This review of The Affair contains spoilers.
The Affair Season 4 Episode 3
“That’s not the way the world works.”
“I agree with you.”
The opening dialogue from tonight’s episode of The Affair is almost comical in regard to just how successfully it boils down the messy relationships that consume the series:
“All right, so let me get this straight… She was married to you and then she cheated with you, but then she left you for you. Then she cheated on you with you. Then she had your baby, but then said it was your baby. Did I get that right?”
That alone is a testament to just how overwrought and incestuous The Affair has become over the past three seasons. “That is some real Maury Povich shit,” indeed. The romance and relationships have been driven into the ground and wrung so dry that the show is wise to just acknowledge all of this and move ahead into new territory. That by no means fixes the show’s past mistakes, but it does instill some confidence that perhaps what’s to come is going to be worth it.
This episode does a lot of things right and a good reason for that is that “403” leaves the romance out of the equation and remembers that there’s plenty more to these characters than what their hearts want. It’s also a sobering discovery of just how good The Affair can be when it drops the romance. This might seem crazy, but everything that happens in this episode feels incredibly natural. It gets to show these characters just being themselves rather than losing themselves to love.
Accordingly, “403’s” focus is on Noah’s students and his job, which makes for much more interesting material than him moping around with Helen and taking a beating just to get in some face time with his children. There’s one scene where Noah’s merely on the phone with Helen and it almost brings the episode to a screeching halt. It’s actually quite entertaining to watch Noah teach and his attempts to educate and inspire these children. Noah and Anton debate literature and it’s a lot more exciting than it should be.
Noah does manage to connect to Anton and his class, but it gets a little out of hand. His students stage a walk-out as a response to the curriculum, but it grows beyond Noah’s expectations when the entire student body begins to riot and the police get involved. For a moment it feels like all of this might take a terribly dark turn, but thankfully Noah is able to appease the cops and the reporters that are hungry for a scandal. The material really connects and it’s satisfying in a way that the show hasn’t been in some time. It’s just a nice story about the education system and it feels like an installment from The Wire’s fourth season, which is never a bad thing.
Sanaa Lathan’s Principal Wilson also gets a healthy amount of attention in this installment. It seems that the other teachers aren’t too keen on her and are ready to push her out as soon as possible. What’s tough here is that Noah attempts to be her ally and tries to empathize with her, but Wilson only pushes back. I’ve had a number of problems with Noah in the past, but even I think he’s making a genuine effort at teaching. Wilson’s disagreeable to a hyperbolized nature, but thankfully due to the powers of alcohol, she eventually opens up so she can seem like less of a villain that would bite Beyoncé on the face. Wilson’s backstory definitely helps humanize her character and at least explain where her disciplinary inclinations come from. It also allows Noah to finally melt her icy demeanor and although the prospect of Noah in a relationship with his boss is a terrible idea, we’ll see where all of this is headed. Someone tough that challenges Noah would actually be perfect for him, but it does reflect a possible return to poor decision making for the character.
Finally, Noah’s interest in Anton continues to grow, but the troubled student becomes a whole lot more interesting when it turns out that he’s actually Principal Wilson’s son. Not only that, but the reason that Anton has been left behind is because his mom wants to make an example out of him and show the school that she doesn’t play favorites. Anton continues to show more promise, in spite of his brief screen time, but he’s mostly the catalyst to the events of this episode. It’s safe to say that he probably wouldn’t react too kindly if he found out what was going on between Noah and his mother.
Noah’s material is strong because it avoids the typical trappings of the program, but Helen’s half of the installment goes in a different direction that’s decidedly more somber and focused on mortality. Maura Tierney continues to act the hell out of this role. The opening scene where Helen and Vik deal with his diagnosis is masterful. Helen runs through a gamut of varying emotions and approaches in a matter of seconds while Vik instead internalizes in silence. So much of The Affair is about differences in romance, but Helen’s half of the episode really speaks to how people can be different in other fundamental ways, like how they respond to bad news. This is the sort of story where it’d be absolutely beneficial to have half of the episode devoted to Vik’s perspective on all of this, but the episode intentionally keeps Noah and Helen (mostly) apart this week so their stories are in isolation and can’t lean on each other’s point of view.
As strong as Tierney’s work in this episode is, Omar Metwally truly goes above and beyond in this one. Vik’s very much in free fall mode through a lot of this entry and a reactionary Helen tries to radically fix things that can’t be fixed. One of Vik’s responses to his bad news is the idea to have a baby—something that’s broached in the season’s premiere—so that he can “live on.” There’s an especially brutal sex scene—well to call it sex would be generous—that’s incredibly mechanical and meant to serve a very specific purpose. Helen is already depressed when she enters this installment, but her mental state ping-pongs around in this episode and she only gets worse. Helen does not handle Vik’s decision to avoid treatment very well and she winds up a worried mess.
Helen attempts to seek some solace through therapy, but she finds herself freaking out over answering the important question, “Who couldn’t you live without?” Helen becomes panicked over her realization that she believes that she actually can live without Vik, but the person that she can’t live without is Noah. Furthermore, if Vik doesn’t get treatment and dies, then she’ll just be drawn back to Noah, which is a whole lot scarier than any prognosis. The final beats of Helen’s story push her down a desperate, troubling path. It’s touching to see her honoring Vik’s wishes, but it’s 100% percent an awful idea to become a mother because of guilt. This is not good news.
Finally, off in Flash Forward Land, Anton continues to work alongside Noah and Cole in Pennsylvania, but the real news is that Alison hasn’t been kidnapped or anything, she just up and left. Furthermore, the last person she’s spoken to was Ben, who apparently ends up romantically with Alison in only a matter of time (in spite of how he’s married). Honestly, this all seems pretty par for the course with Alison that this future material still hasn’t become that exciting yet. Either Alison has run away with Ben, or she’s decided to kill herself and do something drastic because she’s ruined another marriage and realizes how destructive she can be. Then again, there’s hopefully a sizable amount of misdirection to these rather obvious clues that continue to mount up. Maybe Alison hasn’t run away at all and there’s something a lot more sinister afoot. I doubt the show would go as far as killing off Alison, but it’d honestly be a surprising turn of events that would definitely wake everyone up. That being said, I’d much rather see Alison exit this series in a stable, confident life rather than in a body bag.
“403” is definitely the strongest episode of The Affair season 4 so far and it finds confidence in unexpected areas. Both Noah and Helen’s stories cover drastically different territory, but they both give a strong indication of what’s ahead for them this year. All of the performances are particularly impressive this week and Omar Metwally gets the showcase that he’s deserved for two seasons now. It looks like there’s certainly a lot of pain on the horizon for The Affair, but the journey seems worth it. Besides, The Affair needs to at least have a little melodrama!