Dominic West as Noah Solloway.
At a certain point, The Affair had to reveal whether Noah’s memories regarding Gunther actually happened or were purely the imagination of a man losing his mind? In the season’s penultimate episode, we’re given an answer that definitively supports what I’ve long suspected: Everything we’ve learned about Gunther through Noah’s perspective is a lie.
Unfortunately, this is neither the grand revelation nor profound exploration of grief and trauma the writers intended it to be. Part of the problem is the construction of Noah himself. His grief over his mother’s death has become the foundation for his mental instability to such a profound extent that you have to wonder: Why the hell wasn’t this a factor in earlier seasons? “309” covers a lot of ground with twists, turns, and emotional revelations in nearly every scene as it solves the pervading mystery this season. Doing so also puts the show’s deepest problems in the spotlight.
The Affair is often as frustrating as it is fascinating. It has odd plot holes and issues that can even interfere with otherwise well-constructed moments. For example, the Solloway kids don’t look like they’ve aged at all during the three-year time jump. (Why does Helen refer to Stacey as 11 years old? That makes little sense, given how old she seemed in season one.) Meanwhile, fascinating story threads — like the class dynamics between characters — are never fully interwoven into the plot. Instead, the focus lies on whatever violent mystery will add fresh turmoil, even though mystery has always been the least engaging aspect of The Affair. So Helen’s refusal to come to terms with her role in Scotty’s death, even after she toys with the idea of telling Cherry Lockhart the truth, drags down the episode as a whole.
At this point, is it okay to admit that season three has torpedoed Helen’s character? I’ve never completely loved Helen, but in previous seasons, I understood and sympathized with her. Even when the writing wasn’t up to par, I could find something to admire in Maura Tierney’s performance. Not anymore. Everyone on this show is selfish, messy, and in need of therapy. That’s been true since the beginning. But Helen’s problems, which she refuses to face in a way that would help her grow, have become so bad that she’s hurting her children.
When Helen goes to her parent’s home to get a break from life, she finds even more reminders of everything she refuses to face. A poorly Photoshopped picture of her and Noah at graduation is just the first. Everyone won’t stop asking about Vic. Her parents go on about how much they admire him. Bruce says he has “a special kind of class” for discreetly paying their dinner bill when they first met. Trevor praises his cooking. Martin mentions how he taught him chess. Vic became a vital part of their family and was a better father to these children than Noah ever was, even though Helen won’t admit that. It gets to be so overwhelming that Helen admits that Vic left her. Once Stacey reveals why Noah was in their home, it’s not long until other revelations start tumbling out.
At the dinner table, in front of her kids, Helen reveals that she was driving the car when Scotty was killed. A full-blown argument breaks out that leaves Stacey crying. (It’s really too bad these kids can’t act, by the way.) Margaret and Bruce then drag Helen into their panic room, which was so ridiculous I couldn’t help but laugh. Look, they’ve never been good parents. Thanks to therapy, they’re able to admit that now. Maybe Helen should consider going into therapy herself? Choosing to do so would require a level of self-awareness she simply doesn’t have. Instead, Helen is solely interested in paying penance by revealing the truth to Cherry and everyone else about her involvement in Scotty’s death. When Margaret slapped Helen, I couldn’t blame her.
As Margaret says, “It would be truly selfish if you confessed.” This may sound cruel, but she is right. Confessing would spin everyone’s lives into further chaos. Helen could get sued, as Bruce points out. Or end up going to jail. That Helen confesses in front of her kids and continues to trot out bad excuses for why she keeps letting him back into her life reveals just how terrible of a parent she is. Did she think, for even a moment, how this would hurt her kids? Haven’t they dealt with enough? Why won’t she put their emotional well-being before her desire to pay penance for letting Noah go to prison?
In the end, despite driving to Cherry’s home, Helen never confesses to her. However, she does find her way back to Vic, confronting him at the hospital to reveal the truth. “I’m a coward,” she admits. Vic is blunt, even a bit cold in response, but can you blame him? I wonder if he completely buys Helen’s claim that she let Noah back into her life out of guilt rather than still being in love with him. Although Vic seems distant, he does tell Helen that he’ll spend time with her after work.
Of course, the most revealing confrontation happens earlier when Helen is still in Montauk. In last week’s episode, we saw Alison’s perspective of stumbling across Helen at the local bar. The version of the event from Helen’s eyes couldn’t be more different. First, she casts Alison as some femme fatale with little remorse. “You stole my husband,” she says. It’s not surprising. It’s easy to blame the other woman rather than admit your husband has always been a selfish, reckless mess who never fully cared about you. It’s a tense scene, stuffed with lines that ring true from Alison’s end of the conversation. “We can’t save each other,” she says. “We can only save ourselves.” Weirdly, Alison admits to pushing Scotty into the road in this version of events. What isn’t revealed, however, is whether Noah actually raped Helen or if it was another trauma he concocted in his own mind. Either way, the fact that such a troubling question hasn’t been addressed is more than a bit concerning. It’s like tossing a bomb into a room and ignoring the wreckage.
While Helen fails to make sense of her life, Noah is dealing with his own unraveling. He stalks Gunther’s wife at her salon job to find his home and finally confront his tormentor. But the Gunther who Noah faces is nothing like the man we’ve previously seen: Gunther is soft-spoken, a kind family man with a disabled son and a wife who’s understandably freaking out that a stranger followed her home. Gunther even worries about Noah, telling him that he needs help. When Noah breaks out a knife, Gunther easily disarms him, but doesn’t use excessive force.
A flashback to Noah’s time in prison seals it: It was all in his head. Gunther never terrorized him in prison. He never stabbed him or stalked him. All that ails Noah is his own doing, his own illness. To hammer the point home, when Noah goes back to the apartment he’s subletting, he looks up from the sink to see a reflection in the darkened window. He doesn’t see himself, though; he sees Gunther. He’s punishing himself for the anger and guilt he still harbors over his mother’s death.
In the flashback, an odd thread is introduced as Noah imagines Gunther reading him his manuscript: Did Noah assist in his mother’s suicide because she wanted to die, or did he convince her to end her life? It’s quite a damning question, but if Noah’s issues surrounding his mother have cut him so deeply he began losing his mind, why wasn’t this touched on until season three? Why is he just losing his mind now? Was it the compounded loss of his marriage to Alison and finally feeling bad about cheating on Helen? Perhaps, but these subjects haven’t received much consideration in recent episodes.
In many ways, “309” puts into sharp relief the show’s central problem: It isn’t well-written consistently enough to be a great drama, but it isn’t fun enough to be a full-blown soap opera. (Even though the narrative is sometimes bonkers enough that it reaches that territory unintentionally.) The Affair won’t dedicate itself to either style, leaving it trapped in a confusing middle ground that only works in fits and starts. Going forward, the show will only improve if it can accomplish what Noah has always failed to do. It needs to commit.