Brendan Fraser as Gunther, Dominic West as Noah.
In recent years, television has articulated and respected female desire like never before. The visual language of Outlander is almost totally shaped by the female gaze. Queen Sugar offers unparalleled intimacy, especially with regard to how female characters interact with the men in their lives. Insecure’s surprisingly heated sex scenes reveal the depths of its 20-something black cast. In these shows, lust and intimacy are presented in a multitude of ambitious ways. This episode of The Affair, written by David Henry Hwang and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, uses the perspective of Noah’s new love interest to mine similar complexities from a female perspective … then turns it into a joke. It’s a confounding hour.
Last week, I described how the show frames Alison as a classic hysteric, Montauk’s very own madwoman in the attic. She’s not alone: Pretty much every woman on The Affair wrestles with the archetype that the show has caged them in. Helen is the scorned ex-wife, seeking validation from the man who hurt her. Audrey is the shrill modern feminist who argues everything in a fever pitch. Juliette is the alluring European woman who discards monogamous sexual mores. Learning that Juliette’s (much older) husband has dementia admittedly adds an interesting layer, but it’s not enough to distract from the other issues with her character.
More than anything else, Juliette’s desire for adventure and escape via Noah feels like a bad punch line. She hides the cover of his book when she reads it on campus. When she’s in his presence, she coyly tucks her hair behind her ear like some love-struck schoolgirl. At the mere mention of his name, she lights up. While reading Descent at home, she’s so overcome by the thought of Noah that she starts masturbating. The camera focuses on her hand slowly working its way between her legs, her breathless sighs, and her face lost in ecstasy. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds — especially because the sequence deploys the muted color palette and emotional distance The Affair has perfected in its three seasons. Put simply, this is what it looks like when gauzy melodrama eats its own tail. Who is this for? What is the purpose? Is the show trying to explore Juliette’s interiority, or is it just hollowing her out to more easily prop her up? The more we see her, the more I’m convinced it’s the latter.
I expected to write off the previous incarnation of the episode’s dinner scene — which we saw in the season premiere — as an event warped by Noah’s perception. He often sees himself as a victim of the desires of women in his orbit. Also, Alison is ignoring him and he’s disinterested in Helen, so he’s clearly looking for someone new. I figured he just saw something in Juliette that simply wasn’t there. Instead, the episode buckles down on the worst aspects of the scene. This time around, Audrey is even more of a caricature of the millennial feminist. When she argues with fellow student (and apparent ex-fling) Mike, she’s positioned as a walking “Planned Parenthood pamphlet.” Despite the fact that I agree with Audrey’s principles, it’s easy to see why people continually undermine her. She only exists in one pitch: righteous, unbridled fury. She is written as ridiculous, her valid desires framed as untenable.
It gets worse from there. After Audrey encourages verbal consent within sexual relationships, Juliette argues for the exact opposite: “To articulate is the enemy of the erotic. Isn’t the whole point that you don’t know what your lover will do next? […] If I give my lover permission, don’t I undermine the potency of his desire?” This is met with utter shock from Audrey, of course. Does Juliette really believe that articulating enthusiastic consent destroys female desire? In her breathy, French-accented voice, she unsubtly argues that the campus rape was a mere “miscommunication.” Seriously? Her view essentially supports Noah’s argument from the premiere, while none of Audrey’s critiques are treated as remotely legitimate. We’re stuck watching overprivileged people share abhorrent opinions about an issue they don’t seem to understand — a dishonest framing if there ever was one.
Also, what do women even see in Noah at this point? After Audrey complains about him, she winds up sighing, “All I can do is think about fucking him.” Why? I could buy Noah’s allure last season, given the success of his novel. But now that he’s an ex-con and his kids hate him (not to mention the fact that he has a violent stalker), it’s utterly ridiculous that Audrey and Juliette would be obsessed. If this season is to be believed, female desire is rooted in masochism and intimacy is an illusion that doesn’t heal or comfort.
In many ways, Noah’s perspective in the second half of the episode is downright horrific. From his hospital recovery after Juliette finds him bleeding on the grimy floor of his sublet to the flashbacks of his abuse at the hands of prison guard John Gunther (played with creepy menace by Brendan Fraser), he seems to be living in a horror movie. But the true horror of The Affair lies elsewhere, as Juliette pines for Noah and we learn that she’s screwing around with Mike. Yet again, a female character is harshly wrought and poorly considered. Unless the season changes course in a significant way, it seems like female desire will remain a punch line on The Affair — and I won’t be laughing.