No two characters on The Affair are more different than Helen and Alison. Despite their shared traumas (being married to Noah and the murder of Scotty Lockhart, take your pick), these women don’t share much in common and there is definitely no love lost between them. But in this episode, which takes place a year earlier and splits itself between their perspectives, it’s clear that these women share something fundamental: a deep well of loneliness that they have yet to reckon with.
Loneliness is a hunger we all try to fill. Some of us screw around, making one self-destructive mistake after the other. Some of us isolate ourselves, further recoiling from the glimmers of connection we find because it has become a language we no longer know how to speak. Ultimately, no matter its method, loneliness is a snake eating its own tail. It always leads back to itself. This is the main problem for every character on The Affair. They’re so desperate to try to fix that loneliness, they continue isolating themselves until the only worldview they understand is their own. They’re lost in the murkiness of their own sorrow. As frustrating as these characters can be, I can’t outright hate them since their foibles are so tragically human. (Well, except for Noah. It’s easy to hate him.) Written by Anya Epstein and directed by John Dahl, “302” considers how loneliness warps the human spirit and the numerous ways we try to alleviate it.
Some of the ways we see characters deal with loneliness proves to be ultimately self-defeating. Take, for example, Helen’s nebulous relationship with Vik, the surgeon who operated on her oldest son last season. The episode begins with a heated, intimate sex scene between them, but things take a jarring turn when Helen leaves his apartment and walks up the stairs to reveal she’s in her own brownstone. Wait, what? Apparently, Vik and Helen have a pretty uneven arrangement: He’s renting her basement and their relationship remains undefined. When she’s asked about it by a work colleague, Helen unconvincingly says, “I’ve never been happier.” It’s obvious she isn’t. She’s overwhelmed by being a single mother. She struggles while visiting Noah in prison, seeing him with a black eye and facing the truth that he doesn’t really want her in his life unless their children are involved. Helen’s loneliness is rooted deeply in her feelings of powerlessness and having little space of her own. So she tries to control what she can: her not-quite relationship with Vik, her work life, and Whitney.
While this episode puts in sharp relief the ways that Helen and Alison are emotionally unfulfilled by the men in their life, the moments between other women are the most telling. Whitney, as has been demonstrated over three seasons, can’t actually be controlled despite Helen’s best efforts, but she reliably brings the drama. Vik and Helen attend a dinner to meet Whitney’s mysterious new boyfriend, who proves to be any mother’s worst nightmare. He lives in some large warehouse apartment in Greenpoint. His walls are lined with his photographs, all of which are black-and-white close-ups of women’s various body parts. A breast here. A vulva there. This sets the stage for a brief, mortifying dinner. When we finally met him, I shared Helen’s face of utter disappointment. (Vik’s reactions proved to be more hilarious, though.) He’s around Helen’s age and goes by the name Furkat. Yes, Whitney is dating and living with a photographer who is her father’s age and goes by the name Furkat. Whitney acts as his girlfriend and assistant, shunning her dreams as if that somehow proves her maturity. The argument that erupts between mother and daughter brings to light their most essential flaws: Whitney’s immaturity and Helen’s inability to reckon with her past or her continued loyalty to Noah.
This scene feels like a mordantly funny chance for The Affair to mock the hermetically sealed, privileged lives of its characters. The shot of Vik and Helen in the cab with Furkat’s photograph of a woman’s hairy vulva between them is the punch line. Helen’s issues feel both unnerving and hilarious to watch. But they didn’t capture my interest like Alison’s did.
As unnerving and hilarious Helen’s issues may be, Alison’s chapter captured my interest in a much more immediate way. It begins with her returning to Montauk: Her hair is longer and she looks healthier than the last time we saw her, but she still carries herself as if burdened by sadness. Throughout the episode, Alison keeps mentioning that she got help during the past six months at an “institute,” which seems like a sanitized way of saying a private psychiatric facility. She made the decision to leave Joanie with Cole after she experienced what sounds like a nervous breakdown sparked by Joanie turning 4 — the same age her previous child died — and getting gravely sick, all of which she recounts to Oscar of all people.
Of course, picking up the pieces of her life proves to be more difficult than she expected. When Alison first sees Cole, leading to an encounter that takes a lot of courage on her part, his anger isn’t surprising. But what I didn’t expect was the cruelty from Luisam who convinces Cole to not let Alison see Joanie. Luisa’s manipulation has nothing to do with what’s best for Joanie. Is it really a good idea for her to grow up thinking her mother abandoned her for no reason? This comes across as a cruel vengeance tactic, a way to get back at Alison for casting a shadow over her marriage to Cole.
Here’s where things get weird. Cole and Luisa knew Alison’s whereabouts because she signed the papers regarding Joanie’s custody while she was in the institute. But considering the way Luisa acts, you’d think Alison dropped off the face of the Earth with no regard for her daughter. The lack of communication is as much Alison’s fault as theirs. Considering her mental instability, the way they respond to her desire to get help feels unnecessarily cruel.
Cole eventually relents and surprises Alison by bringing Joanie over. “I’m not doing this for you. I’m doing it for her,” Cole says. It’s clear this tenuous dynamic can’t exist for long. Luisa will eventually find out and disapprove, then Cole will side with her, leaving Alison teetering on the precipice of another breakdown despite her best efforts.
Watching the way Helen’s and Alison’s loneliness has manifested over the course of three seasons, I realized something that has been grating on me with regards to the series. Both women embody elements of a noxious female stereotype: the hysteric. Alison, in particular, is Montauk’s very own madwoman in the attic. She’s been rooted in sadness that edges into caricature, so although it’s a welcome change that she decided to get into therapy, people still act as if there is something deeply wrong with her. This reputation precedes her, haunting the edges of her life, particularly when she’s around Luisa and Cole. It’s easy to make Alison out to be some hysteric who can’t be around her own child, even if that judgment doesn’t hold true anymore.
In her book The Lonely City, Olivia Laing writes, “What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” Both Alison and Helen feed this hunger momentarily. Neither a visit from Joanie nor committing to Vik is enough to fix the deeply embedded problems that lurk beneath the surface.