This review contains spoilers.
‘“This is so fucking weird for me.”
It’s a little crazy just how much Noah Solloway’s life has become an analogue for Hank Moody from Californication. This is far from a compliment to Noah, but it’s very easy to picture David Duchovony’s character shrug his way through the exact same plot.
To The Affair’s credit, it feels like Noah has always been interested in fame and lucrative movie deals ever since the show’s first season. Now that Noah is finally living that reality it’s encouraging to see that he doesn’t fall back on old habits and selfishly self-sabotage … yet. It’s hard not to laugh when Noah sheepishly describes Daniel, his surrogate in Descent, as an anti-hero. However, The Affair provides a much-needed break from Noah in 502, which is an episode that turns away from its “anti-hero” and solves several problems without his help.
Janelle and her son made strong foils for Noah during The Affair season four and his relationship and integration into their family opened his character up to some much greater depth. While I was pleased to see Janelle show up in this season’s premiere, I was curious how long she’d be sticking along Noah’s side and this instalment shows that she’s just as curious about the same thing.
Janelle has her own life and professional problems to worry about, but she finds herself considerably overwhelmed by Noah’s life and everything that’s required to be in a relationship with him. If she doesn’t already feel like enough of an outsider, a misunderstanding at Vik’s funeral causes her and Noah to become visual sore thumbs that break this idyllic image that she’s trying to join. Noah comments upon how weird the event is going to be for him, completely failing to empathise with how substantially more intense it is for Janelle.
There is rampant evidence of how Noah wants to keep pulling Janelle closer to him, yet she repeatedly shies away and eyes the exit. Sanaa Lathan does great work here to show how simply Noah’s presence begins to make her uncomfortable. Noah’s lost in the seemingly perfect relationship that they’re in and Janelle flinches over the mere label of “girlfriend.” The Affair elegantly highlights its split perspective structure when it reframes events from the premiere through Janelle’s eyes, all of which are meant to knock her down a little further and drive her crazier.
When Janelle actually needs help regarding her demotion to co-principal, it’s her ex-husband that she turns to, not Noah. What’s kind of beautiful is that through Janelle’s interactions with her ex, the series once again brings up the power of an affair and everything that it can tear down. Janelle and Carl are no different than Noah and Helen or Cole and Alison. As all of these characters spin out of control, it seems like both Janelle and Noah are subconsciously being drawn back to their original families.
Janelle’s scene with Carl is really incredible, moving stuff and the kind of content that The Affair is able to so effectively sell. It’s just brutal to see Janelle get beaten down and slowly edged out when she hasn’t really done anything wrong. Her talk with the school board is a gutting experience, but her conversation with Carl slowly empowers her and will hopefully see her rise anew and even stronger than before.
This emotional scene speaks to the idea that someone that you have deep history with and inherently knows you can often give you an invaluable perspective on yourself. As functional as Noah and Janelle are, he never really stood a chance with her because this episode accentuates that she and Carl probably should have never been apart.
Janelle’s material is the strongest stuff in the episode, but it very much feels like a goodbye to the character, especially considering the three-month time jump that follows. Previous seasons devoted episodes or perspectives over to Noah’s various romantic partners, only for them to slowly recede into the background, so this kind of move isn’t unprecedented, but it will hopefully not turn out to be time that could have been better spent elsewhere.
I’m thankful that Janelle’s struggle is included here, but there’s no reason why she couldn’t have reached the same conclusions during the end of last season so this year could start off on a fresh slate. As it stands, Janelle may come across as an afterthought and she deserves more than that. However, the fact that this final season is eleven episodes long—an atypical number for the series—makes me cautiously optimistic that there’s a careful plan in place and that nothing here is extraneous.
Outside of Janelle’s orbit, Noah and Helen are both enjoying the production process for Descent that’s currently underway. Helen gives solid revisions on Noah’s film, most of which have to do with how the portrayal of the Helen surrogate needs to be “bitchier” and less broken. It’s an interesting approach from Helen. Noah’s work with Descent is largely about revising his own life and justifying a version of his past transgressions, in a way. Helen nearly goes in the opposite direction and wants to see a harsher representation of herself on the screen so she can accept how much she’s hated herself.
This is a much more cathartic technique than what Noah does, but it also speaks to everything that Helen has experienced over the past few months and how she’s learned to accept both the loss of Vik, who she is, and where life has taken her. It’s immensely humbling when Sasha asks Helen for further character insight and screenplay advice and she instantly deflects, saying, “Movies are more Noah’s thing.” She’s not ready to take ahold of these bold, new opportunities until she’s practically forced.
Sasha continues to become fascinated by Helen’s new blunt attitude and how she couldn’t care less about his celebrity status. One of the best moments of the episode is Whitney’s utter shock after Helen rebukes Sasha’s offers. Later on, Whitney commiserates with Helen after she watches a scene from the movie version of her parents’ divorce and grapples with her feelings towards her own impending marriage. Whitney’s character has been all over the place through the course of the series, but watching her reach this place of maturity is one of the highlights of seeing this show through to the end.
This tango between Sasha and Helen develops in a rather cute way. Helen’s refusal turns into a charming electronic date, which then blossoms into a lavish real one at his extravagant home that involves basketball, nosebleeds, and hallucinations. Helen’s time with Sasha is all very sweet and curiously the opposite of what’s reflected in Janelle’s story. Helen spends a day with someone that she doesn’t know at all, yet due to Sasha’s familiarity with Descent he can recite intimate details about Helen’s life back to her and seems to have genuinely good advice. It’s yet another situation where Noah’s not turned to for support.
Everything that Helen does in this episode is all about pushing her forward towards further acceptance and embracing new decisions. This culminates with Helen playing Vik’s posthumous recording, which thankfully doesn’t get drawn out until the final episode. Vik tells Helen to finally live for herself, which may be advice that’s increasingly more prescient if Helen’s recent fatigue is the result of something bigger. Helen’s faced so much tragedy and presumably has more on the way with her father’s health, that hopefully this isn’t the case.
At this point, Adult Joanie’s struggles in the future still come across as somewhat silly. It’s rather jarring to see Helen mourn her dead husband and then have a hard cut to Joanie having an argument with a future toilet. Joanie is headed off to Montauk to dig into her past and even plans to stay at Cole’s old house, too. Joanie seems increasingly drawn to this family that she never really knew while she avoids the real one that she’s built over the years. The Affair is currently on slow-drip mode with Joanie’s story, but it’s at least clear that she suffers from the same commitment issues and a calling to her past that also plagues Janelle and Helen in this episode.
It’s also too soon to tell, but considering both this episode and last week’s premiere feature three storylines/perspectives apiece, this may be the structure that’s applied to most of this season. Two storylines per episode never feels like too little, but there are definitely times where episodes feel padded. Ideally this new approach will force each storyline to narrow in on what’s important, while still making sure that each episode doesn’t feel cluttered.
The second episode of The Affair’s final season still feels like it’s setting the table for what’s to come. As usual, the performances and personal discoveries that are reached are very strong, but this feels like a bit of a disjointed second part of last week’s premiere. Janelle’s half of the story is so stuck in past events and feels like it closes the book on old business, while Helen’s story not only abruptly jumps three months forward, but it’s also largely dependent on the introduction of a new character.
It’s hard to reconcile those differences, but The Affair thematically manages to do so and it doesn’t hurt that both Sanaa Lathan and Claes Bang are both so entertaining. The Affair’s final season still has a long way to go, but it’s at least moving in what appears to be the right direction.