For three seasons, The Affair has deftly explored the way memory is shaped by emotion, not fact. In this week’s episode, the show goes a step further by depicting how Helen and Noah utterly fail to reckon with their pasts.
Written by Alena Smith, “306” is one of the season’s most well-structured episodes. Each perspective feels like a reflection of the other. They keenly pivot around the same ideas, most notably the elusive comfort of home and the myriad ways we sand off the prickly edges of our pasts to create easier, rose-colored versions. This is especially profound in Helen’s point of view from the episode’s first half, as she’s forced to face how deeply she misunderstands Noah and the early days of their relationship.
Through a variety of telling scenes — like a double date with Helen, Vic, and Helen’s parents, who are surprisingly back together — her misguided loyalty for Noah is in the spotlight. Despite all the reasons she’s told to move on, she remains steadfastly by Noah’s side even though he doesn’t seem to give a damn about her. Of course, we can’t discount the guilt she feels for Noah confessing to a crime he didn’t commit when she was actually driving the car that hit Scotty. Who knows what would happen if Helen told the truth? Nevertheless, guilt isn’t even the main reason Helen defends Noah after he misses the school conference and she’s left alone to learn that Martin probably won’t graduate. Guilt also doesn’t explain why she still carries the last name Solloway and refers to Noah as her husband. Could it be that she’s still in love with him?
After he skips the conference, Helen spends a lot of time trying and failing to find Noah. In many ways, this disconnect feels like a metaphor for their entire relationship: She’s always yearning for Noah and, at best, he treats her like an afterthought. But the man Helen remembers him being at the beginning of their relationship in college never quite existed. Although she likes to believe she knows Noah better than anyone else, the episode’s best scene puts the truth into stark relief. She doesn’t know him well at all.
Helen heads to New Jersey, hoping to track Noah down at Nina’s. He’s not there, of course, but Noah’s sister takes the opportunity to utterly lay into Helen. It’s a speech she desperately needs to hear.
Nina: “Why does he still matter so much to you?”
Helen: “Because he is the father of my children and he’s blowing his last chance of any semblance of a relationship with them.”
Helen’s children are a convenient shield from closer scrutiny, but they don’t want to associate with Noah and he’s put in little effort to do so. His time in prison isn’t the only problem. Even before then, he blew up their family over his affair with Alison. He was regularly callous to Helen. Does she remember that? Does she not see that he hasn’t changed? Nina doesn’t stop there. She calls out the class divides between them, noting how Helen looked at Noah as a “diamond in the rough” to polish and place in her life. As Nina sees it, Noah used Helen to run away from a rough family life in the wake of his mother’s death, vaulting himself into an upper-class lifestyle he would otherwise never access.
If that’s not evidence that Helen has a remarkably myopic view on Noah, the next revelation is undeniable: She didn’t know that he assisted in his mother’s suicide. Even worse, she only saw what he was going through as grief, seemingly unable (or unwilling) to recognize how much of a wreck he was and remains. As Nina says, “I could never figure out if you were purposely ignoring who he actually was or you were so narcissistic that you weren’t paying attention.”
Damn, Nina isn’t holding back. It’s a scene ripe with cutting one-liners and hard truths that Helen cast off as misplaced animosity. Of course, Nina is right. Helen has been dancing over an emotional fault line for more than two decades and didn’t even know it. (Naturally, this is very different from Alison, who learned what really happened because Noah opened up to her. Alison sees him far more clearly than Helen does, which is why it was easier to extricate herself and get a divorce. That’s also why Noah still wants her, but shows little interest in Helen.) So, why does Helen continue to chase Noah? The answer is found when she seeks out Max and pushes Vic away: She’s chasing the joy she thought she had when she was younger, when life was easier and made sense.
The decision to sleep with an engaged Max on a whim, despite her relationship with Vic, only makes Helen’s privileged worldview and narcissism even more apparent. That Max doesn’t comfort her and instead echoes the same thing Nina says makes the scenes between them even more excruciating. “Tell me how I’ve failed you?” Vic later asks. The thing is … he hasn’t failed at all. In the four years they’ve known each other, Vic has proven himself to be a caring partner who navigated a rough dynamic better than most ever could. The only way Vic has failed is by not being Noah. Watching their argument play out, which ratchets up the tension in an already intense episode, it’s clear the relationship won’t last much longer. Noah is an unspoken specter, and Helen will always put her ghosts first.
The first time we see Noah, he is returning Juliette’s beloved red car after wrecking it. Why would any woman want to get close to a man with such a knack for destruction? When Noah balks at Juliette’s sexual request to be tied up, replicating a moment from his book, her goodwill immediately disintegrates. With nowhere else to stay, Noah is forced to return to his sleepy Pennsylvania hometown, where he’ll live in the home his father left for him. This quickly becomes a tangled trip down memory lane in which Noah is confronted with the pain of his past: assisting the suicide of the mother he deeply loves, trying to escape his lower-class upbringing, and Gunther’s abuse. Even Martin shows up to make matters complex.
Despite Martin’s dim presence (an annoying reminder this show can’t write teenagers well), “306” is a very strong and moving episode. The Affair has found its footing this season by mining the divide between how these characters see the world and what happens when they fail to acknowledge the truth of the situations they’re mired in. In a surprising turn, one of the best aspects of the last few episodes is how the show has developed Noah’s background. (That’s something I never thought I’d say.) Learning about his past, seeing him tell Martin the truth about his mother, and the way old high-school friends like Grant (Tim Guinee) hold him in high regard for escaping his meager beginnings makes Noah an infinitely more interesting character. Dominic West plays the mix of sadness, self-destruction, and longing for comfort to perfection. This doesn’t absolve Noah, but it adds complications that make any quick judgment more difficult to hold.
The dinner at Grant’s isn’t as explosive as Helen’s argument with Nina, but helps us see Noah in a new light. We learn more about his time in high school; we learn how people from his past view his life. The Affair touches on class divisions in a truly fascinating way here. Noah is seen as an anomaly — a minor celebrity, thanks to his book and torrid personal life. No matter how far he travels from his hometown, Noah can’t escape himself. The previous episode showed Noah a bit manic in Alison’s perspective, which encouraged my theory that Gunther is only a figment of his imagination. That theory hasn’t been proven true yet, but it’s clear Noah is unraveling. At the end of Helen’s point of view, she tracks Noah down to Pennsylvania, finding him as he argues in the lake near his home with no one. In his mind, we find out he doesn’t think he’s alone; he sees his adolescent self standing in front of him. This is the clearest example of something The Affair holds true, time and time again: The pain we don’t confront in the past can become awfully dangerous in the present.