The Affair Recap: Nostalgia Trip

Maura Tierney as Helen and Dominic West as Noah. Photo: Mark Schafer/Showtime
The Affair
The Affair
Episode Title
Editor’s Rating

If I had to use one word to describe this episode, it would be nostalgia.

The feeling courses through the actions of each character: Nostalgia for who they used to be, the way their relationships once were, and the illusions they used to hold. Sometimes I think of The Affair as the television equivalent of that certain ex you can’t quit, the one who is ponderous but has moments of greatness. You keep coming back because you’re wistful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the show has been brilliant lately, but it's developed a lot of interesting moments.

Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of very expected, shakily written ones: when Noah and his publicist, Eden, get hot and heavy before she stops the action; how Noah’s version of his book signing is full of beautiful women (one of whom makes an unsubtle pass at a dalliance); or how Noah treats Alison and their soon-to-be-born child as a mild annoyance that's low on scale of priorities.

We begin with Helen, as she goes on a college tour with Whitney to see her old alma mater. “Like Hogwarts, without the magic,” she says sarcastically. Helen is on a budget, which means she’s not getting money from her parents. Whitney seems more interested in creating Helen's Tinder profile than she is in looking at the college. She reveals that she wants to be a model — thanks to a chance meeting with some photographer — and isn't interested in college. Helen doesn’t respond well, devolving their conversation into a tense argument. Never afraid to hit below the belt, Whitney points out that Helen has never supported herself; instead, she lives off her parents. So, who is Helen to tell her that she can’t make it on her own?

Later, on the street, Helen and Whitney bump into Noah, who has become incredibly successful, thanks to his new novel. How do they not know that his book tour and Whitney’s college visit would overlap? Oh, just because Eden forgot about it, even though it was on the calendar. Sure.

Helen spends a lot of time with Noah. They walk snowy paths, reminiscing about the past, going to old haunts. At his book signing, Noah reads a passage that definitely speaks about their time as a couple. It’s his life, thinly veiled as fiction. If we didn’t know the extent of their history, their interactions would almost seem romantic.

The episode's most poignant moment comes after dinner, when Helen apologizes for making Noah leave Harlem. She admits to being relieved after his first book failed; she thought he would give up on writing and just settle with her. Her initial desire is incredibly selfish — and something I recognize from former relationships where my commitment to writing proved a sticking point. What’s most interesting to me is how Noah comes off looking great in Helen’s memory, but not his own. He lacks the self-awareness to see himself clearly. And she’s too busy reminiscing about their past to see him clearly right now. He knows when he makes mistakes, but being truly apologetic is not his strong suit.

In Noah’s memory, his success is enviable. He gets amazing reviews. He sees strangers reading his work in day-to-day life. He’s on the short list for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The fragility of his ego, however, leads one bad review to unravel him. The pan isn’t from any publication of note; it's published by a local college paper. You’d hope Noah would shrug it off. Instead, it consumes him.

At the book signing, Helen’s presence comes across as a surprise to Noah. He shifts from a steamy passage to the same one Helen remembers him reading. I had to laugh when I noticed that his audience is (allegedly) brimming with attractive women. A particularly beautiful lady asks him how he writes women so well; I couldn’t help but cackle. Does he really write women well? And what should we think of his talent as a writer? We’re privy to a chunk of a passage from his reading. I’m not sure if it's worthy of all that praise.

The signing takes a left turn when the undergrad critic asks pointed, hostile questions. Does Noah see his book being read in five years? Is it really fiction? Doesn't it align with the events of his life? The critic also reveals that he lost out on the PEN award. The attack borders on the personal. Did Noah screw this dude’s mother or something? Is this yet another case of a television show that invents a shrill, nonsensical critic? Or could the show be more sympathetic to his opinion of Noah than it appears?

When Helen and Noah reconnect at their old haunt, the tenor of the interaction is different than what we saw from her perspective. It’s more drunken and irreverent, but the sense of nostalgia is still there. Helen makes a good point about Noah needing to drop his obsession with the negative undergrad critic. He’s worked so hard to get to this point, so why muddle his own success? Noah needs everything to be perfect, otherwise he makes self-destructive decisions. The male ego is embarrassingly fragile.

Just when I started to feel for Noah — I understand what it's like to be hung up on harsh criticism and being in an intense, transitional period — the show reminds me just how terrible he can be. Noah claims he’s a victim of affirmative action because he lost the award to a woman of color. He says that it's difficult to be a straight white man in 2015. He says all of this with a straight face. Seriously.

This show has some odd ways of handling race, but the writers must be portraying Noah as a selfish, myopic jerk. Things only get worse after Helen leaves and he stumbles back inside drunkenly to confront the reviewer — who, for the record, is a young black man. Noah tries to punch the kid, then video of the incident gets splayed across the internet.

Frankly, Noah’s perspective seems to be a list of reasons why Alison shouldn’t be with him and why he should just crawl down into a hole somewhere, writ large. His move on Eden, who is into it but stops because of their business relationship, only hammers this point home. I really hope Cole is the father of Noah's daughter, just so we can see the look on his face.

For the first time this season, the flash-forwards about the murder case feel truly significant. I’m still not sure if they work, though. The muted, cool coloring makes them feel like something out of a dream. It's an interesting choice, considering the scenes don't come from anyone’s particular point of view. What does it say about The Affair that its most vivid moments are couched in memory rather than objective reality?

These scenes focus on the fallout of Jon's discovery of what Alison says to Scotty on the security footage. He believes that Alison had an affair with Scotty, so her daughter is his child. Even a cursory glance at Alison’s history with the Lockharts, however, would make the prospect of an affair with Scotty seem ludicrous. Obviously, Scotty is referring to the fact that the daughter, Joanie, is Cole’s; it breaks the idea that their family is cursed. Jon doesn’t know that, though, and seems to tell Helen about his theory offscreen. This explains why Helen swipes Joanie’s pacifier and brings it over to Jon — but that tactic isn’t going to prove Noah’s innocence or implicate Alison. Revealing the true paternity of Joanie will ripple pretty far, though, and Noah will be caught in the collateral damage.

Honestly, I can’t wait. This show needs some chaos.