This review contains spoilers.
“What are you two doing together?”
“It’s a long story…”
Alison Bailey does not appear in this episode of The Affair, but her presence is very much felt through this instalment. In fact, everyone’s actions revolve around Alison and it’s fascinating to see what different emotions she brings out of all of these people.
The disappearance of Alison has been repeatedly teased throughout this season as the year’s ‘big mystery’, but this is the episode that really gets into it. Alison’s instalments from this year have spent a lot of time trying to figure out who she is and what she wants from life, but this episode explores the equally important question of how the world operates without her.
Who are the people in Alison’s life when she’s removed from the equation? Even though Alison has felt pretty useless and down on herself, this episode proves just how important she is to other people, namely Cole.
It’s worth pointing out that Cole and Noah are together for the bulk of the episode, but there’s a reason that 95% of the entry is strictly labelled as Cole’s story. Cole goes through the whole spectrum of emotions here and transforms from lovey-dovey romantic to vengeful griever by the time the episode’s over.
In retrospect, it’s incredibly sad to see the optimistic, innocent place in which Cole begins this episode. It’s sweet to see him in full-on charmer mode as he attempts to win Alison back. He even tries to pull himself together and go the whole rom-com sweeping gesture route.
This might have worked on the Alison who was married to Cole all of those years ago, but not any longer. What’s crushing about this is that the audience already knows that Alison is very over Cole and not at all interested in jumping back into bed with him. What’s crushing here is that Cole doesn’t even get the opportunity to get rejected by Alison. Alison is already missing and Cole’s Boy Scout routine morphs into abject terror.
It’s a little frustrating that this episode is largely stuck in the past and mostly plays catch up to where last week’s episode ended with Cole, Noah, and Anton on their road trip. Cole plays detective for the bulk of this instalment and it’s brutal to see him so worn down from all of this.
Between Alison, Luisa, Joanie, and life in general, the guy is pulled in too many directions and he’s already running on empty. It’s interesting to learn that Cole’s temporary alliance with Noah isn’t due to any real change of heart, but just because he’s at the end of his rope and is that desperate for help in finding Alison.
Cole also gets an obligatory scene with Ben where he questions him about Alison’s whereabouts and he plays innocent through the whole encounter. Everything that Ben says tracks and seems like it’s the truth, but the series continues to hang him around like he’s a giant red flag. It still feels like Ben might have gone all serial killer on Alison when their relationship didn’t go as he had planned. The first half of this episode definitely gets some mileage out of that creeping sense of dread in regard to Alison’s whereabouts.
All of the information that’s provided here as well as Cole’s growing anxiety make fine material for an episode, it’s just that none of this is exactly new. The instalment even peppers all of the flash-forwards from the season into it, which it makes them feel even more unnecessary and like a last minute edition. Not only does the audience know everything that happens in the first half of Cole’s entry, but they’re literally re-shown scenes.
The previous episode ends with quite a bit of momentum built up, so it’s unfortunate that this one quickly deflates that by partially rewinding the clock. There’s still plenty of tension present, but if this episode started right where the previous one ended it would be able to accomplish a lot more.
In spite of the episode’s clumsy nature, it still manages to connect due to how heavy Joshua Jackson’s performance is through all of this. He, like most of the cast, has had to wade through some exceptionally silly material this season, but he really sells this stuff. More and more bullshit gets thrown at him in this episode and Jackson plays Cole like a powder keg that’s about to go off at any minute. Alison is the one that’s potentially in danger here, but Cole’s the one to worry about.
Even though Cole is perpetually on the cusp of having a nervous breakdown, the episode takes advantage of Noah’s restrained jubilation through all of this and turns him into the perfect foil. They work so well as a team here. Furthermore, Anton makes for the perfect third wheel through this experience.
It’s definitely less is more with Anton’s character this week, but his limited interjections and bemused facial expressions over Cole and Noah’s drama is the perfect tension release. It’s also just beautiful to see how the two different philosophies of Cole and Noah rub off on the impressionable Anton. The two make jokes about being his parents, but they’d actually be decent guardians for the boy.
Cole has a lot on his mind, but he and Noah do get to bond and form a greater understanding by the end of this. Just like how Alison and Helen’s drink together was one of the show’s most powerful moments, this too holds the same amount of weight as the series truly comes full circle as it begins to come to a close.
There’s a scene where Cole, Noah, and Anton are all at a diner together and Cole and Noah proceed to deconstruct each other’s pick-up styles while they try to pass advice onto Anton. It’s hard not to laugh at how perfectly the two know each other. It perfectly plays with the very long history between these characters and even though much of this season has been a wash, moments like this make it worthwhile. Cole and Noah are laughing together, poking fun at each other, and sharing drinks. Cut to black, I don’t need anything else.
This is a highly entertaining episode, but it also feels pointless until its final act, which is a problem, especially this far into the season. It definitely feels like The Affair just had an extra episode to play around with and even though the concept of a Noah Solloway and Cole Lockhart road trip is something I’ve wanted since season one of this show, it still feels like junk food—it’s really enjoyable, but it’s empty. That’s not exactly a bad thing (and I could seriously watch an entire season of Noah, Cole, and Anton driving across America together), but it makes for quite the anticlimactic end to the season.
That is of course, until Alison Bailey winds up dead.
Even though it’s something that I’ve been worrying about since this season’s premiere, Alison’s death still comes as a huge blow (and it’s all too fitting that she drowns to death). It’s without a doubt the boldest move that the show has ever made, but it’s necessary for something so drastic to act as the tremendous wake up call that everyone in this show needs.
This series has been full of many faults and pitfalls, but the idea of all of these tortured souls eventually winding up together and finding comfort through this loss is actually reassuring. Cole, Noah, and Helen aren’t all going to be one big, happy family all of a sudden, but they will probably continue to turn to each other for support, which is still significant.
Episode eight gets rather grim during its last act, but the episode saves one final gut punch for its final few minutes. If all of Cole’s pain wasn’t enough, the entry surprisingly shifts over to Noah’s perspective for the last remaining moments.
Noah appears to be feeling some severe guilt over what he told Alison during the last time that they saw each other. Even if he isn’t responsible for what happened to Alison, it’s clear that the way in which he’s impacted her life for the worse is sticking with him. The episode lingers on Noah for just long enough to show him break down. Ben is positioned as the episode’s de facto ‘villain’, but Noah ultimately has more blood on his hands, even if it’s not intentional.
As the instalment begins to wrap up, it looks like the angle for the series’ final few episodes will attempt to figure out if Alison’s death was actually suicide or if Ben murdered her. Cole fully commits himself to denial over Alison’s bleak end and it makes his painful experience even more excruciating to watch.
Next week’s episode focuses on Alison and Ben, so viewers won’t have to wait that long until they get the complete truth, but hopefully Cole and Noah will be allowed the same peace of mind. Otherwise her death will just be in vain.
This episode is a risky, incredibly emotional affair that goes all over the map in terms of tone. It’s an experiment that feels successful and without a doubt pulls the season’s best performances from out of the cast, but it will come down to what the series does with Alison’s death in these final two episodes to truly evaluate how smart this has been.
Episode eight takes the audience down a crazy path with its characters and while much of it may be irrelevant, its big finish is more than enough to make this episode noteworthy. Hopefully the end of The Affair will embrace its more humane impulses and give these characters some peace instead of turning these final instalments into emotional torture porn.
Read Daniel’s review of the previous episode here.