This review contains spoilers.
“Sorry ‘bout that, grandpa…”
The promotional materials for The Affair’s fourth season pose the question, “What are you holding onto?” In last week’s premiere we see that Noah is holding onto his family—and his humanity in the process—while Helen figures out that she’s been holding onto Noah, even if it’s become a toxic relationship for her. The season’s second episode shifts its gaze onto Cole and Alison and attempts to explore that question for these two damaged souls.
Cole and Alison have always managed to be more interesting than Noah and Helen, so this episode already feels like a big step up from the premiere simply because of the characters that it examines and the lack of Noah here. It’s interesting to note that Cole is very much addicted to Alison in the same unhealthy way that Helen was for Noah.
The only difference is that Cole was able to gain this clarity last season and work out all of his baggage. He reluctantly ends up with Luisa when all is said and done, but he was at least honest with himself, even if the results didn’t go according to plan. However, at the same time he pledges a strong obsession to the Lobster Roll in this episode and it posits that the reason that he still holds onto it is because it’s the last thing that he shares with Alison.
On the other hand, Luisa continues to feel like a thorn in Cole’s side even though he sticks by his love for her. Her illegal status brings up trouble this season that once again places Cole at a real crossroads of character. The scene where Luisa and Cole get pulled over by the police is genuinely chilling and it creates some real fear and anxiety in a way that’s new for the series. It’s a small scene, but it’s some of the best work that Catalina Sandino Moreno has done in the series and it will hopefully give Luisa a lot more purpose this year. Unfortunately, that might also have to come at the expense of Cole’s happiness.
Cole begins to go on the same sort of introspective journey that Noah’s been on for the past few seasons. An encounter that he has with a young surfer causes him to confront the person that he is now versus who he used to be and he’s not exactly thrilled with the results. He feels like he’s losing touch with the place that he’s always considered his home. Cole bitches about the changes about how the area has changed and gets very “get off my lawn-y” for a minute, but still manages to seem in touch. At one point Cole’s literally told to move out of the frame when some people attempt to film the younger surfers at the beach. His time is over and he doesn’t want to accept that. He is the establishment.
Cole is still hard at work with the Lobster Roll and he’s even hungrier to build some growth and gain a bit of a stranglehold on the community’s business. He’s finally accepted the deal of franchising out the place, but he begins to worry that Alison’s involvement in the business couldn’t sink the new life he wants to build for his family.
On numerous occasions this episode tries to show that Cole has grown up, but meanwhile Alison frequently acts like they’re still in high school. She shows up late for appointments and flies off randomly with little consequence. Not only does she not take their business seriously, but her presence also haunts Cole and Luisa’s relationship and it’s obviously putting a heavy strain on their lives. Add to this the fulfillment that Luisa feels over her illegal status in the country and their marriage is a powder keg that’s just waiting to explode. Luisa learns freaking Mandarin to help Cole out and she still feels like she’s second place to Alison and honestly, she probably is.
What’s rather telling here is that after Cole tries to prove how much he’s grown up for most of the episode, his story goes out with him partying with a bunch of teens and passing out on the beach. When he wakes up his face is covered with crude drawings and his wallet is missing (the gag over Cole’s face art being different in Alison’s rendition is an episode highlight, too). These guys didn’t see Cole as their contemporary, but rather they view him as a mark. He might try to re-live his youth, but life won’t let him. At this point Cole gets into serious “Get Off My Lawn” mode when he literally starts to load a shotgun to get revenge on the teens who scribbled on his face. It’s a scene that’s ultimately played for laughs, but it’s a shade away from being terrifying. Once again with this show, it all comes down to a matter of perspective.
The ways in which Cole’s storyline in this episode parallels Noah’s situation in the premiere are almost eerie. As much as these two may hate each other for obvious reasons, this show is always at its best when it can bring to light how similar these people are. One of the show’s all-time best moments is when Alison and Helen have an unexpected heart-to-heart at a bar in the show’s third season. Of course Noah and Cole have no idea how similar their fates are, but the fact that the show wants us to know that these two are eventually a team by the end of the season is significant. These similarities have always been there, but they’re present in a much bigger way this year.
While on the topic of these two, in this episode’s edition of ‘Flash Forward World’, Noah and Cole continue on their expedition for Alison as an unexpected younger stranger also tags along for the ride. You’d think that maybe he would pop up at some point in the main narrative of this episode, but not so much. He remains a mystery for at least one more week. This flash forward narrative is still moving too slowly to really have any real weight yet, but hopefully it will pick up steam in the coming weeks.
Off in Alison’s side of the story, she’s found employment as some kind of social worker that specifically helps people who have suffered the loss of a child, which is honestly the perfect thing for her and exactly what she should be doing with her life. After Alison has spent so much time running away from her responsibilities, she’s finally in a place where she can help others and also grow herself. In a heartbreaking moment, the episode reveals that Alison has pictures of both of her children on her desk, the one that’s alive and the one that’s dead, but on her desk they’re on equal ground. In a similar sense, the parts of Alison that are both alive and dead are also fully on display, but she’s finally found a way to make that hazardous mix work.
Cole might not be able to move on from Alison, but in a rather cruel move he attacks her stability and says that she’s not able to move on from Gabriel’s death. Cole even callously tells Alison, “You’ve practically made his death your entire identity.” That might have been true in the past, but there’s nothing wrong with Alison using her past experience to push her forward and better others. Cole’s tendency to get lost in the past doesn’t mean that it needs to swallow up Alison’s future along with it.
Cole’s side of the episode paints Alison as careless, but her half of the instalment helps establish just how rigorous and important her life is. She juggles countless meetings and responsibilities here and although she does find herself in a new relationship, it’s sandwiched between a very packed schedule. The decision to put Alison into a new relationship perhaps isn’t the best idea, but it seems like enough time has passed and she finally understands who she is an individual. Alison’s new maybe-beau, Ben, is a handsome stranger who’s also a sober, abstinent veteran and he honestly seems too good to be true. If he turns out to be a creep and another way to break Alison, I’ll be absolutely gutted. She deserves something healthy.
This handsome stranger might feel a little cliched, but rather that treat Alison like the damsel in distress here, she jumps to Ben’s help as he requires assistance through the building. “It’s very obvious when you know what you’re looking for,” he says and it looks like Alison might finally have that clarity.
For what it’s worth, Ben does get to be the hero by the end of the episode—and not only that, Alison gets painted as the villain in the eye’s of another family—but her rescue doesn’t feel condescending. It provides a legitimate way for these two individuals to connect and this bond feels like it’s much more about healing and PTSD than it is about sex and romance.
This episode manages to be an encouraging episode from The Affair’s new season that hints at upcoming storylines that are ultimately more compelling than what was presented last week with Noah and Helen. The characters continue to be well written and the fact that some of these people might actually find happiness (particularly Alison) is very good news.
The pacing for this instalment seems a little more natural than the previous episode, but it’s still too soon to predict where all of this is heading. It’s unclear if the season will continue to adopt the rotation schedule for how it divides its focus on its characters, but it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the show spent a few episodes in a row with the Montauk crew.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode, here.