Is happiness attainable? Is it ultimately a fleeting emotion, unsustainable for long periods of time? Or does a person choose to trade happiness for comfort and reliability? These questions lurk beneath the surface of this episode. The answers to these questions, as we learn before episode’s end, are complicated and heartbreaking. The Affair really understands heartbreak. It isn’t showy or overly melodramatic here. This is the quiet pain of realizing an ex-lover has moved on, even as you still want them. This is an attempt to plumb the depths of loneliness.
After the unfiltered truth of last episode, The Affair returns to the juxtaposed perspectives of Noah and Alison — with an unexpected catch. The show has jumped a year ahead in time. Alison is struggling on two fronts: She’s raising a child, and she has rediscovered her childhood dream of becoming a doctor. Joanie’s paternity weighs heavily. Is Cole really the father? (The show dances around this question, but it seems to be slowly revealing that he is.) Helen and the hot doctor, Vic Ullah, are still together. They have jettisoned off to Africa for a safari, leaving the kids with Noah. Cole is happy with his life, including his relationship with Luisa, which takes a major step forward. And Noah? Well, he continues to be destructive even when he thinks he has a good handle on things.
The aftermath of Noah’s behavior is more interesting than the man himself because he is such a cliché. This becomes painfully clear after we watch him in a therapy session. (His therapist, Marilyn, is played by none other than Cynthia Nixon.) Alison is supposed to attend the session with him, but she doesn’t show up or answer her phone. When we see her perspective, we learn she’s spending time with Cole instead.
The therapist’s relationship with a patient is very tricky to pull off onscreen. As someone who has been in therapy for more than half of my life, the dynamic in film or television usually feels off. Sometimes a scene is too stagy, or a script trades emotional depth for wordplay. Luckily for The Affair, creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi were previously involved in the great HBO show In Treatment, so it isn’t surprising that the long scene between Marilyn and Noah works well.
The push and pull between them is fascinating. Noah construes her head tilts and calming voice as judgmental — but then again, he thinks every woman in his life judges him. Big surprise there. After he agrees to therapy without Alison, he reveals the reason why he was actually excited to come to the session: He got his divorce-settlement papers … two weeks ago. And he still hasn’t told Alison.
Noah doesn’t think Alison is committed to the idea of their marriage. He’s caught her staring at him, as if she’s trying to make a difficult decision. (Considering the unanswered question of Joanie’s paternity, she probably is.) Once Noah begins confessing, he doesn’t stop. Marilyn prods him to talk about his father, who remained physically faithful to his mother but was emotionally absent. He also left Noah to handle the brunt of his mother’s care as she died. Noah reveals the full extent of the bacchanal party from the last episode: He was coked up, drunk to the gills on bourbon and his own reputation. Apparently, Noah hasn’t been truthful in therapy to Alison. She doesn’t know he almost had sex with Eden or that the only reason why he didn’t involves the borderline incestuous run-in with Whitney that led to their estrangement.
A reductive idea sits at the heart of this all: Noah seems to believe that he can’t be a good man and also be a great man. The former builds healthy relationships with his family; the latter wants to create lasting art, to receive acclaim, and to prioritize his work above all else. Noah is torn between dedicating himself to Alison and being a selfish writer who goes off to France to research his new novel, having sex with whomever and putting his desires first. Noah’s idea of “Great Men” is exactly the sort of pigheaded, mid-century American machismo you’d expect from him.
Of course, he mentions Ernest Hemingway as a great man with great appetites who unapologetically pursued what he wanted. He conveniently forgets to mention Hemingway’s depression or the fact that he killed himself — but Marilyn does. Thank goodness for Cynthia Nixon’s performance. Each of her head tilts and carefully chosen words cut deeply. But I don’t agree with Marilyn that Noah’s struggle with these impulses speaks volumes about his true character. If anything, Noah seems to be looking for a way to excuse his selfishness, to tumble headfirst into the hedonistic life he feels he deserves. Great art can be created by good men, but Noah doesn’t want to be a good man as much as he thinks he does. It isn’t a surprise, later, when he finds Alison at home and doesn’t mention his divorce.
At this point, the only people who are truly happy in The Affair are their exes. We don’t see Helen or know how her relationship with Vic is playing out, but Noah mentions her happiness. When Alison witnesses Cole’s new life, it proves to be a double-edged sword. Instead of going to therapy with Noah, she meets him at a local bar after a class. Given how she’s doing, it doesn’t seem like the best idea. She’s just coming off an odd run-in with Scotty — who obviously still uses drugs — and he seems to know that Joanie is Cole’s kid. She also appears to be abandoning her medical ambitions before truly dedicating herself to it. (I hope she doesn’t drop the class, she really needs something for herself.)
Meanwhile, a lot has changed for Cole. He’s happily living in the city, working construction, and … engaged to Luisa. Before Cole drops that bomb on Alison, I was certain she would tell him that Joanie was his kid. Instead, she pivots to mention her conversation with Scotty. Sure, she’s glad that Cole is better and well-functioning and yes, happy. But it’s clear that a thousand what if? scenarios are playing through her head. When Luisa interrupts their brief get-together, tension rises between them. Luisa is polite, but the glare she gives Alison is cutting. I’d probably look at Alison the same way if I was Luisa.
If Alison had told Cole that Joanie was his daughter, wouldn’t that unravel his happy life? Does Alison want to still be with him? The episode dances around the paternity issue and what it means for Alison. There’s a beautiful shot when Alison closes the glass door of the bar, which overlays her reflection on the image of Luisa and Cole wrapped up with each other. Alison is stuck on the outside. She has to be wondering: Why did I destroy my life for this?
When she gets home, she lies to Noah about where she’s been, and he says he didn’t go through with therapy because they don’t need it. There’s an odd moment later, as they have sex. Again and again, she pants, “I love you.” At first, I believed she was committing to whatever she has with Noah, flaws and all. The more she says it, though, the more desperate it becomes. Is she trying to prove something to herself? The sex is interrupted by Joanie — she starts saying “dada” — and a strange look flashes across Alison’s face when Noah isn’t looking. It’s a look of yearning and regret and confusion.
We also get a few somber flash-forwards that reveal the beginnings of Noah’s trial. It’s a media circus, complete with flashing lights, adoring fans, and jeering detractors. The full weight of what he’s going through seems to have hit him. The episode ends on a curious note: Jon gets the DNA results back after sending Joanie’s swiped pacifier out for a test. He doesn’t say anything definitive, but his reaction suggests trouble. The show may be holding off, but all signs point to Cole being Joanie’s biological father. What I find more interesting, though, is what we see of Noah’s trial.
When Noah sits down in the courtroom, we see a very interesting audience: his father and sister, Alison, Helen, Vic, and Cole’s mother. It becomes clear during Jon’s opening argument that this case isn’t just about Scotty’s death. Noah’s manhood is on trial. The questions from Noah’s therapy session reemerge. Can he be a good man? Does he really want to be? Or does his desire to be a great man sabotage any chance of goodness? If Noah’s face tells us anything, it’s that he still doesn’t have any answers.