This finale reveals that The Affair’s entire third season has been about rehabilitating Noah’s character. By focusing so intensely on Noah’s mental instability and grief, the show has created excuses for the terrible, selfish behavior he’s demonstrated since season one. If his mother’s death is the bedrock of his character, why wasn’t it important until now? That’s just one of the finale’s many issues, all of which are impossible to ignore.
By the way, Alison and Cole aren’t in the finale at all. Helen only appears at the very end and has zero dialogue. The episode is split between the perspectives of Noah and Juliette, as they spend Christmastime in Paris. Yes, you read that correctly. The first half of the finale is from the perspective of a walking French stereotype.
Maybe if Juliette were interesting or more developed, her outsized role in the finale would feel justified. The episode opens with Juliette in bed with Noah at his place in Paris. His neck wound has fully healed, so some time has passed since the events of the previous episode, in which he realized the terrorization from Gunther was his imagination. Noah mentions to Whitney he’s been seeing Juliette for about three months, but I’m not sure if he’s including the time they spent together while in New Jersey. He is seemingly stable and downright joyful about his life, which brings up a lot of questions. What’s the status of his parole? What did he tell the investigators who pretty much disappeared? How is he suddenly so sane? Did he go to therapy? All of these lingering questions are ignored in favor of fleshing out Juliette’s relationship with her Alzheimer’s-afflicted husband, Etienne (Patrick Bauchau), and her 22-year-old daughter Sabine (Nadja Settel).
Juliette’s rendezvous with Noah hits a snag when she comes home to find Etienne lucid. But it isn’t the “miracle” Sabine and Juliette want to believe. He soon becomes confused, thinking Juliette is his first wife and proclaiming, “I can’t live without you.” For a show in which memory is identity and destiny, here’s a woman whose husband has lost his. Despite its heavy subject, however, Juliette’s storyline has no emotional resonance. It’s also not the only other major issue she has to contend with: She has been lying to the university, posing as Etienne in emails to further his sabbatical and buy him time before revealing his condition.
This proves to be a terrible mistake when she meets with a university official, Celia (Frédérique Tirmont). Celia is casually cruel about Juliette’s situation, going so far as to suggest that if Etienne was no longer able to work at the university, her position would need to be reconsidered. She subtly argues that perhaps Juliette wasn’t doing her own work at all and it was Etienne who deserves the credit. “You have no idea who you are without him,” Celia says. In the world of The Affair, French people are cruel, emotionally distant, and use libertine attitudes to justify ugly behavior. They also wear berets and casually insult Americans. Everyone is pretty much a caricature a few stops short of Pepé Le Pew. But honestly, who cares about any of these characters?
At this point, why do we need two perspectives — especially when one belongs to a character with so little development? Memory, the show argues, is notoriously unreliable. It’s shaped more by emotion and self-image than the absolute truth. But there’s something about the scene in which Noah and Juliette meet at a café that bothers me. From her perspective, he’s already downed half a bottle of wine by the time she sits downs. She’s a bit too concerned to fully engage with him and gets a call from Sabine that sends her racing home to find Etienne dead. From his perspective, he’s the one who goes to meet her at the café, and she seems a bit harsh about her marriage. “Do you think you’re some expert on affairs? Why? Because you wrote a book?” she tells him. “Let me tell you something about my marriage you don’t know: Etienne made you look like an amateur.”
A handful of differences are interesting, like the lack of subtitles in Noah’s point of view when they bump into Juliette’s friends. He doesn’t know French, so that is a nice touch. Others, like Juliette’s quote above, feel overly written. But more than anything, these dueling perspectives put the show’s failure to establish context and time under a harsh light. When exactly are these characters having these recollections? A day after these events? A week? A year?
Without context or a proper frame, the structure of the show simply falls apart. In season one, the characters’ scenes with the detective acted as the only objective part of the series. They provided a neat framing device that helped separate the present day from past memories. In season two, Noah’s trial acted as a similar device. In season three, no scenes are completely divorced from characters’ perspectives, which means no part of the narrative acts as the absolute truth or marks a present point in time. Without these elements, the stark differences in people’s memories lack relevance and logic.
While Juliette struggles with Etienne’s place in her life, Noah is forced to confront his role as a father. As he strolls through Paris, he comes upon an ad for Furkat’s new exhibition — only to pass by the gallery moments later. He thinks he sees Whitney inside, but it’s just a lookalike who is acting as Furkat’s latest paramour. Instead, Whitney is spending time as Furkat’s sex toy and errand girl, with neither the respect nor care she deserves. Furkat invites Noah to the exhibition opening, laying on thick every disgusting aspect of his character.
When Noah goes to the opening, he opts not to go inside and instead watches Whitney serve wine and be ignored by Furkat. Fed up, Whitney decides to leave and their argument spills onto the street. “I don’t want to be your assistant. I love you,” she says. Furkat, proving himself to be more than just a terrible partner, gets downright abusive. “Learn your place,” he shouts after backhanding her. Noah rushes to the rescue, but Whitney holds him back from going inside and causing any havoc. Think about this: In order to make Noah the good guy, The Affair had to invent a man so selfish and disgusting that anyone would look good in comparison. Furkat isn’t a character. He’s a caricature solely constructed to facilitate Noah’s redemption. The same can be said about Gunther.
Whitney tries to defend Furkat, claiming his passion as an artist can’t just be turned on and off. But being an artist doesn’t justify abuse. “Love isn’t supposed to bring you pain,” Noah says. That’s hard to believe, coming from him of all people. When Whitney undercuts his argument by mentioning his relationship with Helen, he counters by saying, “I never hit your mother.” Congrats, Noah. That’s the bare minimum. Also, what about the sexual assault we saw earlier this season? Are we really supposed to write off Noah’s disgusting behavior because he decided to be a good parent for once?
“I see I failed in the most important job I had, which was to protect you from … men like me,” he tells Whitney. Well, that level of self-awareness is great, but I’m not buying this redemption at all. Noah lets Whitney crash at his place and buys them tickets to return to New York City just in time for Christmas. He doesn’t stay with Whitney, though. Instead, he spends the night with Juliette and plays hero by comforting her in the aftermath of Etienne’s death. She apologizes for her harsh words earlier. He speaks of the narratives people build in the wake of a loved one’s death, obviously alluding to his mother.
Back in New York, Noah decides not to go inside the brownstone with Whitney. (You can see Vic at the window briefly, so I guess that’s why he decides against spending Christmas with his family.) Helen waves at him from the window and Trevor comes outside, inviting him to spend time together in Central Park. Does it feel there is something missing here? When did this episode explain why they’re suddenly okay with Noah, not to mention the host of other unsolved matters?
When Noah gets back in the cab, he’s asked where he’s going. He has no answer. His face is marked by the realization he has nowhere to go. I’m guessing this Graduate-inspired ending is supposed to be poignant, considering it’s set during the holidays. It simply isn’t. The more poignant ending came earlier this season between Cole and Alison, the show’s most interesting and underutilized characters. Instead, we’re presented with a scene empty of emotion or depth.
I’ll end with this: For The Affair to be watchable again in its fourth season, it needs to move away from its obsession with Noah; it needs to lend reason to its memory structure; and it needs to create emotional resonance, rather than aiming for the profound. After all, there is nothing profound about a terrible, selfish white man being redeemed on television in ways he doesn’t deserve.