Watching Cole and Alison interact in this episode brought to mind a passage in Janet Fitch’s wonderfully lush novel White Oleander: “I thought how tenuous the links were between mother and children, between friends, family, things you think are eternal.” Episode 202 circles around the question, how do we find closure when the bonds we thought were eternal break down? Cole is a character I have never been able to get a handle on. He comes across as unhinged one moment and deeply caring the next, so I was very curious to see how he presents himself. Showrunner Sarah Treem places his memories side-by-side against Alison’s, which brings up a lot of interesting questions about what we’ve seen of him thus far.
Alison’s chapter opens with her waking up to Noah greeting her before going into the city. She worries what people think of her. Do their landlords think she’s his wife? Girlfriend? Do they know their history at all? She also learns that Harry has no idea she’s even staying with Noah in the cabin, which leads to an interesting exchange:
Alison: Who am I to you?
Noah: You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.
They exchange I love you’s and look at each other passionately, but that exchange lingers throughout the entire episode because Noah doesn’t so much answer her but cleverly bypasses her question. I think Alison wants to know who she is to Noah so badly because she doesn’t know who she is to herself.
The beginning of Alison’s chapter feels as lost and listless as she does. The toilet is broken so there’s an unnecessary, weirdly drawn out moment of her peeing outside. She can’t find anything to do in the cabin. She looks at Noah’s manuscript, which is dedicated to her, but doesn’t read it. She goes into town first by walking, then eventually gets a ride from one of her landlords, Robert. She sadly looks at young boys playing in a park. She eats at a diner, stumbling to ask the young waitress how much she makes, but is too anxious to admit she’s looking for a job. It’s all boring — beautifully shot moments with very little meaning.
Perhaps I’m being a bit too hard on Alison. Maybe because she reminds me of friends I’ve had in real life constantly looking for direction and identity in the eyes of others (usually men). Maybe because what I once saw as a fragile, aching woman has given way to someone who feels incomplete and passive. It’s hard to care about characters who don’t even care about themselves.
Things get interesting when she comes back home to find an unwelcome guest: Cole. (Does no one lock their doors?) To say their interactions are tense is an understatement. Cole looks tired but not rundown. His burgundy shirt clashes with the bright cerulean dress Alison wears. He harshly flips through Noah’s manuscript.
The way he says “Ali” sounds like an insult, an accusation. When he charges at Alison, cornering her in the door frame, the show jolts to life. But he’s toying with her, seemingly finding enjoyment in her fear.
When he goes to get his tools to fix the toilet (I’m not sure if this is a kind gesture or a way to further underscore how different his masculinity is from Noah’s), Alison nervously waits outside only for Robert’s wife, Yvonne, to arrive with a care basket. Yvonne is a certain breed of rich, white, Upper West Sider and looks as out of place as Alison looks anxious.
“It’s a horrible thing to love a writer. All their secret worlds … their fantasies,” Yvonne says after asking Alison if she’s read Noah’s manuscript (he doesn’t want her to). Which I don’t really agree with, but I do see this in a certain kind of man whose identity and relationships are distinctly tied to his self-worth as a writer.
Cole appears before Yvonne leaves to let Alison know the toilet is fixed. There’s a cringeworthy moment where Yvonne asks Alison if Cole is single, thinking he’d be a good fit for her niece. “She’s like me. She has a terrible weakness for a guy with rough hands,” she says.
Before Cole leaves he brings a small chest obviously once owned by their dead son and tosses off harshly, “Of course you didn’t mean to leave that.” Alison recoils further into herself and flinches when Yvonne tries to touch it. Perhaps sensing Alison’s history with Cole is more than just “old friends” or her loneliness, Yvonne invites Alison over.
At their home, Robert offers Alison a job working as their personal assistant, which she gladly accepts. Whatever good mood she has from this new development tanks when Noah comes home in a sour mood. He complains in great detail about his day in the city. He’s openly afraid that he’ll be “broke, jobless, homeless” and without the custody of his kids because Harry apparently won’t publish the book. I honestly have very little sympathy for Noah especially because he’s increasingly rude. What does she really see in him?
As the scene continues he grows even more brutal toward Alison. He needles her about selling her old home, when she has no intentions of doing so. He flips out when he finds his manuscript shoved in a drawer, accusing her of reading it. Of course she doesn’t admit the truth as to why she put it away (or how the toilet was fixed) because then she would have to admit Cole was there earlier.
Instead of being happy Alison has a new job, he’s a seething, screaming mess. He believes she’s crossing a boundary by working for people who are technically their landlords. Get over it, Noah. Someone in the household needs to make money. When he comes back inside, his way to apologize, to reconnect, is of course with sex. “I just want you to be happy,” he murmurs as if he’s on the edge of tears right before he unzips his pants. They have sex (no foreplay included) against the kitchen counter. There’s no way that sex is good enough to put up with him.
Outside, in a better mood, they eat dinner, and there’s a telling look that crosses Alison’s face when Noah decides to make a toast to their relationship. That look makes me wonder how we get from this Alison to the Alison we see in the future who has a child and a happier life.
Alison’s chapter ends by flash forwarding with her at court, baby daughter in tow, having an ugly run-in with Jon. He acts like he doesn’t know her at first, then lays the condescension on thick. “I’m his wife now,” Alison says. “Yes. We’re all painfully aware of that,” Jon counters. Alison didn’t even know Noah accepted him as a lawyer and that Helen was paying for it until that moment. Alison may be Noah’s wife now, but it’s clear everyone else treats her like his mistress, an interloper playing make believe with a life that isn’t really hers.
In his chapter, Cole comes off as an almost-tragic figure. He looks like he hasn’t bathed in weeks. He’s cut off ties with most of his family. He does cocaine to stay awake moments after falling asleep at the wheel and nearly getting into a wreck. There’s still something toxic about him, but it mostly hurts himself.
The chapter opens with Cole driving an unlikely customer, Bruce, Helen’s father. Bruce is just as full of himself and pompous as I remember him being in season one. The cab ride is a way for the writers to give us a peek into some chaos that is about to befall the Butler/Solloway household. Bruce is planning to leave Margaret. It’s pretty disgusting hearing Bruce go on and on about what he deserves and cheating on Margaret (who I think is just as toxic as he is, but still). Cole’s interest is only piqued when Bruce mentions his son-in-law, although not by name, perhaps catching on he’s talking about Noah, whom Bruce describes as “someone destined to fail.”
Later, Scotty tracks down Cole, imploring him to think of his family, and even asking if he’s selling the house he owns with Alison since everyone is in dire need. This doesn’t go over well, and Cole threatens to run him over.
When he goes back home he mistakenly thinks the figure he sees in the window is Alison. Instead, it is her former co-worker, Jane, just getting Alison’s belongings. Cole cruelly corners Jane into giving him Alison’s address. Which made me think he’d be the same way when he finally gets to see Alison. Instead, the show adopts a surprisingly heartfelt tenor.
Alison isn’t home, but Cole walks right in. He’s more disheveled, tired. When Alison arrives she looks great and very well put together, albeit casually dressed. Instead of looking at the uninvited Cole with fear, she seems happy to see him. There’s no mention of the broken toilet. No Cole haphazardly going through Noah’s manuscript. Just two former lovers saying a somber good-bye to the life they once shared. Cole asks her if Noah is good to her. She says he is. I almost believe her.
They discuss a good day from their past, and to me it became painfully clear the differences in their memories. Cole is looking for closure. Just before he leaves he asks, “Are you ever coming home?” “I don’t think so,” she says. It’s what he needs to hear to move on. Alison warmly embraces him before he drives off. They promise to keep in touch.
When he leaves he finally gets some sleep.
I still think when people’s memories diverge greatly in The Affair, they may be actively lying to themselves. Memory isn’t fact, which the show continues to underscore. But there is a difference between misremembering what someone is wearing, or the exact words they said, and rewriting your interactions as a whole. Cole’s memory feels like a story he told himself in order to move on from Alison. It’s too shockingly different from what happens in her memory to be anything else. Or is Alison making Cole seem like such an abusive, toxic partner in order to come to terms with her own decisions?
When the show flash forwards to show Cole’s presence at the hearing, announcing Noah’s charges, we see just how much progress that closure has given him. He looks put together and like he’s actually sleeping on a regular basis. He seems comfortable talking to Alison and being introduced to her baby daughter.
The ending feels very ominous. The camera inches closer and closer toward Cole as he silently watches Alison in the courtroom. This may signal that he knows more about Scotty’s death than he’s letting on. So, what is Cole hiding?
* An earlier version of this recap misidentified Yvonne as Evaughn.