Last week, I said that The Affair finally hit its stride, creating a wholly satisfying episode with a clear theme and some venom to it. I spoke too soon. Episode four decides to prove me very, very wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever been more infuriated with this show. Helen’s perspective, which begins the episode, doubles down on some of the worst aspects of The Affair, particularly the emptiness and morose emotionality. There were a few worthwhile developments, so it isn’t an utterly pointless episode.
The first chapter is from Helen’s perspective, beginning during divorce proceedings. Jon eviscerates Noah, recounting his most recent transgressions. It first seems that Noah and his lawyer are hopelessly outmatched and he’ll lose custody. The scene pivots when the judge hears Helen’s financial details — the worth of her Park Slope brownstone, the kids’ private schooling — and seems to side more with Noah. But is Noah really going after her money? Or is this just his way of getting leverage in the custody?
From here on, Helen’s perspective is a series of misfires, embarrassments, and tragedies. The writers are trying to show how important it is for Helen not to mess up, how she doesn’t get the same leeway Noah does, and their respective issues as parents. Unfortunately, this episode feels as much of a misfire as Helen’s day. If the goal was for me to start hating her, congratulations.
Helen comes home to deal with Margaret (self-involved, per usual) parading around the house with her newly dyed red hair. Margaret doesn’t ask how things went at court, but she has good reason to be preoccupied. Bruce left her for one of his former students, confirming that conversation we saw between him and Cole earlier this season. Things don’t really start to spiral until Margaret leaves with Whitney and Max comes over. He’s cleared his schedule to spend a long lunch with her, bearing orchids and a gift.
Max’s gift is a weeklong trip to Buenos Aires meant for the holiday season, after the divorce is settled. Helen’s reaction is far more muted than he desires. She feels too much is up in the air to plan that far ahead. I get where she’s coming from. But I think her decision has less to do with the divorce and more to do with not actually being that invested in the relationship with Max.
Things go from uncomfortable to heated when Max casually mentions he gave Noah $50,000, partially in hopes of speeding up the divorce. Maybe this reveals to Helen something about Max’s character that pushes her over the edge? Money can’t solve everything. So she breaks up with him awkwardly. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t take it well and leaves Helen on a rather bitter note: “No one can make you fucking happy.” I think this applies to all the characters on The Affair, if we’re being honest.
What does Helen do to ease the pain for a little while? Drink too much white wine and take that pot lozenge Max gave her previously. To say she’s a mess is an understatement. We’ve all been through rough times, right? But the way Helen handles her pain reveals a bitterness and ugliness about her I hadn’t seen previously.
Helen, still drunk and high, goes into her store. (Have they really not made a profit in two years?) When she notices the only customer, a black woman keeping to herself, I knew this was going to take a nosedive. Helen is determined to get her to buy these (most likely) overpriced glass containers to hold vinegar and oil. The black woman isn’t feeling it, especially as Helen gets more aggressive by the second. The cashier gently tries to tell Helen the woman isn’t interested. Instead of getting the message, Helen basically chases the black woman out of the store and calls her an “aging Botox hipster bitch.”
Not content to have just one uncomfortable, questionable run-in with a black woman in the episode, the writers double down on the discomfort when Helen goes to the salon to get her hair dyed. By this point, Helen is even more messed up, the world blurring around her. The whole time the hairdresser tries do her work, Helen is emotionally, embarrassingly excessive. She admits to taking the pot lozenge to explain why she’s acting unhinged and can’t sit still. She spills details about her divorce, looking for camaraderie but landing on a mix of pity and disdain. When Helen asks the hairdresser if she heard her queef, I thought the episode couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong.
There’s a moment when Helen looks in the mirror and sees not herself but Margaret. It’s an unsubtle but apt comparison. The episode underscores just how similar Helen is to her mother in ways that she shouldn’t be proud of (white, rich, privileged women who take things out on people who can’t do anything to them, growing more shrill and self-involved by the second). Was the point of all this to pity Helen? Be disgusted by her? All the ire ends up being pointed toward black women and/or people in service to her or completely below her tax bracket, creating weird questions about classism on the show.
Helen sobers up (slightly) when she gets a call from her son, Trevor, about picking him and Stacey up. Helen apparently has her days confused, thinking Noah is going to pick them up. It’s another (self-made) fiasco she has to contend with. She throws money at the hairdresser and runs out with a smock still on and the bleach still in her hair. Are we supposed to find humor in this?
Once Helen arrives to pick up her kids, things go from bad (crashing into the car behind her to back out of a handicap spot, which gets Stacey a nasty bruise) to terrible (realizing she has marijuana in her purse as a cop arrives on the scene asking for her identification) to mortifying (getting arrested in front of her kids). To make matters worse, Noah arrives, looking like the hero, to see Helen in the back of a cop car. Even with all these terribly minute tragedies happening to Helen, there was one question running through my head the whole episode: Why should I care about any of this?
Brief aside: I can’t say enough how much I loathe the Solloway kids. When Trevor wrestles with Helen over the purse to give to the cop, I wanted to somehow jump into my screen and slap him myself. They’re annoying, empty ciphers that the writers expect audiences to care for because their parents are going through an ugly divorce. But it’s hard to give a damn about characters who have no interiority.
Helen’s chapter ends with her in jail, and yes, the bleach is still in her hair.
Noah’s chapter begins with him forlornly looking at a picture of his family while his lawyer argues on his behalf in court. In Noah’s perspective, his finances are apparently good enough that he has an actual plan for changing his living situation to support his kids, since a cabin in the woods isn’t going to cut it. The judge is harsher on Noah here, probably because he stupidly goes against his lawyer’s advice and admits that Alison will be living with him. The judge implores Helen and Noah to act like adults and come up with a custody plan, one on one. Good luck with that. The only people they’re really hurting are their kids, after all. The judge puts in effect a court order preventing Alison from having any contact with Noah’s kids, which squanders their plan to get a place in the city at least for a few months.
“I don’t think we can live together … for right now,” Noah says to Alison over lunch after court. This is moments after Alison exuberantly talks about their realtor and the place she thinks will be perfect for them. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks. Oh, Alison, that’s a question you should be asking yourself, not Noah.
“I don’t want to be alone,” she says. Alison suggests giving Helen what she wants: full custody. Which sparks an argument with Noah that’s cut short when he gets the phone call from Helen about her arrest.
For the most part, Helen and Noah’s perspectives overlap here. The only noticeable differences are Stacey having a gash instead of ugly bruise on her forehead, and Helen being a bit more inebriated. From the back of the cop car, she asks Noah, “Why do you get to fuck up and I don’t?” Good question. But at the end of the day, they have four kids — she can’t afford to mess up like that.
At the brownstone, Noah notices a few things that contradict Helen’s perspective, which make it seem like she did have sex with Max before the breakup. We don’t have much time to linger on that because Noah decides to take his kids to stay with his family instead of spending the night in the brownstone.
This is our first time encountering his father, and sister Nina. The scenes between them are brief, but it gives us a good sketch of where he stands with his family, and it isn’t pretty. It’s clear that Noah and his father aren’t on good terms. The tense relationship Noah has with his father acts as a parallel for what’s going on with his oldest son, Martin.
Everything with Noah’s family feels predictable. His father calmly tells him he’s a selfish man for not being able to resist the temptation of the affair. Nina questions his desire for full custody even though she’s clear about never being fond of Helen. Of course Noah gets angry, and instead of putting his children’s needs before his own ego, he decides they’ll leave even though they don’t really have anywhere to go.
They end up at a motel, where Martin seems sick, but that plotline fizzles out quickly. Alison comes by with beer to comfort Noah and asks, “What’s going to happen to us?” Honestly, I’m not sure I care after this episode.
Noah’s perspective ends with a flash-forward dealing with his murder trial. Jon isn’t able to convince the judge to get the trial moved out of Suffolk. Last week, I thought The Affair would start to center more on the mystery surrounding Scotty’s murder. But this story line seems to have become more of an afterthought in recent episodes, to the point where I’m left wondering why it’s even still around.
One of the most glaring things in both perspectives this week is the utter lack of self-awareness of these characters. In their own minds, Noah and Helen are victims of other people’s mistakes. That makes sense on a lot of levels. Most people don’t see themselves clearly, especially when it comes to what they’ve done wrong. But for The Affair, that often leads to more frustration than insight. I admit I hated this episode, but I hope the writers can find their footing again because there are a lot of fascinating directions this season can still go in.