This review contains spoilers.
“Why make things simple when they can be painful and difficult?”
Hypnosis can be a viable way to deal with all sorts of things, one of which can be to use it as a safe way to return to past trauma. A lot of The Affair is also about figuring out how to return to past pain and trauma in a safe way that can be helpful. As the characters in the show get caught in routines and repeat past mistakes, it’s almost like they’re caught in a waking hypnosis of sorts.
No one is controlling what they do, but finding yourself trapped in a cycle and living a life out of obligation is a self-imposed hypnosis of sorts. As The Affair presents these types of stories, it’s almost like the show is also a hypothetical form of hypnosis that can trick the audience into thinking that certain behaviour is condoned or chastised. This is an episode of The Affair that digs deep into the practice and principles of hypnosis and while the series often tackles a return to trauma, this explores it on an almost subconscious level.
Alison is arguably the most pained character on The Affair and this episode really sees her dust off the many skeletons that are in her closet. Alison both begins and ends the episode in a very healthy place. It’s surprising how pleasant it is to see Alison and Noah act respectfully towards each other and exhibit a normal ‘healthy’ relationship considering some of the massive violations of trust that she’s put him through in the past. This speaks to the idea that every failure doesn’t have to be a flaming disaster and that friendly relationships and growth can still come from mistakes.
The Affair usually spends so much time rubbing these characters’ broken pasts in their faces like they’re misbehaving animals, so it’s nice to actually see productivity come from that place. Noah and Alison’s relationship burned hot and hard until there was nothing left and although he may not be entirely over her, what their relationship has grown into is a lot more palatable than how he and Helen interact.
One of the many leaps that Alison decides to take in this episode is that she attends a PTSD conference. Alison learns about the depths of psychological healing and that festering and damage can happen that prevent this healing from taking place if there are certain mental obstacles set up. The premiere’s look at Alison made her appear to be a healthier and competent individual, but she seems to believe that she’s suffering from this psychological blockage on some level. Accordingly, she opens herself up to a form of hypnosis and other strategies that the conference pushes.
It’s a pretty huge coincidence that both Alison and Ben would be at this conference and run into each other (although not impossible with Ben’s veteran status), but the episode wants to breeze right past this convenience.
This season of The Affair seems to continually want to portray Alison and Ben’s romance like some sort of fairytale adventure. His debut two episodes ago played into this formula and Alison gets giddy and acts like his attendance at the conference is destiny. The two even have a discussion about premonition and supernatural forces. Admittedly, this is Alison’s pattern and she falls into this behaviour a lot, but this will likely become more complex when Ben’s true intentions are revealed.
It’s always nice to see Alison get some happiness in her life and actually heal a little, which Ben has been great for at this point, but both the character and Ruth Wilson deserve something deeper than being defined by their man. The episode does at least playfully address the fact that this coincidence is a little creepy and that Ben might actually be up to much more sinister and obsessive behaviour.
At this point that’s largely speculative, but there’s definitely more to this story. Lest we forget that in one of these flash-forwards it’s revealed that Ben’s married, which certainly doesn’t mesh with his whole abstinent angle. He also appears in Cole’s half of the episode with a story that fits with what he’s told Alison, which casts his character in an even more complicated light.
It’s a lot harder for Alison to throw her blinders up when she gets the idea of love and fate in her head. Alison opens up to Ben about her trauma and fears in a tremendous way and she’s used to equating that degree of intimacy with romance. It also feels like Ben is intentionally pumping Alison for information through the entire episode and consistently tries to get her to lower her guard, and it works.
Whether Ben is just a bad husband or up to a much longer con, the episode effectively plays a tug-of-war with feeling both excited and worried over Alison’s attachment to Ben. The episode could have gone further with this tension, but it’s a subtle detail that helps give Alison’s storyline more gravity.
Cole also finds himself looking at the past in this episode, but he’s in a much less peaceful place than Alison. Every word that Cole and Luisa exchange with each other is met with sighs and rolled eyes. Basic conversation between them turns into a severe struggle and even though they don’t want to always butt heads, it’s the consistent result. Cole gets put in a particularly tough situation that almost feels like it’s orchestrated by Luisa purely to force Cole to choose her over Alison.
Luisa wants Cole to sign legal documents that state that Alison is an unfit mother so that she’s able to avoid deportation and get US citizenship. It’s a convoluted situation, but it’s what Cole and Luisa’s lives boil down to right now. Alison is always the obstacle that stands between them and their latest idea of happiness. Luisa sees herself as less and less of Cole’s wife and more like some accessory that comes with the house.
She presents ultimatum after ultimatum at him about their future, but it’s hard to resent her when all that she wants is to feel like she matters. This message would be a lot clearer if Luisa actually got half of the episode devoted to her perspective of events. As a result, a lot of the time it feels like she doesn’t matter.
Alternatively, Cole is still very much addicted to Alison and his marriage continues to crumble as a result. It’s beyond telling that the exact same thing happened with Noah and Helen’s marriage once Alison entered his orbit and based on the information that we got in the previous episode’s flash-forward segment, it’s also what apparently happens with Ben and his marriage, too.
This all poses the reasonable question as to why everyone is so addicted to Alison. Is it because she makes them feel strong and like they’re heroes? Is it because she’s honest about who she is and the sadness that’s in her life, while everyone else refuses to accept reality?
Alison can be a sobering dose of reality for people, but she’s also a selfish, fragile person that’s very much in recovery. That’s not easy to let into your life, which is why Noah’s happy existence burns down to the ground, Cole’s life is in the process of going through the same thing, and that it could very well happen to Ben, too.
That being said, Cole has an encounter with Ben that’s just as coincidental as the one that Ben shares with Alison and it acts as the fuel for his obsession. He can be suspicious of Ben if Alison won’t be.
The most encouraging scene from the episode involves Cole visiting his mother in order to gain some perspective about how to stay happy through a marriage and when there’s a right time—if ever—to exit. While she more or less reiterates is that her son’s problem is that he still chooses his ex-wife over his current wife, but she also broaches the idea of a walkabout, which sparks something inside of Cole and begins to give him the clarity he’s been hoping to find.
There’s once again not much information that gets offered up in the future timeline. Cole, Noah, and Anton have got a detective involved who’s not taking the situation that seriously due to Alison’s history. Cole is quite frayed and it looks like he might do something rash (or already has), but this still feels like placeholder material.
The only real nugget is that based on how cold Cole is to Luisa on the phone, it sounds like their relationship may be on the rocks, if not entirely over. Noah and Cole acting civil towards each other still provides a small thrill, but this season would really benefit from offering up an additional scene in this future timeline at the end of each episode, too.
It’s almost halfway through the season and we still know essentially just as much about Alison’s disappearance as we did in the premiere. Perhaps Noah is so calm because he actually knows more than he’s letting on here? Did Alison and Ben run away with those two tickets to California and that’s where she is now? Did she go on a walkabout?
Any of those reveals would be great, but these glimpses into the future need to at least hint at these things. The Affair presents these scenes like they should wield a lot of impact, but currently they still just feel like a tacked on attempt to be deep.
This episode presents a strong foundation for an episode and although the hypnosis material in Alison’s side of the story might go on for a little too long, but the sequence on the boat that follows it is an example of the sort of special, emotional storytelling that this show is capable of pulling off. While Cole’s half of the installment is a lot angrier, both sides of this episode present a very raw, visceral story.
The hour may not necessarily do anything new, but it presents all of this honestly and effectively in a way that works. Re-opening old wounds doesn’t always make for the most engaging television, but The Affair still handles emotional drama like a pro.
Or maybe those premonitions Alison had were real and The Affair is about to jump headfirst into time travel and alternate realities.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.