He’s not beaten down though. Cole on the other hand explicitly says that he feels terrible and wonders if he’ll ever be able to move on. Helen’s grief comes from a whole other set of stressers, but she’s still nearly as frayed as Cole. When the topic of wellness and stability comes up to her, she bursts out, “Why can’t anything ever just be ‘okay’ for one fucking minute?” Something so simple can be extremely elusive to these people.
Additionally, all bets are off with this finale after the rule-breaking structure of the previous episode. Plus, even though this isn’t the show’s last episode, it very much operates like a ‘soft series finale’ and so it’s only fair that every character gets their due and receives proper closure. It’d be awfully strange if Cole and Helen were absent from this finale ‘just because’ that’s how the show’s bifurcated structure works. It may seem like the finale has to fit a lot into this one episode (and it does), but Alison’s funeral acts as a helpful unifying factor to sort of bring everyone together. This finale is also an extra fifteen minutes long so it’s able to effectively touch on all of its characters without this goodbye feeling rushed.
As life back in Montauk gets considerably heavy, Noah finds a bit of comfort in the fact that he and Anton get to take part in a very validating writers’ circle on Princeton’s campus. Once again Noah gets a huge pat on the back as everyone tells him how great he is and how inspirational his work can be. In a rather surreal moment a female student even tells Noah, “I love the way that you write women.” He hears everything that he wants to hear and gets to be “Noah Fucking Solloway” as Cole is lost in the hardest moment of his life.
Additionally, it’s rather humorous to hear this literary circle jerk use Walt Whitman’s “I contain multitudes” speech in reference to Noah. In his case it seems like, “I contain multi ‘tudes,” would be more appropriate. On top of this, Anton’s literary exercise about Noah is an insanely economical piece of writing. The assignment initially comes across as a love letter to Noah before it begins to sour and transform. It’s meant to be an example of how well Anton is able to play the system (something that he was already adept at in high school), but it progresses into a fascinating debate on the differences between sociopathic behaviour and being a writer.
Noah lashes out at Anton for how he “uses people” for his stories, but it really seems like he’s screaming at himself and the lessons that he’s baked into this boy. Noah knows that he’s based characters in his novels on real people and events. He’s just embarrassed that Anton knows him so well that he’s figured this out and thinks that it’s acceptable. This discussion becomes even richer because isn’t this what The Affair has been doing all along with its shifting point of views? Events have overlapped through different sets of eyes specifically to show the audience that certain people will use others as characters in their own narrative, whether it’s intentional or not. Helen even admits in this episode that she’s done this very thing with Vik in order to help her get over Noah. It’s poignant as hell that this becomes the sticking point between Noah and Anton in the end.
Noah’s trip to Princeton also puts him back in the orbit of an old friend, Ariel (played by the always wonderful Janel Moloney), a fellow English teacher and writer. At first it appears like Ariel is set up to be some perfect person that Noah can ride away into the sunset with, so it’s incredibly encouraging when she brings up her husband and that’s not the purpose of their history. Ariel is supposed to represent just how much Noah has changed over the past two decades. Not only is she surprised to hear that he’s no longer together with Helen, but she has no idea that he’s already been married and divorced another time after that! It’s a subtle touch by Dominic West, but there’s the smallest bit of hesitation on his face before he tells Ariel about Alison. It looks like he considers just lying and to forgo the whole thing. Wouldn’t it be easier to just entirely skip over that mess? The fact that Noah doesn’t hide this chapter of his life is just the beginning of the character coming to terms with Alison’s death.
It seems like Noah is holding himself together through the aftermath of Alison, but both Ariel and Anton point out to him how he clearly hasn’t been able to properly process this yet. He needs to be honest with himself here. Noah has already helped Anton in monumental ways and an extra few hours with the kid isn’t going to change anything. It’s time that Noah helps the people that truly need him right now.
Noah may be hiding his pain rather well, but Cole is in the biggest need of assistance in this finale. Of the three stories that get featured here, Cole’s is the lengthiest. It’s pretty much brood city with a vacation home in mopeville for the guy, but honestly he’s pretty damn entitled to his behaviour. This story is already sad enough without a pitch black bleak sequence of Cole, Luisa, and Joanie singing a monotone version of This Land Is Our Land on the way to Alison’s funeral. There are not enough tissues in the world.
One of the hardest things about Cole’s story is how it forces him and Luisa to be around each other. Luisa is just trying to help Cole, but the way in which she micro-manages his grieving process only makes things more volatile between them. It’s devastating to see Luisa want to leverage this unfortunate occasion to discuss her and Cole’s future, but he’s just so broken that any sort of conversation, especially that one, will be completely useless right now. Give the guy some time!
Matters only get worse for Cole as he begins to feel like he’s increasingly being boxed out of Alison’s funeral. Details continue to change without his consent or control and it’s awful to see this intensely intimate moment get stretched to encompass more and more people. Athena’s gesture to give Alison a beach wedding does seem like something that she would have absolutely hated, but the knowledge that Alison has been cremated is even more egregious to Cole. He was supposed to bury her, but now he has to share this moment and literally give pieces of her away to everyone else who’s there, including the man who murdered her (seriously what is Ben doing there!?).
Cole winces every time that someone new takes a little more from out of Alison’s urn. It looks like the process physically pains him and there’s a real sense of dread as the urn makes its way over to Cole. In the end, it’s a moment that Cole just can’t handle and while it may be exceedingly selfish, he breaks a little inside and goes rogue. Believe it or not, Noah of all people is the one that tries to reason with him on the other side. By the way, it’s also rather shocking that one of the sweetest, most emotional moments in Cole’s portion of the episode comes from Noah. His eulogy for Alison is so beautiful and even though he and Alison couldn’t work things out, it’s incredible to see the lasting impact that she had on him and how she broke through. He may have ultimately just been an affair for Alison, but she was absolutely more to Noah than some adulterous fling.
One of the more interesting aspects of Cole’s grief is that episodes before her demise, Alison makes it very clear that she’s over Cole and isn’t interested in reconciliation. There’s likely an aspect of Cole that’s lost in denial and firmly believes that if he could have reached her in time and confessed his love that she would have taken him back. If Alison rejected Cole before her death he’d perhaps be acting a little differently at her funeral. He’d still surely be a wreck, but all of the “my wife” stuff would probably be less intense. He’d at least have a slightly easier time at moving on.
The most honest admission of the whole episode comes when Cole tells his mother, “I don’t know what to do with this,” in reference to Alison’s death. Sometimes events can be so cataclysmic and random that there’s no lesson or strength to pull from them. They just happen and you try to get by. All of this being said, it’d be a whole lot more comforting to get some epilogue where Cole meets some new happy, magical person rather than the fear that one night he may just off himself like his father did.
Finally, the episode’s perspective shifts over to Helen as she and Vik attempt to deal with the growing dangers of Vik’s pancreatic cancer. Helen isn’t tied up with Alison’s funeral, but she may have one of her one to attend in her near future. Helen’s story feels a little disconnected from the other two, but she still has a monumental amount to deal with here. On the “okay scale” she comfortably fits somewhere between Noah and Cole. In spite of all of the obvious evidence and a very competent cancer doctor calling Vik an idiot and an asshole, he’s still unreceptive to the idea of chemotherapy and treatment.
This finale also features the return of Whitney, which is actually surprisingly cathartic after such an emotionally painful season. Whitney gets to be Helen’s equivalent to Ariel in many ways as Helen tries to catch her daughter up with the whirlwind of events that have hit her life in the past year. It feels like Whitney’s presence and all of this will culminate in some huge, gooey Thanksgiving dinner with everyone invited, but then Whitney goes off the rails and acts incredibly Whitney about the whole thing. Of course that’s not how thing are going to end.
Helen’s situation is already escalating at an alarming rate, but then Ciara decides to blow everything up with her ultra selfish reveal that she is pregnant with Vik’s baby. As messy and convenient as all of this is, the show is too far into the finale to use this information in a way that would be as damaging as if Vik found out in say, episode seven. As it stands, the reveal is meant to be one more event that chips away at Helen’s armour and reminds her about her own mortality.
Ciara’s pregnancy news causes Helen to reach out to Noah and their brief, reflective conversation is pretty wonderful. Some of the best moments from this season have managed to be the few scenes where worn out Noah and Helen attempt to commiserate. The look on Noah’s face when he realises that Helen’s life is still quite chaotic and messy even when he’s not a part of it is something special, as is their conversation about how much easier it is to love someone when you’re young and baggage-free. In the same sense, it’s been less easy to love The Affair as it’s slowly accumulated an increasing amount of drama through the years. This slightly meta conversation feels like the proper send-off between Noah and Helen. The two are able to console and heal each other how no two other people on this show can.
The only real weak spot in this finale is that there’s no goddamn closure with Ben, which is very frustrating and likely going to enrage a lot of viewers, but that’s clearly the point here. Not only does Ben get away totally free, but he gets to smugly take part in Alison’s funeral, too. I understand the perspective that life is full of unanswered questions and that the truth doesn’t always come to light, but it’s just disappointing that it has to come at the expense of it looking like Alison gave up. Even if Ben didn’t get caught, it would have been nice for the detective involved to at least figure out that someone was responsible and that it wasn’t suicide. This sticking point may ultimately not matter since everyone can still find their respective peace, but an unstable murderer is still out on the loose and maybe he’ll strike again.
Episode ten is an exceptional, fulfilling finale for The Affair and to be honest, the three final instalments from this season are arguably the best episodes that the show has ever made. For all of the false steps and misfires from this season, it’s hard to deny that this year ended with their best foot forward. This may be seen as a ‘safe’ finale in many ways, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying or appropriate. I mean, is there anything else that would have made for a more appropriate conclusion to these characters? Helen flashing a genuine smile before the credits roll is infinitely better than a hokey, artificial Thanksgiving dinner scene.
In that sense, it’s a real shock that this finale isn’t the absolute end of The Affair. This season often operated with the gravity of a concluding year and while these characters’ stories aren’t necessarily finished, the place that this finale leaves them in feels very acceptable. It’s easy enough to picture where these people may end up without actually having to see it all, let alone in a season that would be without Alison (and presumably Vik, too). This episode acts as such a strong conclusion to this story, so the premise of going on for another year has me incredibly worried about the peacefulness of these characters. Helen doesn’t deserve to have that smile ripped away from her.
When The Affair was on fire it could be like nothing else on television and the drama, relationships, and intrigue present in the show’s first two seasons still set a high benchmark. This is a show that could shine a light on life, love, and human experience in ways that other programs simply couldn’t. When it was at its best it was truly lightning in a bottle television and this is still one of the best casts that have ever been put together on TV.
These actors have seriously been in overdrive the past few episodes, but everyone does their best work in this finale. Four seasons in, this may mean that this show is beyond getting recognition as an Emmy contender, but it’d be a true shame if Joshua Jackson and Ruth Wilson didn’t get some attention for their work this year. It’s rather telling to hear that at one point Sarah Treem allegedly envisioned this series as a three-year story, which in many ways appears like it would have been bookended by Noah’s journey. That’s still more or less true here, but I’m grateful that we’ve been able to get this daring, challenging season that’s actually framed the show much more around Alison and Helen’s journeys, which is honestly a better fit for the show.
And if nothing else, I’ll always cherish the way in which The Affair scored Noah’s irresponsible New Year’s Eve meltdown to LCD Soundsystem back in season two. This finale gives a glimmer of hope that perhaps these people aren’t “North American scum.”
It’s been a hell of a ride, The Affair, now just please don’t let season five be a repeat of season three.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.