This review contains spoilers.
“Thank you for holding space.”
“Thank you for receiving light.”
Even the lives of people that remain fairly consistent are full of a surprising amount of change. Much change is the result of taking agency and making decisions, but people’s lives also change in drastic ways by doing nothing at all. Simply growing old and letting biology run its course triggers all sorts of changes that wouldn’t be possible back when you were a teenager. People that lead so-called “boring” lives are still exposed to change in significant ways, but people like those in The Affair that live such hyperbolised, tumultuous lives experience it in an even more intense way.
Most episodes of The Affair put its characters through some kind of change, but this one opens up the idea of willing the sort of change that we want to happen to us. It’s not just enough to strive for a new way of life, but it’s necessary to commit to changed behaviour and try to own what frightens you so that you’re not lost in a cycle.
Episode seven pushes the philosophy that if people don’t eliminate the “psychic debris” in their lives then they are doomed to never truly change. The Affair is a series that is buried in “psychic debris,” but this episode sees some of its cast push aside the rubble.
Helen begins this episode in a very chaotic state of mind. She snaps at random people that she encounters and continues to resent the West Coast, yet she simultaneously preaches a healthy attitude and pushes the gospel of Los Angeles.
Helen’s complicated mental space has a lot to do with how she’s caught up in the aftermath of this baby charade that Vik has passive aggressively forced upon her. It’s so depressing to see Helen caught in this echo chamber of hostility as she looks for silver linings and makes an attempt for positivity.
Vik is certainly going through a lot at the moment, but his treatment of Helen hits some new lows and it doesn’t look like there’s much love in their relationship as of late. Vik is particularly insufferable, especially with how he continues to gaslight Helen as he channels the guilt over his affair into disdain for her. It’s clear that Vik hasn’t been doing that well after the selfish actions that he took back in the previous episode. Helen’s story ends with her and Vik closer than ever, but there are still plenty of lies between the two of them and the ending rings hollow. Noah’s story seems to confirm as much when it checks in with the two of them and they appear to be bickering and at each other’s throats again.
It might seem very un-Helen-like, but she truly wants to be optimistic in her life, even if her body attempts to reject the idea and act on the contrary. It doesn’t help that Vik and the other voices around her continue to push her down. Ciara even explicitly tells Helen at one point that she’s a cynic, yet she’s still impossibly more positive than Vik, for example. Helen at least makes an effort and puts positive energy into the universe, even if she’s getting little back in response.
Helen’s inspired behaviour culminates in her taking up Ciara on an offer that she outright attacked a few episodes back. Against all odds Helen winds up at Joshua Tree.
It’s rather interesting to see this season of The Affair explore so much spiritualism, which is likely going to be a controversial decision for some viewers. The series just finished with Cole’s introspective walkabout and now it heads into similar territory, only with Helen. It’s not that Helen isn’t in just as much need of this as Cole, but the story just loses its impact the second time around.
There’s no reason why these characters couldn’t have ended up in more unique situations for their answers. It almost feels like part way through Helen’s installment Cole will just suddenly stumble into frame and say, “Oh sorry, I got lost during one of the steps of my emotional exorcism.”
A lot of this episode intentionally places Helen and Ciara in juxtaposition to each other in order to highlight the superficial differences in their lifestyles. Youth and beauty versus experience and independence are discussed and Ciara complains about her enviable existence as she wishes for Helen’s life and the illusory benefits that it provides. The more that Ciara explains why she’s so eager for a life like Helen’s, the more apparent it is that she has no idea that their lives aren’t actually that different when it comes down to the fundamentals.
It’s a small moment, but upon getting settled, Ciara prances around naked without any shame whereas Helen hides in the corner and isn’t even comfortable to be seen in her bra. Ciara’s attitude invades Helen to the point that by the conclusion of her half of the episode she’s fully naked and immersed in the experience. There are now even fewer differences that set Helen and Ciara apart.
Helen enters all of this with an appropriate amount of scepticism, but it’s an open-minded scepticism that still tries to consider new perspectives. There’s a telling scene where Helen shares her fears along with Ciara and the rest of the people on this retreat that happen to be half her age. Helen answers earnestly and without any pretenses and it’s not long until she appears to be more of a guru that any of the people that are running the show. It’s a moment that highlights how much Helen has lived and the degree of insight that she has. Unfortunately, the moment doesn’t exactly stick the landing and it’s pretty awkward when Gaelle hands her guru baton over to Helen in order to hammer in a point that’s already beyond clear.
Additionally, it’s also somewhat problematic when Helen and Ciara’s impulses get the better of them and they engage in sex with each other. Something like this could work really well, but the problem here is that this development has been so telegraphed ever since Ciara and Helen first meet each other.
When Vik hooked up with Ciara it looked like The Affair had got this clichéd idea out of its head, but clearly that’s not the case and it’s only heading harder into this overdone trope. The situation is only considerably weirder now that both of the people in this marriage have had sex with Ciara and no one has been honest about it. Ciara comments on how she likes to have control and it feels like her bedding of Helen is very much an extension of that. Hopefully the show won’t go even further in this direction and decide to make Ciara pregnant.
As clunky as all of this may be, the realisation that Helen comes to in terms of her children and the essence of being needed is once again very solid. Maura Tierney hasn’t had the greatest material to work with this season, but her monologue about her acceptance and happiness towards entering menopause due to how it makes life fundamentally easier to some extent is a reminder of how great she can be and that there’s still plenty of interesting stories left to mine with this character.
Helen may finally feel like there’s some more control in her hectic life, but Noah starts this entry in a real place of helplessness. Noah’s efforts to make time with his kids—especially Trevor—continue to look dismal and he can’t help but feel steamrolled in the whole situation.
Noah voices his concerns about all of this, but when it results in him learning about Vik’s condition, it leaves Noah in an even more uncertain place. Noah’s situation with his children may not change any time soon, but the space that he gives his family allows him to get closer with Anton in a significant way.
Anton’s family drama currently has him considering joining the Marines, which is news that doesn’t have his parents or Noah very thrilled. Anton continues to build empathy and it’s tough to see this boy get pushed into joining an institution not because he’s passionate about it, but because he’s terrified about letting down one of his parents.
Anton has no interest in the military, but he also doesn’t want to be perpetually living under the thumb of one of his parents and maybe this will help him learn how to become a man. Noah is desperate for Anton to reach the answers that he’s looking for, but his plan makes a lot more sense than enlistment. Noah just wants to give Anton a taste of Princeton and maybe then he’ll have a better understanding of what that life could provide him.
Noah’s storyline with Anton still manages to entertain, but Noah’s line that he’s not doing this for Anton and that he’s actually in it for Janelle is a little worrisome. Not only does that not seem to be true, but why would Noah want to admit that? Noah should have faith in Anton because he sees genuine potential in him, not because he’s hot for his mother. And yet, this behaviour actually works on Janelle. It’s a confusing ending to a powerful story.
Episode seven features yet another shorter narrative for Noah that feels like it’s over before it even gets moving. Noah’s half contains simple, economical material that covers important territory, but it also very much feels like a redux of what Noah gets up to with Anton’s family in the previous episode.
Noah and Anton’s bond is still a saving grace for this season and the development in that department continues to connect, but this also easily could have been included with last week’s content rather than featuring Noah for two weeks in a row. This should have been the episode where Noah, Anton, and Cole are all on the road together. This instead feels like filler to take up time in between the larger story beats.
As the episode’s storyline begins to meet up with the ‘future timeline’ that’s been teased throughout the year, this whole stylistic choice looks increasingly pointless. Why even feature these flash-forwards if the plan was to abruptly cut them off half way through the season? The season is now at the point where the viewer is able to infer enough between these two storylines to have a theory on what’s happened in the ‘future,’ but this all comes across as very haphazard.
The best approach here would have been simply one lengthy flash-forward in the season premiere that conveys all the necessary points and then the season could move on from the baggage of this gimmick. The information itself isn’t flawed, but it’s just the means and the frequency in how it’s conveyed.
This device has been apart of The Affair since its inception, so it’s understandable to see the series cling onto this idea, but sometimes the best thing that a series can do is know when to move on and ditch what’s dead weight. This season seems to have figured all of this out now, but it wouldn’t have been that difficult to make all of this much more eloquent.
This wasn’t exactly a bad episode of The Affair. There are plenty of strong moments that help anchor the instalment and the episode provides a great deal of necessary catharsis, especially for Helen (this might be the best work that Tierney gets to turn out this year).
At the same time, this is also an incredibly predictable and easy episode of The Affair. Certain scenes on Helen’s side run far longer than needed and other moments on Noah’s half of the instalment are painfully brief. The series continues to push its cast to exciting places and the final destination for this season still feels like a captivating goal, but it’s disappointing to see even the strong episodes get bogged down by so much fat.
Next week’s awkward road trip cannot come soon enough.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.