Love takes many forms on The Affair: It’s a salve to heal old wounds, a blade to carve new ones, an act of possession, and an obsession. Love is rarely an act of true selflessness, though, and that’s what makes the finale of this second season so startling. The most selfless and caring act comes from the show’s most unlikely character … Noah.
I hate Noah Solloway more than I’ve hated any television character this year. He’s the embodiment of a virulent brand of masculinity that rarely gets checked, if ever. As we watch his perspective, which spans the first of the half of the finale, Noah frames himself in familiar ways: He believes he’s essentially a good and brave man, despite his selfish mistakes. The Affair has spent a lot of time casting Noah as the closest thing it has to a villain, yet the last scene of the season thoroughly absolves him. He stands up in the courtroom and confesses to the murder of Scotty Lockhart, a crime we know he didn’t commit. The ending is such a shock because, perhaps, Noah may be a better man than he previously seemed.
When the episode began, I was a bit taken aback by the return of Noah and Alison’s juxtaposed perspectives. The season has been strongest when it veered away from that standard, whether by turning toward the perspectives of Cole and Helen, or by showing the unvarnished truth. Nonetheless, The Affair has come into its own by sculpting the emotional landscapes of its wounded characters. Showrunner Sarah Treem, who handles writing duties for the finale, depicts many of the touchstones we’ve come to expect from the dueling perspectives: slight changes in wardrobe, radically different takes on essential moments, Noah’s inability to fully understand Alison, and Alison’s life being pulled in many directions. Where it matters most, Treem thankfully confounds our expectations: Alison confesses the truth about Joanie’s paternity to Noah, and the show finally reveals how Scotty died.
Joanie’s paternity has loomed over Alison’s life, and thanks to Scotty’s ongoing threats, it was only a matter of time before she decided to tell Noah. From Noah’s perspective, the moment plays out in expected ways. As Cole and Luisa exchange vows, Alison is overcome with emotion and runs back to the Lobster Roll for solitude. Even if I didn’t believe Alison still harbors romantic feelings for Cole, anyone in her position would be overwhelmed. It’s a difficult, weird situation. Margaret paid for the entire wedding. Helen is a guest. She’s watching her ex-husband marry someone else, and Joanie is his child.
When Noah finds her, she finally tells him the truth. It’s a painful and emotional moment, but Noah’s reaction is particularly odd: “I never cheated on you,” he says. Which … isn’t exactly true. He didn’t straight-up sleep with Eden at the hedonistic party, but he crossed a line with her. Remember, on the book tour, when he let her into his hotel room? Neither his decency nor his decision to stay faithful put a stop to that — Eden simply decided she didn’t want to mix business with pleasure. Why doesn’t he count that as a transgression?
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I never want to see you again,” he says to Alison, ending their confrontation. Even before this petty moment, though, he was treating her rather terribly. He can’t bear the idea of her life outside of the role he’s crafted for her.
For Alison, the confession takes a far more interesting shape. In one of the season’s best scenes, Scotty gets up onstage, ditching his sobriety, and sings a great take on “The House of the Rising Sun.” He’s trying to back Alison into a corner; moments beforehand, he low-key threatened her by asking about Joanie. As he sings, the tension builds and builds. It’s an ominous scene, made even more so by the red lights around the dance floor.
First spoken in a whisper, then after leaning closer to Noah, Alison declares, “Joanie is not your daughter.” No apology. No hysterics. We don’t see much of Noah’s reaction this time, but instead, the shot focuses on Alison’s face as his hand slowly slips from her shoulder. It’s a minute gesture, which makes the moment far more heartbreaking.
The ways each character remembers this scene are so vastly different, it’s almost unbelievable. It works, though, because of Ruth Wilson’s poignant performance and the careful crafting of each perspective. The cinematography is lush throughout the episode, and the decision to hold shots on Alison’s face during pivotal moments is especially smart. In the first season, Wilson appeared almost fetishistically morose. As the show and her character have grown, Alison’s sadness rings more truthful.
Back at the wedding, Scotty’s presence is a disruption even before he decides to start drinking. For a moment, I thought he would behave differently after three months in rehab, but he’s smarmy, selfish, and dangerous. The moment it becomes clear that Cole doesn’t want him to be an immediate partner, he unravels. He starts drinking again after one thing doesn’t go his way, proving Cole to be right.
We don’t see much of Cole in this episode, despite the importance of his wedding. The finale is squarely focused on the evolving dynamics between Alison and Noah. Cole and Alison do share a very tender moment, though, when he admits to her that Luisa can’t have children. This gives Alison the perfect opportunity to tell Cole about Joanie. Instead, she encourages him to commit to Luisa. Why take a chance losing someone you love? After all, love rarely comes in the perfect form you may desire. More than anything else, this scene allows Alison to say good-bye to her past with Cole. It’s heartbreaking.
And finally, we get to the tragedy. Scotty’s death (and the subsequent murder trial) has felt, at times, a peripheral part of the season. The mystery has rarely felt urgent, but the finale makes up for that lack of significance. Noah’s and Alison’s perspectives about the accident that killed Scotty match up; they just shine light on different details.
While driving Noah’s car, Helen strikes and accidentally kills Scotty. She and Noah are both drunk. The tender moment they have shared completely dissolves. The only thing they’re left with is Scotty’s bloodied body.
Alison’s perspective doesn’t contradict Noah’s account of the hit-and-run. Instead, it deepens the tragedy. As Alison walks down a darkened road, she’s confronted by a drunk Scotty, who still thinks he has leverage because of Joanie’s paternity. When his threats fail, Scotty sinks to a new low: He tries to rape her. During the struggle, she pushes him off her and straight into Noah’s car. Yes, Helen is driving. Yes, she tries to keep him in the car. But this time, we see Noah and Alison lock eyes when he goes to look at Scotty’s body. “I pushed him,” she whispers. The look between them is heavy with regret and fear. Yes, it was an act of self-defense, but it will irrevocably shift the shape of people’s lives. Alison and Noah could have told the truth before things unraveled the way they did. But, would Detective Jeffries or the people of Montauk have believed the truth? Would Helen have ever agreed to go along with it?
I kept wondering how Noah and Alison would stay together after she revealed Joanie’s paternity. Ultimately, the tragedy of Scotty’s death binds them together. When she goes back to the Lobster Roll — perhaps her only anchor of normalcy — Noah finds her. On the dance floor, their love carries a new, desperate edge. They need something to hold onto; everything is painfully shifting around them. The flash-forwards briefly suggest that Noah may sellout Alison in order to save himself, in light of new evidence found by Detective Jeffries that places her at the crime scene. Given how ugly things got between them after Alison’s confession, I thought that was a distinct possibility. After all, Noah admitted he didn’t want to have a child with Alison and initially believed that Joanie was an attempt to trap him. It’s the kind of blindly selfish, egotistical logic I’ve come to expect from Noah, which makes it all the more surprising to see him lie about killing Scotty to protect Alison and Helen.
Maybe it’s impossible for Noah to truly understand Alison. How well can we really know the people we love, after all? What if they don’t really understand themselves? Noah does see some of Alison, though, and he loves what he sees deeply enough to protect her — even at the cost of ruining his own life. When his love life goes awry, his instinct is to escape both emotionally and physically, but Scotty’s death binds him to Alison in inescapable ways. They’re both forced to realize how essential they are for each other.
I’ve never been a fan of Noah or his relationship with Alison. I tend to think Alison should be single, find some new friends, and develop a part of her life that really belongs to her. (That last part, at least, seems to be happening with the Lobster Roll.) After Noah’s public confession, though, the look they share amid the courtroom uproar goes a long way to justify their love.
“Can love save us?” seems to be the crucial question of the finale. It has no easy answers. Love is a fragile, dangerous thing on The Affair. Falling in love may not save yourself, but perhaps, it can help you save others.