A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend parsing out our mixed feelings about The Affair. Here’s what we realized: The Affair has no central theme or authoritative artistic point of view. It’s not that The Affair provides easy answers — it’s that the show isn’t asking the right questions in the first place. Episode three of this season is the first time I felt like The Affair had anything thematically meaningful to say about love, divorce, and relationships. (Maybe with the exception being Helen’s perspective. More of her, please.) This episode goes back to the set up from season one comparing the perspectives of Noah and Alison.
Noah’s chapter begins exactly where his head seems to usually be: Sex. We hear him and Alison having sex before we see them on the couch in their cabin. But this sex scene is very different from others because he seems to lack confidence in his skills and the relationship as a whole. He slows down, reading a look on her face as discomfort. But all Alison wants him to do is to finish, which seems rather telling. Even though they keep having sex the awkwardness lingers. I wondered after watching it, did Alison fake her orgasm?
They have an exchange right afterwards that plays as flirtatious, but the words say otherwise.
Noah: You’re a real sphinx, you know that?
Alison: Is that a compliment?
Noah decides he’s going to take a swim in the saltwater pool on the property and teases Alison to join, even joking about dragging her in. She flips out about it and seems scared about getting in the water. This scene sets the tone for everything to come, especially in regards to water (and drowning), which reverberates throughout the entire episode in different ways.
When he comes back inside, Alison is getting dressed to go to dinner at Robert and Yvonne’s. Noah’s in no rush to get ready. He expresses his love of living in the cabin with Alison, wanting to stay in this paradise forever. He says he’ll get rich off writing books (good luck with that), and Alison asks what she’ll be doing the whole time. “You’ll be my muse,” he says with a smile. Alison may be the type who needs someone else to guide her life, but even she seems to bristle at this proposition.
Despite the fact that Noah obviously feels nervous about his place in Alison’s life (they’ve only been living in the cabin for six weeks), he thinks now is the perfect moment to propose. Her reaction to the ring and his romantic platitudes is a mix of fear and confusion. She says yes anyway. But if you have to keep asking your partner “Are you sure?” after the engagement, maybe you shouldn’t get married.
Dinner takes a weird turn when Yvonne asks how they met. Alison takes the lead. She was dazzled to meet a “real writer.” Even though she admits she’s not much of a reader, which Noah disputes. (How much do you really know about the woman you love, Noah?) Alison lies, saying they met in Montauk at a lighthouse while Noah was doing research for his book. The lighthouse is an interesting detail since it recalls a conversation she had with Cole in his perspective last week. Alison is an evocative liar. It’s the kind of story you hear at parties and grow jealous over. Noah looks surprised at Alison’s ease with this.
Yvonne and Robert have no idea that Noah is still technically married with four kids. But Alison’s story doesn’t help Noah’s fear that he doesn’t really know Alison, and that she’s hiding things from him.
After dinner, Noah and Yvonne talk one-on-one about his book. Noah admits he’s having an issue with the ending. “At some point fate takes over a story and even the author himself loses control,” Yvonne says of his writing troubles.
Noah loses control when Whitney bursts in, interrupting his conversation. Whitney’s presence tarnishes the story Alison told and Noah’s reputation with his hosts. Damn. Bad for him, but great for us. The show finally has some venom to it.
Back at their cabin, Whitney is spinning out of control. She reminds Noah he has a family he left for what? Alison, a woman he barely knows. Whitney’s anger toward Noah is completely justified, but she’s still a shrill mess. Whitney gives us the best line of the night when Noah tells her she needs to act like an adult: “I’m sorry I don’t know any adults. How do they behave?” Touché.
Bless her heart, Alison tries to be helpful, but when Whitney sees the engagement ring things only get worse. Whitney charges at Alison, and Noah uses force to get her away. A line is crossed. Alison waits outside while Noah comforts Whitney.
When Noah comes outside, Alison brings up several good points, which amount to really one question: What they hell are they really doing? Sure, everything is fine at the cabin, but what happens when they return to real world? Of course, Noah has no plan. He fesses that he can’t seem to get a read on Alison lately. He’s desperate for her to trust him, expressing that there is nothing she can say that will make him not love her. She pushes that last point in a few ways. First, admitting she had sex with Oscar the day Noah came back to Montauk. Okay, he doesn’t like it, but he can handle it. Things take a dark turn when she reveals she tried to kill herself in the recent past by walking into the ocean to drown. But what finally pisses him off is when she admits Cole came to the cabin to drop off her things.
She offers the engagement ring back, which he interprets as Alison trying to get rid of him. “I want to start my life over again with you,” he says. But can anyone really start over?
The next day, Whitney agrees to not tell Helen about Alison living there. Apparently, she wants to live with Noah full time, finding life with Helen and Margaret depressing. I’m not sure I buy it.
The episode continues to surprise when Noah and Max meet up over coffee. Noah has no idea Max is dating Helen now. And Max has no intention of telling him, but he does seem eager for the divorce to go through. It gets even more excruciating when Max emails his accountant about giving Noah a gift of 50 grand. It’s clear this gift wasn’t without consequence when Noah arrives at mediation to find the door locked. He’s served with an action for divorce from Helen. Does this have to do with Max? Or did Whitney tell Helen the truth?
One thing that is clear from Noah’s perspective is he looks at Alison as unknowable and isn’t sure where he really fits in her life. Noah spends the whole episode trying to get a read on her, and I’m not sure he ever does.
What I found striking in this episode is that the Alison in his perspective for the first time feels like a real person, not a femme fatale he’s conjured up to play his muse. In her own mind, Alison is defined by grief and even an inability to know herself. This episode marks the first time we see a glimmer of that Alison in the way Noah remembers her.
Alison’s chapter starts a bit later, when they’re already at Robert and Yvonne’s for dinner. She looks unhappily at her new engagement ring. Yvonne is increasingly nosy and unfiltered (must be the wine). Noah freely admits he has four kids from his previous marriage and that he doesn’t want any more, which shocks Alison. Yvonne notices and even calls her out. Thankfully, Robert takes the wine away from Yvonne and ends her line of questioning.
Unsurprisingly, Alison’s perspective has dramatic differences from Noah’s. But it feels like their memories are both circling similar issues. Noah wants Alison to open up, to be fully knowable. Alison feels Noah can’t fully understand her, especially when it comes to her grief and guilt about her son. Of course, there are the same broad incidents overlapping between the two chapters, including Whitney’s surprise appearance. Again, it is Alison who sees her first.
Back at the cabin, this time Alison is inside looking over her son’s trunk, which she keeps hidden. Whitney argues with Noah outside, although we do get to hear a few choice words she uses to describe Alison (none of them kind). Another reversal: Alison goes out to Noah after Whitney finally cools down.
Again, Alison wonders out loud if they’re making a mistake. Again, she offers the engagement ring back. But Noah doesn’t go to extraordinary lengths to convince her that they should be together. No mention of her suicide attempt or Cole either. Yet, she still stays.
The next morning Whitney seems way too nice to Alison, even going so far as to make her breakfast. That’s because she’s in love with Scotty and wants his number. When Alison refuses, Whitney’s kindness disappears. I know I’ve read theories that Whitney is the one who killed Scotty, and this scene adds fuel to that.
The rest of Alison’s chapter revolves around a weird plotline where Yvonne wants Robert to get rid of his half-wolf dog, Pete, who killed a neighbor’s chickens. The subplot is obviously a way to comment on the aspects of ourselves we sacrifice to keep a marriage working. It’s just such a strange choice. Alison joins Robert in looking for the dog, which gives her a chance to open up.
Alison admits to Robert she’s not all that interested in getting married again and is mostly doing this for Noah. Which leads her to discuss her dead son, Gabriel. She talks about how Gabriel died of secondary drowning. Alison feels guilty because she didn’t realize how sick he was and took him to the hospital. Apparently, Noah only knows part of this.
Robert acts as a father figure to Alison. He discusses how he messed up his first marriage by wanting his ex-wife to know everything about him, and when she didn’t understand something, he felt it wasn’t true love. “Being alive is essentially a very lonely proposition,” he says. That actually sounds like Alison’s own worldview. Robert thankfully decides against killing Pete, but fires the gun to scare him off (and convince Yvonne).
Realizing that people are essentially unknowable is very freeing for Alison, which makes her decision to get into the pool on her own feel significant. Maybe she’s found some peace. Noah joins in her swim. Unsurprisingly, they start having sex. But there’s a very odd moment when it looks like Robert is watching them from the distance and Alison notices. But they don’t stop.
The end to Alison’s chapter offers the only flash forward this week. She joins Noah in Jon’s office, discussing his case. Noah recounts the night, admitting he wanted to kill Scotty since he got Whitney pregnant. The murder mystery aspect of The Affair has mostly felt like an afterthought this season. But considering what Jon says about needing to find who did kill Scotty, the show is going to make that more central going forward.