Over the course of the third season, Helen has shown, in ways that are now undeniable, that she’s still in love with Noah. At this point, her misguided loyalty isn’t merely self-destructive. It’s dangerous to everyone that she considers her family, as Vic doesn’t hesitate to point out.
While Noah is obviously hallucinating a vision of Gunther — at this point, no other explanation makes sense — the particulars of his stabbing remain a mystery. As Vic says, the police have no leads and someone may still be after Noah. Isn’t Helen worried about putting her family in danger? Apparently not. She brings Noah home without consulting anyone and thinks she can hide him in the basement bedroom. All she cares about is Noah; she remains fixated on having him back in her life. It’s yet another way The Affair has heightened Helen’s selfish behavior.
In many ways, Helen reminds me of the yearning, messy New York women in the poetry of the late Rachel Wetzsteon. Like this passage from Sakura Park, her 2006 collection:
When one night hurries to a close
a residue remains
romantics cannot separate
vast sighs from little stains.
Sink, heart, sink
into your latest chains.
The chains that entrap Helen are of her own making, but there’s a key difference between Wetzsteon’s sketches of a modern working woman’s loneliness and the way The Affair has constructed Helen — I no longer feel sympathy for Helen.
Look, many of my favorite female characters can be called “unlikable,” from the ambitious women Bette Davis played in the 1940s to Rosamund Pike’s chilly Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. The so-called unlikability of those characters doesn’t prevent them from being complex, fascinating, and highly watchable. Furthermore, the characters of The Affair have been profoundly unlikable from the very beginning; it’s practically built into the show’s DNA. But Helen’s reckless desire for her ex-husband isn’t simply hard to understand and a downright endurance test to watch; it’s pathetic. This is the man who blew up their family, humiliated her, and has shown nearly zero regard for his kids. He’s downright repulsive. When Noah was coming off the success of his novel, I could at least understand why Helen showed some nostalgic desire for the life they once shared. But now? Definitely not. In Helen’s own perspective, Maura Tierney plays the character with such dour fatalism it makes matters even worse.
This doesn’t mean “307” is a bad episode. Written by Anya Epstein and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, it details the perilous fault lines running through the Solloway family. In Helen’s perspective, Noah is like a wounded child. She dries him from the shower, makes a bed for him in the basement, let’s him into her home (and heart) with little regard for the other people in her life. Noah’s casual disregard and his addiction to Vicodin cause Vic to suggest he probably needs rehab. “Helen, open your eyes,” he tells Helen. “This man’s problem is much bigger than you or I can handle. “
But Helen refuses to heed Vic’s advice as she steadfastly holds on to the belief that she is the only one who can help him. Leaving Vic to put up with such casual cruelty, it’s a wonder he has stayed around this long, although he’s been an interesting presence this season. Actor Omar Metwally plays him with a mix of woundedness and exasperation without letting the character sink into outright victimhood. He’s a better partner than Helen deserves, once who cares about the well-being of her children in ways she won’t.
Vic’s breaking point finally comes after Helen lies to him again, implying that Noah left only for a noise to be heard from the basement while they’re around the dinner table that suggests otherwise. When he leaves, the mix of disappointment and anger on his face says it all — he isn’t coming back. Vic packs his few belongings and starts listing the lies Helen has maintained in order to keep Noah around. Even as he’s walking out the door, she refuses to own up to her mistakes. Of course, Vic already knows the reason behind Helen’s loyalty: “The only explanation is that you still love him.”
The most telling argument actually comes earlier, when Whitney comes home. Helen fails to hide Noah’s presence from her daughter after they discover Furkat pummeling him outside. The attack seems unprovoked, which Noah’s version of events clearly shows as well. (That dressing-down would have been more satisfying if it came from someone who wouldn’t refer to himself as Whitney’s “lover boss.”) Whitney has her own set of problems, given she’s with a man whose daughter is two years older than her, but she is right about Helen living in a fantasy world. “Why do you hate yourself so much?” she asks. It’s a good question, and one that leaves Helen stunned.
It doesn’t surprise me that with Vic gone and Helen feeling vulnerable after Whitney’s argument, she chooses to seek comfort in Noah. “What if we could start over? Just erase everything?” she asks him. Life doesn’t work like that, despite Helen’s desire to return to a rose-tinted version of the dynamic she once had with Noah. Much of this season feels like it was building toward Helen having sex with Noah, so it’s not much of a surprise that it finally happened. If they get back together, though, it’s definitely just about convenience for Noah. (Not that long ago, he was trying to persuade Alison to stay with him.)
Noah’s perspective has pretty much all the same events that we see in the first half: his return to the brownstone, Furkat beating him up outside, Vic leaving, and having sex with Helen. Things play out with such dramatic differences, I’m not sure if it’s Noah conveniently making himself out to be a victim or a byproduct of his unraveling mind.
His perspective starts out seemingly based in reality, when he visits the Pennsylvania shop that Gunther’s family owns and meets his tormentor’s mother (played by Lois Smith). As the episode continues, Noah’s hallucinations and recollections of his past in prison begin to warp the world around him. By the end, the frame has a haziness to it as we’re witnessing a dream. It all brings up a lot of questions. Is Vic really that cruel toward him? Is Helen really that polished and flirtatious as she hands Noah red wine and Vicodin? Would Vic really prescribe Vicodin to Noah? How much of Noah’s physical problems are caused by self-inflicted violence rather than his visions of Gunther? Is Helen really that uncaring about Vic leaving?
If there is one constant in both perspectives, it’s desperation. When Noah and Helen have sex at the very end of the episode, she breathlessly whispers, “I know you” as he hovers on top of her. “You don’t know me at all,” he replies. They seem like a match made in hell, but what starts as a pathetic, uncomfortable sex scene turns into something far darker when Helen tells Noah to stop and he ignores her. Now we can add “rapist” to Noah’s long lists of horrible deeds he’s done to women he claims to care about. Although it’s hard to make sense of the sequence, since Helen’s perspective doesn’t show this rape.
“307” deftly fleshed out Helen’s cloying loyalty and Noah’s mounting insanity, but while I watched the flashbacks that reveal even more harrowing examples of Gunther’s nonsensical abuse, I was left wondering what exactly the writers are building toward. They’ve yet to make me interested in Gunther — a villain so archly constructed he feels straight out of a slasher flick. While the past few episodes have made Noah far more fascinating than he has ever been, it seems like a severe miscalculation to sideline Cole and Alison, particularly given their richer emotional story line and chemistry. If anything, this episode highlights the contradiction at the heart of this season: The Affair makes interesting narrative choices, but it still misunderstands its greatest strengths.