We’ve all known people whom we’re drawn to despite our better instincts. They might be lovers, family, or friends — it doesn’t matter exactly how they fit into your life, so long as they traffic in drama and chaos. That is what Noah represents for Alison. If Alison were wise, the moment she saw Noah she’d have headed home on her bike, ignored him, and found a way to mail the divorce papers. But like most characters on The Affair, she has never shown great judgment.
In this week’s episode, “305,” The Affair shows us different sides to Noah and Alison, revealing corners of their psyches I honestly didn’t expect to see. Writer Sharr White and director Jeffrey Reiner deliver a great episode with the kind of melancholy honesty that seems to only come when people are at last saying good-bye.
We begin “305” with Alison’s perspective. She’s not happy to see Noah, and reminds him every chance she gets that he’s a danger to her goal of regaining custody of Joanie. Nevertheless, she can’t seem to help but nod to the unique emotional pull he still has over her. Soon enough, he’s back at her place. Sure, Alison is reluctant to give in to Noah’s every whim, but the flirtatious edge to their banter betrays her lingering interest. I don’t think she’s attracted to Noah himself necessarily, but rather what he represents: a means of escape. It’s part of the reason why she got together with him in the first place, which she even admits later.
After Alison asked Noah for a divorce, I still worried she wouldn’t stick to this plan. Maybe she would try to keep her distance, only to get so thrown off by Noah’s reappearance she’d screw up her one-on-one time scheduled with Joanie the next day. The tension grows unbearable when Cole makes a surprise visit to her home.
Of course, Noah refuses to hide at first. “Fuck that. You’re my wife,” he bellows. It’s telling that Noah thinks the fact that they’re married gives him the right to trample over her autonomy; he waltzes into her life without a care for what she needs and wants. Just look at his reaction to the divorce papers — he’s legitimately shocked. Considering how long they’ve been estranged, this shouldn’t be such a surprise to him.
While Noah hides on the back porch, Cole launches into a speech that he’s almost certainly been practicing. He’s wracked with guilt over sleeping with Alison; he’s worried their impromptu tryst will derail both of their lives. “I’m not going to hurt her the way you hurt me,” he tells Alison. Maybe he should have thought of Luisa before he decided to have sex with Alison? Beneath the surface of Cole’s protests is this belief that one false move will send Alison tumbling into another breakdown. It seems the reason why he hasn’t petitioned the court to give her custody is that, on some level, he does think she’s crazy. It’s a fear Alison has herself. But instead of saying as much, she opts for a venomous zinger: “So I’m healthy enough to fuck, but not to be the mother of our child.” Cole’s silence is an answer in and of itself. As much as I actually want to see these two get back together, this scene doesn’t lend me much hope of that happening.
Of course, Alison has bigger problems to worry about. After his charm offensive doesn’t work, Noah dangles something in front of Alison she can’t resist: If she’ll spend the day with him on Block Island, he’ll sign the divorce papers. It’s manipulation masked with a devilish smile. But it works.
It’s hard to ignore that Alison is much looser around Noah. She smiles, she cracks jokes, and she actually has fun for a change. Still, these flirtatious interactions aren’t enough to make me forget how terrible Noah has been in the past. Even the very recent past: After all, showing up announced at his estranged wife’s home is another sign of his own selfishness. He gets Alison to act recklessly in ways she knows she shouldn’t, while Joanie’s custody and Alison’s sanity are riding on the line.
Despite common sense telling her not to, Noah’s presence goads her into doing things like getting into a stranger’s hot tub naked, only for the homeowner to arrive unexpectedly. Noah is full of foolish exuberance that can only come when adults ignore their problems, and Alison is totally seduced by it. At this point, you have to wonder why Alison and every other woman in Noah’s orbit even entertain him. He’s an ex-con with several kids, two ex-wives, and a dim future. What’s the allure? Is it another chance for self-destruction or something a bit deeper? It turns out to be something I didn’t expect: Noah understands Alison better than I’ve given him credit for.
As we’ve seen throughout The Affair, Noah usually sees Alison as a living muse he keeps around for inspiration and sex. He rarely ever truly hears her, as she knows all too well. But apparently, their time apart has given him much-needed clarity. Noah nails how Alison mistakes self-flagellation for growth as if she’s determined to be unhappy. He also understands how Cole frames her. “Cole will only ever see you as a disaster, Alison,” he says. “Whatever you do, however confident you become, you will always be damaged goods to him.”
This bit of truth opens up a new dimension in their relationship. They’re kinder and more honest to each other than when they were actually together. After getting stuck on Block Island because they missed the ferry, Noah’s perspective in the second half of “305” focuses on them trading stories about their respective wounds.
What’s most fascinating to me about this episode is how seamless the two perspectives are. For the first time, Noah sees Alison the way she sees herself. But what doesn’t align is Noah’s temperament. He’s manic and impulsive in her half, romantic and calm in his, which makes me wonder about his mental state. He is, after all, demonstrating a possible addiction to Vicodin.
After they had sex, I was momentarily afraid that Alison would consider getting back with Noah. But there is such poignant sorrow to their time together it’s clear this is not a new beginning for them. Instead, they trade stories about their mothers — Alison’s fear of becoming hers and Noah assisting his mother’s suicide after her illness got unmanageable. He breaks down, they comfort each other, and Noah admits why he’s still drawn to Alison: She is the only other person he knows who has watched someone they love die. He praises her for surviving her son’s death. But Alison sees things differently. “I didn’t really,” she explains. “Whoever I was back then, she died when he did.”
“305” proves to be a graceful good-bye to Alison and Noah’s relationship, which is finalized by Noah signing the divorce papers. The only blemish on this otherwise stellar episode is Gunther. In the flashbacks, Gunther’s emotional and physical abuse toward Noah ramps up. He taunts him about his faltering marriage to Alison. He swipes Noah’s newly typed pages, reading them aloud with condescension. He even uses Alison’s picture as masturbation material. That Gunther’s abuse continues outside of prison doesn’t make sense to me. Is all this really about some high-school grudge even though Noah didn’t interact with him? Gunther’s being a power-mad bully in prison is one thing, but I don’t quite buy that he’d act that way outside. Gunther appears and disappears like the villain in a slasher flick, which makes me wonder about the credibility of Noah’s perspective. He seems to be reckoning with post-traumatic stress disorder. When we see Gunther in the same baseball cap, lurking at the edges of Noah’s new life and able to find him anywhere, it raises serious questions. Is he really there, or is Noah just imagining this threat?
The episode ends with Gunther running Noah off the road. Juliette’s little red car is a wreck, though Noah survives unscathed. It’s a frustrating development that underlines one of the season’s biggest flaws: Gunther’s role exists because the show needs a crime to solve as its driving force. But the scenes between Noah and Alison in “305” are far more engaging than this central mystery. When The Affair gets out of its own way, it can be a moving, intelligent exploration of identity and heartbreak — and it doesn’t need Gunther to reach those lofty heights.