There are primal questions left unanswered between Cole and Alison. These are the kind of questions particularly likely to bloom when a relationship withers in the face of tragedy. Do you still love me? If tragedy didn’t beset our lives, would we still be together? Should we? This week, through the dueling perspectives of Cole and Alison, The Affair turns over the answers to these questions in increasingly heart-wrenching ways.
“304” is easily the greatest episode of the season and one of the best of the series. It returns The Affair to what it does best: plumbing the depths of desire, illuminating how what we hunger for shapes our very identities. More than that, the show finally returns to using the perspectives of two different characters to explore the same event — in this case, Joanie’s fifth-birthday party and the days surrounding it. This narrative structure has been missing all season, leaving The Affair unfocused. But this episode is sharp and crackling with life. It is an aria about the aftermath of grief and the poignancy of desire over things just out of our reach. Every line of dialogue, every performance is informed by these two themes.
Some time has gone by since the last time we saw Cole and Alison. They’ve found an unsteady balance. A court-appointed social worker supervises Alison’s visits with Joanie. On the surface, Cole’s life seems as close to perfect as possible. “Luisa has been good for you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so happy,” Oscar says to him at one point. But Cole takes a beat too long to respond. There’s a forlorn look in eyes that suggests otherwise. His life may have the appearance of peace and happiness, but whenever he’s alone with Luisa, they argue. Alison’s return is illuminating the cracks in their union.
Things are even harder for Alison. She’s trying to prove she’s better than the hysterical, broken woman people think she is. She takes the pain that Luisa needles her with and when she’s alone heaps even more on herself. She’s made herself into a martyr, as if her suffering is meant to make amends. Nothing she does is good enough — except to Joanie, who loves her with the unerring devotion it seems only children are capable of.
Like all the best episodes of The Affair, it’s the differences between the two perspectives, drawn in minute detail, that deepen our understanding of these characters. From Cole’s point of view, he’s more openly warm to Alison, struggling to hide the fact that he’s still in love with her. Each time he defends Alison against Luisa’s many criticisms, his wife’s anxiousness threatens to tear her apart. But to Alison, Cole is colder and more distant, as if he’s afraid that if he comes close, he’ll be pulled in too deep — as if she’s a crashing tide he can’t help but be swept into.
Joanie’s birthday party is the focal point of the episode. The tension that bubbles between Alison, Cole, and Luisa is unbearable; the way these characters look at each other is much more cutting than their outright arguments. The birthday party sequence reveals the horror that lies just beneath the domestic surface. Innocuous items like the birthday cake Alison brings become totems for divergent parental styles and a reminder of the uneasy ground they find themselves on. The most horrific moments concern what should be a dream come true for Joanie: a pony ride.
From Cole’s point of view, Alison is nervous seeing Joanie trot along atop the pony, but not gravely so. When Joanie falls off, he holds Luisa back so Alison can rush to her side to bring comfort. It’s Cole’s way of giving Alison priority with her own daughter, even if the legal system and Luisa haven’t. In Alison’s mind, this plays out far differently. Joanie doesn’t want to ride at all, which Alison backs up. Alison plunges into a panic attack soon afterward, unable to even look at Joanie as she takes her ride. Her eyes well with tears. She’s coming undone when Joanie’s screams yank her back to attention. When she turns around, she sees Joanie unconscious with blood dripping from her mouth … but this nightmare proves to only be in Alison’s mind. Joanie is actually just fine. “It happens to me, too,” Cole says, understanding Alison without her needing to say a word. Of all the differences in their perspectives — of which there are many — this one feels the most telling. It communicates Alison’s overprotectiveness (and how it is rooted in fear), Cole’s deep love for his ex-wife, and the fact that Luisa hangs in the balance.
Look, I get why Luisa would not be happy to see Alison back in their life. But at this point, she seems to be putting her own distrust before Joanie’s well-being. Alison was able to give Cole the other child he wanted. They are bound to each other by a long, tangled history. Alison understands Cole in ways Luisa never will, which makes her feel like an interloper.
Cole: “She’s still Joanie’s mother.”
Luisa: “She doesn’t deserve to be.”
Cole: “What do you want me to do? Have her locked up for depression? For being afraid? We lost our child.”
I’ve been waiting quite some time for the show to confirm Alison’s mental illness. This is why I find Luisa’s cruelty toward Alison to be misplaced and rather damning. When she brings up how Alison’s mother abandoned her, it’s meant to wound. It’s worth clarifying, though: Alison leaving Joanie on their doorstep was the worst possible way to handle things, but she didn’t outright abandon her daughter. She went to get the help she desperately needed. If Alison hadn’t gone to a psychiatric facility, things would have likely been far worse. Luisa frames Alison’s mental problems as a choice and punishes her for trying to get help, which I honestly find disgusting. Doing so only adds to Alison’s fear of being ill-suited for motherhood because of her past breakdowns. That she’s standing after everything that has happened is commendable, despite her mistakes.
One of Alison’s greatest mistakes may have been leaving Cole in the first place, but I get why that happened. Alison needed to feel something and Noah was her means of self-destruction. She couldn’t deal with the pall of grief that clung to her marriage, so instead of being honest or getting therapy, she tried to become someone else entirely. As a result, the relationship between Cole and Alison was left unfinished. The love Alison and Cole have for each other is like gravity; there’s no denying it. Unfortunately, the progress they’re making on behalf of Joanie is threatened by Noah.
Alison doesn’t tell Cole about Noah being attacked after the detectives question her, which finally tips things out of balance. What’s interesting to note, though, is that Luisa provides Cole’s alibi even though he actually wasn’t home. He wasn’t with Alison either, lying to her about his whereabouts. So where was he? We didn’t actually see Noah’s attacker even though the show is guiding us to believe it was Gunther. That Cole’s innocence has been cast in doubt marks the first time Noah’s story line has felt any sort of urgency this season, but in such a strong episode, even that feat seems like a lesser accomplishment.
It’s the way tragedy and desire are evoked that makes this episode blistering. Director John Dahl smartly uses the landscape of Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson’s faces to communicate the undertow of extreme emotion. These are the two actors with the show’s best chemistry and story line, which this episode highlights to a great degree. Cole’s dream of having sex with Alison make the final scenes in their respective points of view an inevitability. In Cole’s mind, he’s furious when he comes over to discuss Noah. “My life is good when you’re not around,” he says, obviously taking his problems with Luisa out on Alison. But as he goes on, it seems he’s trying to convince himself as much as punish her. In Alison’s perspective, his anger quickly fizzles out when he sees the beautiful dollhouse she made for Joanie. Her masochism takes precedence over his anger as she details how hard it is to see him with Luisa, living the life that she could have had. “This is as good as it gets for the rest of my life,” she explains.
Despite the many differences between their perspectives, it is Cole kissing Alison that fulfills the desire implied by his dream. It isn’t lost on me that this sex scene is cast in a warm, amber glow — that color, more than any other, evokes nostalgia. When Alison wakes up the next morning, she’s confronted by the cold light of day. Cole is nowhere to be found. She has to parse what having sex with him means for her next step forward. Luisa comes over later, as if on cue, offering Alison a rare olive branch. She can have that unsupervised visit with Joanie she wanted.
Of course, Alison has bigger problems to worry about. The episode ends with a tantalizing image of Noah driving Juliette’s car while Alison passes him on her bike. Time slows as they lock eyes. Alison’s life is much like the dollhouse she made Joanie: It has finally come together, but it’s incredibly fragile. Noah’s reemergence threatens to exploit that fragility. One false move and everything Alison has worked for, including her own sanity, could come crashing down.