To love someone you can’t be with, whether owing to circumstance or choice, is a special kind of pain. It’s a pain that takes on greater resonance when home isn’t defined by places, but by other people. For Alison and Cole, this sentiment is especially true. Despite the numerous wounds they’ve inflicted on each other, they continue to be drawn together. More than any other place or person, they are home for one another. I don’t think that will ever change.
After several episodes that focused on Noah’s unraveling mental state and the alarming turns in his relationship with Helen, The Affair gives us a much-needed respite by turning attention to Cole and Alison’s perspectives. “308” is an episode of great beauty and heartbreak, a high-water mark that reminds us why this show works best when it focuses on Cole and Alison. Again and again, their relationship wrings big emotions from minor events.
“308” starts off explosively, at the hearing that’s meant to decide Alison’s role in Joanie’s life. Mr. Gutman, as the judge notes, isn’t acting as an impartial advocate for Joanie. If anything, he seems to get a thrill from cutting Alison down with incorrect information. She may not have a regular job, but being a partner in the Lobster Roll brings in all the income she needs. She’s officially divorced from Noah, as well. Unfortunately, the real trouble for Alison has always been Luisa’s opinion. When she’s called to the stand, it’s obvious what happens next will decide Alison’s fate — and Luisa’s testimony proves to be in favor of Alison. “This isn’t about me,” she says. She argues that Alison should have joint custody of Joanie, although that wasn’t even on the table. Joint custody is the victory Alison has desperately wanted. However, this development also reveals the fault lines that still exist in such a makeshift family.
Before her lawyer, Jessa (Deborah Ayorinde), returns with the good news, Alison watches Cole and Luisa argue outside. Although she can’t hear them, there’s an intensity to their movements that suggests Cole didn’t know about Luisa’s testimony. His perspective begins at this very moment, confirming that Luisa’s statements were unplanned. That’s something I’m not sure I fully believe. By solving the custody issue, Luisa obviously believes they can start their own family without Alison casting a shadow over their marriage. Later, she broaches the possibility of having a child through surrogacy or adoption. Cole recoils at first, until a tense exchange with Alison leads him to become excited at the possibility. Like so much of the episode, this sudden change suggests that Cole isn’t holding on to Luisa out of overwhelming love, but as a reaction to Alison’s presence.
For Alison, the joy of joint custody quickly curdles in the face of Cole’s casual cruelty. “You haven’t exactly become a model of consistency since you’ve come back. You’re still you,” Cole says after she tries to thank him after the hearing. Cole’s words directly echo what Noah told Alison earlier: No matter how confident and strong she becomes, Cole will always see her as “damaged goods.” Later, when Alison returns to Woodlawn at the request of her former psychiatrist, Dr. Parry (Jo Yang), we see a glimpse of the kind of woman Alison once was. She still divorced from her grief, obscuring the other aspects of her personality.
Dr. Parry asks Alison to talk to a young girl named Kendra (Hope Olaide Wilson), who recently lost her daughter and has been on suicide watch. With Kendra, Alison reveals a deep well of emotion, kindness, and a sharp sense of humor. “What did you do?” Kendra asks. “I had an affair,” she replies. Alison laughs at the sheer outlandishness of her answer, but it’s true. Her affair with Noah was always a reaction to her grief. Alison even opens up about wanting to kill herself, then offers a valuable outlook to Kendra in return. “It is incredible to be alive,” she says. “Everyone assumes life is a given, we know it’s not.” This brief scene shows just how much Alison has grown recently. It also makes Cole’s belittling of her mental-health struggles even more damning.
The conversation with Kendra opens up a new possibility for Alison: working as a grief counselor. The logistics aren’t nailed down yet, but Dr. Parry’s offer would allow Alison to use her own struggles to help others. When Alison shares this possibility with Cole, he can only see the logistical problems. He quickly cuts her down, seeing her interest in a new line of work as another sign of her instability. “This is who you are,” he says. “You’re chaos.”
Helen would certainly agree with Cole. She makes a brief appearance in the episode by sitting next to Alison at a local bar, which is both awkward and unsurprising. After all, she’s still trying to prove that she knows Noah best. It does bring up questions about the last episode and the logistics of Noah staying with Helen, but I’m far more interested in the dynamics playing out between Cole and Alison. Despite some subtle differences between their perspectives, there is a seamlessness to how they look at the world that underscores just how much they are meant for each other.
Long stretches of “308” take place in broad daylight, where the characters struggle to put attractive faces on their warring emotions. At night, everything unsaid flourishes, and Cole finally drops the mask he’s cultivated to reveal what truly ails him. He tells Alison the truth: “I built this whole life — I’m building a whole house — just to prove to everyone I don’t love you anymore. That I don’t need you, that I don’t want you, that I don’t miss you. The truth is that I do […] I’m tired of pretending I don’t.” Unfortunately for Cole, this declaration happens in a remarkably unromantic setting: a jail cell.
After the New Jersey police return to Montauk with evidence that his alibi is false, Cole gets aggressive and lands himself in jail. He won’t tell the police or Luisa his true whereabouts, but he tells Alison. He wasn’t in New Jersey to attack Noah that night; he just wanted to talk with Dr. Parry. He needed to make sense of his emotions with Alison and find out about her mental state. Being an ethical doctor, Dr. Parry didn’t give him any answers. After admitting what he did, Cole believes he also has to reveal he slept with Alison. She suggests he just stop pretending. They both know he won’t. “I’m a good man,” Cole says, as if he’s trying to convince himself.
There’s this idea that suffering is imbued with knowledge and nobility. Cole definitely believes it. He stands in opposition to every character on The Affair who indulged their desires with little regard to people they hurt. His need to be seen as good may be noble, but it’s no way to make a life. Why stay with a woman you don’t love? Whose life are you really living? Nothing is as simple as Cole dropping his life with Luisa to return to Alison’s side, especially since he admits he doesn’t trust her anymore.
After finishing this episode, I couldn’t get Alison’s words to Cole off my mind. There’s a haunting quality to them. “I’m always going to be impulsive and depressed with mood swings. I know that I am not an easy person to love,” she says.” But I love you. I always have and I always will.” These words make what happens next all the more heartbreaking. Unable to sleep after lying to Luisa once he got home from jail, Cole finds himself on Alison’s doorstep. It was then I knew he wouldn’t leave Luisa. “If you leave Luisa now, you can’t play the good guy anymore,” Alison tells him. “Then you’re an asshole just like me. But maybe you’re a happy asshole, instead of a miserable hero.”
“308” brims with quiet sorrow. It’s The Affair at its most emotionally honest, with wounded, yearning performances by Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson being a highlight. Despite the simplicity of this episode, there is so much to consider — like Cole’s odd decision to confide in Oscar about his brief affair with Alison, which will come back to haunt him. Nevertheless, I can’t help but keep coming back to Alison and Cole. Their story illuminates how timing, circumstance, and selfishness can ruin a great connection. In another series, they would be the couple who lived happily ever after. In The Affair, that is an impossibility.
When Luisa finds Cole at home the next morning, she’s tearfully surprised. This is the victory she’s yearned for: Cole choosing his present over his history and love for Alison. Of course, it is a hollow victory. Cole looks quietly resigned when he embraces Luisa. Yes, he will start a family with her, finish building their home, and create enough distance from Alison to survive. But at night, when he has no one to face but himself, it will always be Alison he dreams of. No matter where he moves or what happens next, she will always be his home.