This review contains spoilers.
“You’ve come full circle…”
Noah continues to be a character that fascinates me in this show because at times I really don’t know if The Affair is a fan of him or not. He’s without a doubt a character that’s done a lot of terrible, selfish things throughout the run of the series, but he has also shown progress in substantial ways. The final season for any series typically addresses how much its characters have grown since the pilot, but that’s kind of what this drama is all about.
Noah isn’t just someone who’s had an affair. He’s been tangential to a murder, gone to prison, and witnessed the death of his ex-wife. Even if you’ve just tuned into one season of the show, he’s a character who’s been through a lot. In that sense, it feels deeply clunky when a journalist praises Noah’s latest work for a few minutes and then outright asks him, “Would you say that the redemption of Noah Solloway is complete?”
If this wasn’t enough, the episode ostensibly puts Noah through the same scene again when it has prolonged discussions on whether Descent’s protagonist, Daniel (aka Noah), is a fundamentally good or bad person. The Affair doesn’t need to spell out its messages to its audience like this and it’s a show that actually thrives on its subtleties. 503 is an important episode of the series story-wise, but it’s an instalment that doesn’t trust its audience nearly enough. It’d be nice to be optimistic and say that this is done to mirror the fact that Noah doesn’t trust Helen enough during this episode, but it’s what holds the hour back.
The first two episodes of this season have featured plenty of ego stroking for Noah and even though 503 begins much in the same manner, Noah’s good luck begins to crash down all around him. Maybe he has come full circle and become a better version of himself, but it’s a version of himself that’s being erased in many cases. Noah is subject to more of the uncomfortable experience of his worlds colliding as he feels outsiders push him out of his comfort zone. In reality, Noah could use Helen’s new interest in his film as a means to bond with her, rather than turn it into a schism between them.
The scenes where Noah expresses paranoia and suspicion over Sasha’s exact relationship with Helen are almost shot like a horror film and there are some evocative images there. The faint beat of Noah’s heart is even amplified on the soundtrack. This fear makes Noah so irrational that he’s ready to move back to New York City at a moment’s notice.
While Sasha appears to have listened to Helen’s character input from the previous episode, it looks like Helen has also decided to heed his romantic advice. It’s still a slow process, but Sasha and Helen continue to become closer, much to Noah’s obvious chagrin. It still kind of feels like at any moment Noah is about to go on a rant about how Helen is killing “Independent Noah,” but the story is working for now, if only for the confidence it gives Helen and the humbling lesson that Noah receives.
It’s interesting to note that this episode brings up that Noah’s latest book is a biography about someone else. This is arguably the opposite of his quasi-autobiographical novel, Descent, and I’d say that it shows progress on Noah’s part in response to being less self-interested. However, it’s also revealed that Noah wrote this book while in prison, so it’s also entirely possible that he used his time away from society to focus on someone else’s life so he didn’t have to confront his own sins. It’s kind of the ultimate distraction.
To some extent every episode of this season so far has featured some meta-ish conversation about the nature of Descent’s characters and how the novel was a way for Noah to rewrite and take hold of his narrative. Noah’s walked through fake versions of his home and interrupted recreations of pivotal moments from his life. It doesn’t get more literal than that. This concept wildly spins out of control when Sasha insists that the story is better if the film’s Noah and Helen equivalents get back together, which is the exact opposite direction that the series and Noah have taken.
What’s even worse is that Noah gets pressured into a position where he has to write these edits, as he forces this alternate version of himself to do the “right thing” (until he’s eventually pushed out of that position, too). It almost becomes some therapy exercise and what Noah was trying to avoid doing in prison with the biography that he writes.
On top of this, Noah’s reunion with Janelle makes him undergo a sickly similar procedure. Due to the possibility of the bad optics that can grow out of the public’s knowledge of Janelle’s relationship with Noah while she was his boss, she asks him to deny that the whole thing ever happened. He again is forced to edit his life and gets kicked even further while he’s down. This is doubly crushing for Noah because he also learns that Janelle has returned to Carl and that this couple, much like Sasha’s vision for the couple in Descent, are able to put differences aside and reclaim their love, whereas this is something that was impossible for Noah to achieve with Helen.
There was a time when Helen would have rushed to a drunken Noah who comes to her door in the middle of the night, but now she explicitly smiles and gets pleasure out of keeping him out. Real or fake, all of the people around Noah are living the life that he can’t. For a while it looked like The Affair might have ended where Noah has some version of a happy ending, but currently what looks a lot more likely is that all of Noah’s misdeeds result in him ending up abandoned and alone. A broken Noah that endlessly watches Descent so he can live in a version of his life that didn’t explode would be an incredibly bleak ending, but one that I wouldn’t necessarily hate.
Because every episode of The Affair needs to have emotional torture porn involved and gut the audience in some way, just as Helen seems to be finding a rhythm and happiness to her new life, Bruce’s Alzheimer’s condition takes a turn for the worse and Helen once again has to confront mortality only a few mere months after Vik’s passing. However, Helen exhibits a lot more control this time. Margaret barks “Life’s not fair” to Helen as a mantra, but she continues to stand strong and defend the new life that she and her kids have found on the West Coast.
Curiously, the plight that Helen’s parents face also speaks to the dangers of what can happen when a marriage doesn’t dissolve and a couple remains together for decades. Margaret’s stability is ruined and she has no idea what lies for her in the future because of Bruce’s reckless actions, even if they’re not intentional ones. Margaret’s life is in just as much disarray as Helen’s was when she lost Vik, so while it’d be nice if Helen supported her parents, it’s easy to see why she doesn’t want to get ripped away from her fresh start.
Bruce’s Alzheimer’s helps Helen confront some important decisions about family, but I hope that there’s more to this development than “Helen copes with the loss of a parent.” Honestly, if there’s any character that deserves one less crisis this season, it’s Helen. It’s likely that Bruce’s deteriorating state may end as some final catalyst between Helen and Noah, but we’ll see where it leads. It’s currently been a useful event to help Helen assert herself and the life that she wants, but there’s still a lot of time left in this season for her to return to New York.
Finally, elsewhere in Future Land, adult Joanie’s mysterious journey into her and her family’s past takes a turn for the dangerous. Joanie hasn’t been entirely dishonest to her family about what she’s up to in Montauk, but she’s still keeping them in the dark about the whole purpose of all this. Up until this point this closed off attitude has only resulted in emotional damage, but in 503 Joanie’s problems begin to get physical when she digs deeper into where she’s not wanted.
There’s really not much to report on here other than in the few minutes of Joanie’s story she manages to cheat on her husband and engage in some kinky sex (with someone who may also be some member of the Lockhart clan?). It’s material that easily could have been included last week or further expanded upon in this episode (rather than Joanie and the bartender sharing about a dozen words before engaging in sex).
I want to like this Joanie material, but currently the content isn’t making a strong case for Alison’s offspring. Hopefully the point of her story isn’t just to show how she’s damaged. Hell, the technology is so outrageous in Joanie’s timeline that maybe her story will end with her uploading Alison and Cole’s consciousness into robots and living happily ever after with them in Montauk.
This episode follows in the trend of this final season’s previous instalments and doesn’t try to dispel the leisurely pacing and atmosphere that’s in place. However, this episode does stronger work to bring everything together and indicate where this season is headed and what it’s interested in articulating as the show says goodbye. Emotional breakthroughs are currently more important than plot developments as these characters attempt to heal themselves, but that also means that some episodes are going to seem less exciting purely on a story level.
So far Helen’s struggle remains the most interesting aspect of the season, while Joanie’s additions fail to fully justify themselves, and Noah’s beats verge on being repetitive, but at least show that the tide is turning for him. That being said, the material that works, really works, and Helen’s careful, honest reawakening is still worth the price of admission. This season still needs to do a lot to go out on a truly impressive note, but hey, people love a comeback story.