I’ve always been attracted to how memory is shaped by emotion, which makes The Affair essential viewing for me. But the show reveals its flaws when focusing on the titular affair, and at times in season one, it felt like the writers were straining the suspension of disbelief in how radically different the perspectives of its lead characters were. Perhaps this is why the second season premiere works so well. Even when the differences are major, they all make sense emotionally. The episode is split between Noah and a new perspective: Helen’s, which is when it really hits its stride.
Noah’s chapter primarily involves his trip into the city. He meets with his publisher/agent Harry about his decision to jettison the murder in the novel for a new, far less dynamic ending. Harry urges Noah to reconsider. There’s an interesting moment when Harry asks Noah how much one of the novel’s characters is based on Alison (although he doesn’t remember her name). Noah insists it’s fiction. Sure, Noah. (Quick aside: I found all the author references rather telling. Does Harry really compare Noah to Steinbeck or is that a fantasy of his?)
As Noah moves through the city, it becomes apparent this isn’t his home anymore when he has an awkward run-in with an acquaintance who has no idea about his divorce. Or when he goes to the home he once shared with Helen and the kids to get his belongings, only to have an explosive argument with Margaret. Noah’s ineptitude as a father is on display when he fails to comfort Martin, who overhears him threaten Margaret, and a few minutes later gets punched in the face by Trevor when he reveals that the divorce is indeed happening, crushing the kid’s belief that they would reconcile. There’s a lot here to demonstrate the ways Noah sees himself and has moved on, but his mediation with Helen is most important.
Noah arrives late, still tending to his bloody nose. The mediator is absurdly chipper, which stands in direct contrast to everyone else. Helen is chilly towards Noah. While there are moments of anger from him, he’s pretty level headed during the mediation.
Noah brings up the only thing he wants: Joint custody.
Helen needles him on how that would work since he lives in a cabin in Cold Spring, NY. Not exactly enough room for four kids. The mention of his new book (and its potential profits) brings a somewhat condescending smile to Helen’s face. Noah, after all, hasn’t exactly been successful in the past. When he spits out that the advance is actually $400,000, the smirk vanishes from her face. She looks surprised at this success but doesn’t want any of it. It’s Noah’s way of saying he’ll do fine without her.
After the mediation, the two talk briefly outside. Helen is clear she just wants to move on and for the divorce be as fast and painless as possible. Can a 20-plus-year marriage be dissolved so bloodlessly? Helen brings up Alison for the first time (although not by name) to make her only request: She doesn’t want her anywhere near their kids.
When Noah returns to his new home, he finds a smiling Alison cooking. This is the only time we see Alison in the episode. I still don’t think I buy the chemistry between them or that they even love each other. However, I do believe they both wanted to change their lives dramatically and recognized within each other the same spark for self-destruction. (Alison is always at her least interesting in Noah’s memory — she’s more an idealized muse than a real woman here.)
His new life feels idyllic, almost too perfect and in direct contrast to the one he just left behind. It's all romantic gestures, slow dancing, and passion.
Afterwards, Noah brings a beer to the dock, too content to notice the thunderstorm rolling in behind him.
In the second part of the episode, writer/showrunner Sarah Treem spends considerable time showing Helen’s life beyond Noah. Her divorce is definitely a wound where pain and confusion radiate from, but the mediation occupies much less space in her memory than you’d expect. Ultimately, Helen’s memories enliven The Affair’s framing device. Finally, the scorned wife speaks for herself.
Helen’s part opens in a messy, upscale hotel, which is all floor-to-ceiling windows and muted color. But she’s not alone. The camera spends time lingering on the naked body of the man next to her. It took me a moment to recognize her lover: Max.
Max quickly makes it clear he is appallingly bad at dirty talk, or the very least, Helen isn’t into it. Between strokes he says stuff like, “I’m filling you up!” and “I’m deep inside of you!” It gets worse from there. It would be hilarious on a different show, but here it’s just mortifying.
On The Affair sex tends to be sad or self-destructive or a way to distract yourself from the crushing ennui of life. Throughout the sex scene I couldn’t help but wonder, Does Helen even enjoy this? Probably not from the looks of it. And out of all the characters she really needs some joy.
Max alternates between obnoxious (when he calls in for some breakfast) (bonus: we get a blurry dick shot) and being caring (when he reveals to Helen he kept the dreamcatcher she made for him in college). But I’m still unsure if he loves Helen or the idea of her as the one who got away.
To the outside world she’s putting on a valiant face, but if you look closely you can see the cracks. It isn’t surprising that when she gets a moment alone in the shower she cries. Helen’s chapter is a Rachel Wetzsteon poem writ large: a heartbreaking look at the loneliness city-dwelling women experience in the wake of romantic upheaval.
While in Noah’s memory the mediation is definitely tense, Helen’s memory of it is outright antagonistic. Even before Noah arrives late, the difference between their memory of this moment is striking. The mediator is cynical, openly bored with his job. When he casually mentions Noah’s lateness is symptomatic of the reasoning behind why she left him, she blithely opens up, saying he had an affair. The mediator isn’t convinced. To him the affair is the “symptom not the disorder.” Another interesting change? In Noah’s memory she’s wearing a beige colored top. In Helen’s memory she’s wearing black.
The differences continue to rack up once Noah arrives. This time he has no bloody nose. He’s far better dressed, wearing more somber colors including a very slick leather jacket (an embodiment of the midlife crisis she thinks he’s going through?). Instead of the mediator sitting in the center, he sits on the right side of the table opposite Helen, as does Noah, which makes the dynamics feel askew.
Joint custody is brought up by Helen, not Noah. She wants Noah to live nearby so the kids can have stability. “A four-bedroom apartment in New York? I can’t afford that,” he counters.
Noah is openly angry, cursing and raising his voice at Helen’s every suggestion. He refuses her offer to pay for his place in the city. He never mentions that $400,000 advance. Helen even brings up Alison asking, “Are you living with her?” The mediation seems clipped compared to how Noah remembers it, and we never see them talk on the street afterwards.
Helen’s memory catalogues a series of hurts. At Stacey’s ballet class she overhears acquaintances speaking about her divorce with an astounding lack of empathy. She cuts it short by making her presence known. When heading home with Stacey the acquaintance apologizes, which rings false when seconds later she asks increasingly personal questions. Did Helen ever have a feeling he was cheating? It isn’t about any fear she has within her own marriage, she’s just curious. Thankfully, Helen sharply tells her off.
Home provides no solace. Trevor cries on the couch because of seeing Noah, who confirmed the divorce. Whitney wants to write her college essay about the time Cole put a gun to her head, which Margaret forbids. Dinner between Helen and her kids is full of awkward silence. It’s like they’re all trying to tiptoe around the mess Noah left behind, but aren’t sure how.
At the banquet Margaret was insisting on earlier, Helen looks beautiful in a royal blue dress (which feels like one of the more dramatic uses of color in her chapter). Surprisingly, Max is at the table. Margaret continues to be a great point against the saying that with age comes wisdom. She jokes (but we know it isn’t really a joke) that she always thought Helen would get married to Max, not Noah. Helen seems to struggle to pay attention to the conversation, to feel comfortable. On the other hand, Max is in his element. When he escorts them home we get a tender moment between him and Helen. She kisses him passionately, and for the first time, I understand the spark of this relationship. Thunder crackles as they kiss on her doorstep and she makes her way inside, alone.
Her day ends with her sitting on the bed she shared with her husband, looking at the spot where Noah’s father’s painting once was as a thunderstorm rages outside.
Beyond the mediation, their memories overlap in the flash-forward scenes showing Noah in jail. In Noah’s memory, he is visited by Detective Jeffries, who is trying to present himself as a sympathetic person. He mentions how the judge on his case has grown hard because his wife died from a hit-and-run. Noah’s status as a city-dweller won’t do him any favors. He’s trying to convince Noah to take a plea. It doesn’t work.
In Helen’s chapter, the biggest difference is her own presence. Helen accompanies a lawyer and friend, John, into jail. Helen sports bangs and looks to be a bit more on solid ground. They get to Noah’s cell and witness him speaking to Detective Jeffries. John cuts it short, giving them some privacy. When Noah says he can’t afford John, Helen lets him know she’s paying for him. “Thank you,” Noah earnestly responds.
Money is a major preoccupation in this episode. In Noah’s memory, he has the rest of his advance looming in the horizon. He doesn’t seem as worried about it as Margaret and Helen think he is. In Helen’s memory, Noah still very much needs her money (or more aptly, her parent’s money).
Before flashing forward, Noah and Helen’s memories overlap with the promise of a thunderstorm. For Noah the storm has yet to start; for Helen we see it’s already here.