Time doesn’t heal all wounds on The Affair, it magnifies them. As the third season begins, this has never been more true for Noah. One of the main pleasures of watching The Affair has been parsing out the differences between the feuding memories of various characters. In this season premiere, however, we’re placed entirely in Noah’s perspective to reveal just how much he’s changed.
When we first see Noah, he’s wearing a beard ill-suited for him at his father’s funeral. He’s living with his sister, Nina, and finds himself disturbed by memories from his recent time in prison. He seems just out of step with the world around him. He struggles with things most people take for granted — small talk, physical affection, familial bonds. Alison isn’t returning his calls. Helen has an edge of desperation to her, as if she wants their relationship to turn romantic again. While we watch Noah try to make sense of the world just two months out of prison, he struggles to find solid ground. It’s hard not to feel sympathy when a neighbor tells him, “You’re a horror,” after the funeral. Or how J.P. (Ed Moran) seethes after they learn that Noah’s father left him the house, instead of Nina. Or when he has to sublet a gross apartment in student housing after familial tensions get too unbearable.
I’ve never been subtle about my dislike of Noah. He’s the frustrating embodiment of a particularly noxious brand of toxic masculinity, which is why I found myself surprised to be sympathizing with him at the beginning of this episode. Much of that is thanks Dominic West’s performance; he embodies a loneliness we’ve all experienced. Noah is jittery and nervous around his family. He recoils when people reach for a hug. It’s clear he’s a haunted man, even though he keeps telling Nina he’s “okay.” His prison time is mostly shown in hazy flashbacks that seem out of a horror film. The clearest picture we get comes at the very beginning when Helen visits him. He’s surprisingly jovial and jokes about considering his time in prison as a writer’s retreat. It’s essentially his chance to pay penance to Helen for blowing up their marriage and the tidy lives they built for themselves. When he smirks, saying he won’t even be imprisoned for the full three years, it’s hard not to feel a bit sad for him. But showrunner Sarah Treem would never make things that easy. Under her steady guidance, The Affair delights in making sure it’s difficult to side with any character, no matter where your sympathies lie or how much you agree with them.
It’s never more evident that we’re witnessing Noah’s memory than when we see him interacting with women at the new college where he teaches. The women are apparently falling over themselves to sleep with him or they seem to be plotting his demise. They’re either conquests or shrews, the possibility for freedom or an emotional trap. There’s no middle ground. The women who embody these opposing sides are the French professor Juliette Le Gall (Irène Jacob) and one of Noah’s students, Audrey (Sarah Ramos).
The moment Juliette appeared onscreen, I knew she would be Noah’s new love interest. She says she feels like they’re kindred spirits within minutes of meeting him. She’s sophisticated and sexy and smart. Basically, she’s way too good for him. But maybe the pickings are slim in New Jersey?
The first time we meet Audrey, she’s reading a particularly terrible short story to the rest of the class while Noah barely pays attention. When he gives his feedback, he doesn’t mince words. He rips into her paltry understanding of human nature, ending his critique with a damning line, “Just don’t bring your diary in here again.” Of course, she starts crying in front of the class and storms out. Was Noah harsh? Definitely. Was Audrey’s terrible story doing her any favors? Not really.
Nevertheless, it’s not until the episode’s centerpiece scene — a dinner at Juliette’s home with Noah and four students, one of whom is Audrey — that I truly began to question the intent of this story line. During dinner, the students argue about a rape allegation that’s tearing the campus apart. The argument is cut neatly across gender lines. The young men say things like, “All this talk about consent is demoralizing.” They call rape accusations a “witch hunt.” They argue that women accuse men of rape when they don’t say “I love you” the morning after, and they suggest that accusations can easily ruin a man’s reputation. (If you pay attention to how rape cases usually go, that’s not even close to being true.) Meanwhile, Audrey is just as much of a caricature as she cuts down the nonsense from the men at the table. Even though I agreed with her points, she’s constructed as so shrill, so angry, and so venomous that I expected snakes to grow out of her head. She’s a straw man, plain and simple — a false construction that has no basis in reality.
When she starts attacking Noah unprompted, saying she feels “unsafe” in his class owing to a chapter in “Descent” that seems opaque about consent, the scene quickly devolves. “I think sex can be about wanting and not wanting. It’s a war between intellect and instinct,” Noah says, proving himself to be a rape apologist. That he says he doesn’t think it can be legislated should send any sane woman straight for the door. Instead, Juliette defends his book as being about a “courageous man” who falls in love with a woman who is not his wife and risks everything to be with her, a kind of Lancelot. It isn’t surprising when she kisses him later that night.
I understand this is Noah’s perspective, but there is something intellectually dishonest in framing a conversation about rape without including another character’s memories to act as a counterpoint.
Beyond the dinner scenes, everything in the season premiere is bleak and unrelenting. It’s hard not to interpret the episode as the beginning of a horror film in which Noah is positioned as the victim. Domesticity is a horror for him. Common items and noises like a kitchen knife, the sound of a moving train, or the keys to his father’s home hum with a sense of doom. A curious detail snakes its way throughout the episode, as Noah increasingly suspects he’s being followed. He keeps seeing a man in a blue baseball cap at the edge of his vision — idly standing by on campus, following him when he goes to buy wine, lurking outside the café when he shares a drink with Juliette. He finally figures out it’s a security guard from his time in prison (played by a menacing Brendan Fraser, of all people), which only makes him more anxious. We don’t yet know why the guard’s presence frightens him or why he’s been followed, but it adds to the sense of foreboding that colors everything. When the episode reaches its climax in the final scene, it feels like something David Fincher may have directed.
The harsh fluorescent lights in his new kitchen flicker overhead. Ants line the sink, crawling toward abandoned dishes caked with grime and food. Noises from outside sound ominous. When Noah starts washing a kitchen knife, I felt a pang of fear, remembering an earlier exchange he had with his sister.
Nina: “It’s going to get better. You just have to stay …”
In this particular moment, the threat Noah faces doesn’t come from within. It’s not clear how someone broke into the apartment, or even who stabs him. But the season will surely address those questions in due time. The episode ends as Noah bleeds on the floor with no hope in sight. Considering how bleak his life has become, it’s worth wondering: Is Noah Solloway all that eager to survive?