What comes to mind when you think of Thanksgiving? If you get along with your family, you may think of warm memories, but many people don’t. Thanksgiving isn’t always a celebration. It can also be a painful time to dredge up old wounds and create new ones. That’s why I haven’t spent Thanksgiving (or any holidays) with relatives for years. Based on this episode of The Affair, maybe Alison and Cole should take up my policy.
While I still don’t think The Affair lives up to the Fiona Apple song that opens each episode, the show has steadily improved in recent weeks. It isn’t just because of the introduction of Cole and Helen’s perspectives, either. The show seems to have become what it wants to be and is using its unique framing device in effective ways. It’s evolving, challenging expectations, and has developed a captivating energy. Finally.
This episode opens from Alison’s perspective at an upscale literary party. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade floats just beyond the window. Alison looks extremely uncomfortable in a crowd full of New York’s literary elite — the kind of people who casually mention Philip Roth — and include the likes of Jonathan Franzen, who ends up throwing off their Thanksgiving dinner by inviting Noah out off-screen. It’s only when Alison walks across the room toward Noah that we realize that the show has jumped forward in time — and she is pregnant.
Alison now has a swanky lifestyle that reeks of all the modern trappings money can buy, but she looks as lonely as ever. That comfort comes with costs: the prying eyes of a gossip columnist, a place in the margins of Noah’s life except where it concerns her role as a muse, and her ongoing loss of self. Alison’s perspective feels haunted by the fact that Noah is putting himself — and his book — ahead of their relationship.
What’s surprising is that her mother, Athena, is the voice of reason. She asks worthwhile, yet cutting questions at every turn of their dinner preparations. Why hasn’t Noah’s home office been turned into a nursery for the child? Why would Alison sell her home? Is she making a mistake for herself and her child by staying with Noah? How can she expect him to be present as a partner and as a father when he can’t even arrive home on time for Thanksgiving dinner? Athena can be a narrow-minded, cloying woman. I understand Alison’s frustration with her mother. But unlike Cole’s mother, Athena knows she’s made bad decisions and doesn’t have much to give her daughter, which is why she convinced her parents to leave the home to her. That generosity makes Alison and Cole’s decision to sell the home a hard truth to handle.
I’ve long felt Alison needs a good friend to give her the advice she can’t give herself. Though Athena is giving her worthwhile advice, it’s unlikely Alison will accept it. And Alison’s friend, Jane, is too busy flirting with Max — yes, that Max — to provide needed support.
The images that stick with me from this episode all center on the domestic tragedies around Thanksgiving dinner. Alison’s simmering animosity toward Noah comes to a boil after he arrives late with his publicist Eden, sans turkey. Their first Thanksgiving is obviously important to her — she uses recipes from her grandmother’s 1927 cookbook, after all.
Maybe that’s why she reveals that she read Noah’s book and is upset with the ways he characterizes her. He can keep saying it’s fiction as often as he wants, but it’s obvious how much he based his writing on his own life. Of course, Noah blames Harry for the editing. Of course, he won’t take responsibility for Alison’s difficult position. And of course, their relationship remains toxic.
What’s interesting is that the argument feels somewhat meta, as if the show’s writers are arguing about the differences between Noah’s perspective, his book, and Alison’s memory. Did she throw herself at him or did he instigate the affair? Did he watch her have sex with Cole without her knowledge, or was she putting on a show for him? Does the absolute truth ultimately matter when these dramatically different memories speak to deep problems within their relationship? The fact that Alison refuses to lower her voice, play nice, or even hold off until they’re alone reveals she doesn’t trust Noah as much as I previously thought she did.
The holidays can bring up the painful, personal dynamics we’re afraid to face. For Alison, that means she’s wrestling with the decision to lose herself in her relationship with Noah. For Cole, that means he’s trying to figure out his life without Alison.
By moving the story forward a few months, we’re also able to get to the meat of conflicts while inching closer to the murder trial that’s been hinted at throughout that season. We don’t really get to see how the beginnings of Noah and Lucia’s relationship play out, though, which is unfortunate. We’re only a few months in and Lucia is already whispering “I love you” during sex with Cole. To make matters even worse, Cole loses his erection because of her declaration. Rather than talk about it, though, he accuses her of stealing money from him.
Cole often vacillates between stoic and passionate. When he pushes Lucia away, it’s obviously a defense mechanism. He ends up trying to avoid the threatening dynamics in his relationship by going to Thanksgiving dinner at his estranged family’s home … and that proves to be a terrible idea. Family traditions feel sinister. Scotty continues to be underhanded. Cole’s mother, Cherry, believes that what Noah wrote is actually right. They’re more dysfunctional than Cole had ever known; the wounds are rooted in the transgressions of his grandfather, who sparked their feud with the Hodges by killing a child.
To make matters worse for Cole, Scotty continues to be the human embodiment of trash. He presents his constant pestering under the guise of caring for the family, but let’s be real: Scotty is selfish as hell. He wants the money from the sale of the home to help himself, not to help his family. You can’t deny his skeeviness once Whitney rolls in, as Scotty and Cole are arguing outside. She doesn’t get whatever sort of reaction she’s looking for from Scotty. She foolishly loves him and believes that he loves her too. Oh, girl. I’ve ragged on Noah and Helen’s parenting skills — sometimes a little too harshly — but they deserve it when it comes to Whitney.
I like that Whitney infuses the show with sparks of chaos, but she is just so shrill. Why does this show fail to write children or teenagers all that well? It’s certainly possible to do so; just look at The Americans.
Cole has the best line of the night, as he drives Whitney back into the city: “Just because you love somebody does not mean they have to love you back.” I think he’s talking to Whitney as much as he’s talking to himself. Does that mean he’s truly investing in his relationship with Lucia?
Cole is a man haunted by the past: the mistakes of his father and his father before him, the death of his son, the dissolution of his marriage with Alison. Even when we see him on the doorstep of Lucia’s family apartment in Queens, we know his joy isn’t long for this world. As much as I enjoy watching them together, I can’t deny wanting to see him with Alison again. Though, to be honest, my true desire is to see Alison on her own — but I don’t think she’s brave enough to do that. I’m also not sure the show is bold enough to let Alison be single, even if it’s what must happen for her to realize what she really wants.
Considering what we learn in this week’s flash-forwards, Alison really needs to reassess her own desires. I thought these flash-forwards — which are now completely divorced from the perspective of any of the four main characters — would be as perfunctory as they’ve been throughout the season, but the writers dropped a bomb on us by essentially confirming that Cole is the father of Alison’s daughter.
So, what’s next after introducing the idea that Alison’s daughter is likely Cole’s? Does she also know and believe it? Does Noah have any clue? Is this a chance for Alison and Cole to get back together? As the show closes the gap on its timelines, we’re going to get difficult answers to these questions very soon. If there’s one thing I’ve learned while watching The Affair, it’s that the supposedly solid beliefs we share with our families are constantly eroding.