This review contains spoilers.
“Nobody likes the writer, stupid. Dad’s like the most disposable person…”
The Affair’s cast has fluctuated over the years, but this has never been a series that’s felt like it’s at a loss for characters. In fact, it’s a show where new characters have arguably gotten in the way of its storytelling and derailed momentum in favour of interesting deviations. During The Affair’s earlier seasons, an episode that’s largely devoted to Whitney Solloway would have been frustrating, but during this final season it becomes the highlight.
There are a lot of ways to make a statement and get creative in the final season of a television show and this Whitney point of view speaks to that. It’s actually a pretty amazing idea to show how Noah and Helen’s actions (but mostly Noah’s) have affected their oldest child. Everyone has processed the series’ titular affair in different ways, but Whitney is likely the only child of the Solloway family that actually has a clear perception of what happened.
The episode’s “Previously On” package rather pointedly doesn’t just feature clips from Whitney’s current relationship with Colin, but rather many of Whitney’s past misguided romantic indiscretions in a way that’s meant to feel like this is all the sum of Whitney’s broken perception of love because of Noah’s affair. Whitney’s received lots of attention throughout the series in the past (especially in season two with Scotty Lockhart—ah Scotty, simpler times…), but this is by far the most powerful use of her due to how she processes her family’s baggage as an adult.
This isn’t a perfect episode, but the Whitney material is outstanding (if not depressing) and it’s the showcase of Julia Goldiani-Telles that’s been long overdue after five seasons.
Whitney’s state of affairs is exceedingly grim and far from a picturesque vision of two loving soon-to-be-newlyweds. She slaves away to support her deadbeat fiancé, struggles to stay financially stable, and is underappreciated and treated like trash at work. As the whole world comes down on her, some very unsubtle temptation is pushed on her when a love from her past comes back with offers that would potentially solve all of her problems.
Whitney’s conflict here operates on an incredibly expedited timeline and there’s zero room for subtext. Colin is only a collection of boorish impulses and the universe forces Whitney to face her ex. What’s also made explicit is that the trapped life that Whitney’s in is basically identical to what Helen and Noah were going through at that age. Whitney begins this episode as Helen, but she ends it as Noah as she gives in and sabotages her relationship.
Goldiani-Telles is incredible here, but all of this just feels so icky. Right from the start it’s clear where it’s all going and this slow dive into watching Whitney destroy her life (rather than the Cinderella story that Furkat bills it as) is torture. It’d be one thing if Whitney maybe gained some clarity from all of this or learned how to rise above making the same “mistakes” that her mother did, but the episode not only demoralises and perverts Whitney once she submits to Furkat, but it ends with her more confused or broken than before. She’s either bound for a disastrous marriage with Colin that she doubles down on out of guilt or she winds up as Furkat’s possession. This dilemma is properly brought to life, but it’s just such a bummer.
Almost as if to further underline the point of Whitney’s storyline, Noah’s material acts as living proof of how his actions may negatively affect others. Noah’s behaviour has been up and down all season but his portion of this episode is really infuriating stuff and just as irksome as Whitney’s story. His story even ends on a moment where he gets busted, so there’s not even the opportunity for redemption.
This wouldn’t be a problem in the past, but it feels highly unnecessary here since Noah’s material last episode covers the exact same material. What’s also strange is that all of the events in Noah’s story are so comically exaggerated and practically presented as some bizarre rom-com. Noah literally hears a romantic soundtrack in his head as he gets his first glimpse of “New Helen” and then he and Margaret concoct a scheme to sneak dildos into Sasha’s bedroom (this stunt is so farcical that somebody seriously needs to edit a laugh track underneath it, or at least the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme during the final moment). Earlier in the episode, Noah receives romantic advice from his best bro who also happens to be dressed as a cowboy at the time. Then he helps Stacey with her first period. All of this actually happens.
What’s also irritating about all of this is that Sasha is not a bad guy. Why is everyone trying to freaking pile on him? It’s not like Sasha started having sex with Whitney. If anything, the fact that Sasha falls for a woman who’s real and in her fifties is solid proof that he’s not a generic Hollywood asshole.
Sure, Helen may be a little more careless due to Sasha grabbing her attention, but let her have some fun and enjoy herself for once (we also learn that he’s helped her jump start a new career)! Her finding some happiness shouldn’t have to turn into a witch-hunt. Furthermore, the previous episode already vets Sasha and shows that he’s okay to be trusted. It also contains plenty of Noah going off the handle on the subject matter, which again makes this all feel a little redundant.
Outside of Helen and his family, Noah is almost completely pushed out of Descent’s production and I wouldn’t be surprised if his name is entirely absent by the time the film actually comes out. The rumour that he was banned from set for “hitting on the director’s girlfriend” feels like it was tailor-made to inflict as much pain on Noah as possible. Everything that Noah has to handle here is turned up to eleven.
It’s unclear if the hyperbolic nature of all of this is because it’s being filtered through Noah’s perspective, but it’s worth pointing out that this is the best (and worst) that Noah’s looked in a long time. The fact that his younger children actually pine for him in lieu of Helen is presented as a welcome contrast to how Whitney’s been affected by his actions and at this point Margaret seems to actually prefer him to Helen.
That being said, the point of the episode is clearly to knock down Noah even further, so I guess we’ll see how this latest disaster informs his behaviour. It’s content that still arguably would have had more impact if it were presented from Helen’s, or even Sasha’s, perspective.
504 presents the most compelling and annoying aspects of The Affair‘s storytelling, but more than anything else it shows how broken people can be. This instalment makes some very questionable choices that leave their characters in disarray, but are clearly intentional decisions.
In that sense, 504 and The Affair in general nicely mirror life itself and how the decisions that we make, romantic or otherwise, can be messy and regressive, but also authentic. 504 makes its point, but if you care about these characters, this is not a fun time. However, as this season approaches its halfway point, it’s time for both Noah and the series to move on past their current obsessions. Maybe Joanie’s got the right idea by literally throwing her past away.
If Noah has another episode like this, Descent’s end credits might begin with “Dedicated to Noah Solloway – R.I.P.”