Two weeks into the final season, and despite the very truncated screen time it’s gotten, The Affair’s biggest gambit this year — adding the perspective of grown-up Joanie Lockhart to this messy yet savory dramatic soup — is proving to be the most fascinating.
In “502,” Joanie’s part of the story comes last, and lasts less than ten minutes. But those minutes drop a ton of details about how the future has been screwed up by climate change, from the eroding, watery ground of Montauk to Joanie’s pregnant boss Lane snacking on crickets (and not loving Joanie’s caustic joke about the “carbon bomb in her belly”). We don’t get a time stamp on how far into the future Joanie’s story line takes place (the continued vague reference to “decades” is probably going to drive me up the wall by the end of the season). However, following the reveal of her identity last week, it is nice to see her get her own title card, as well as an immediate answer to the question of “what happened after she took those pills?”
Not a lot actually happens in this section, though, beyond Joanie throwing up into a smart toilet (not a piece of technology I will ever feel the need to acquire), meeting with Lane about her ongoing work as a coastal engineer (a field which lends itself to arguably too many instances of “planned obsolescence”), and then making the trip to Montauk to arrive at the seemingly abandoned Lockhart family home. (“It’ll be fine,” Joanie says about staying at “Dad’s place,” but that feels like a lie.) But while it’s a bit frustrating, the way in which this story is being parceled out so far means that nearly every moment contains an interesting clue or fact that proves fascinating to parse. That includes not just the fate of the world, but the events that have led Joanie to her current state of being.
Meanwhile, the episode begins with another first for Janelle, the second person of color to get her own POV in the show’s history (preceded only by Vik in season four). It’s to their credit that writers Katie Robbins and Jaquén Castellanos and director Colin Bucksey let Sanaa Lathan reveal Janelle’s unique charms, insecurities, and anger, all rooted in the fact that a black woman has a very different perspective on the world than a white man.
While in the season premiere, Noah and Helen’s perspectives on Vik’s funeral do not recall the attendees uniformly wearing the traditional Hindu color of mourning, Janelle sees nothing but blinding white as she looks around the ceremony. Not only is it a choice that captures the universal embarrassment that comes when you arrive anywhere in a very wrong outfit, but it also plays into Janelle’s extreme discomfort over being the only visible black person in attendance — and then doubly exacerbated by Bruce and Helen’s casual racism at the wake.
Combined with her basically being demoted by her bosses, asked to serve as “co-principal” with the young, white, and annoying Joel, it’s a pretty bad day, and even though (at least as she tells it) Noah tries to get in touch with her to apologize, she instead turns to ex-husband Carl for first advice, then eventually comfort and reconciliation.
One of the episode’s highlights is the long, playlike scene between Janelle and Carl (always one of this show’s specialties), as Lathan and Russell Hornsby both bring subtle touches to their performances that make the full journey — from anger to conciliation to fondness to empowerment to doin’ it — real and believable. One of the most wondrous magic tricks great actors can achieve is creating an onscreen relationship between two characters that feels like it has decades of history to it, even if offscreen the actors themselves are relative strangers. Lathan and Hornsby of course worked together in season four, but the strength of this scene has me hoping that the reunion between these two characters doesn’t mean the end of their journey on this show.
Meanwhile, it’s time for yet another time jump (one executed with a blunt “Three Months Later” title card, followed by the transition to Helen’s section of the story). Production of the Descent film adaptation is now in full swing, and Helen and Whitney have dropped by the set to watch them film perhaps one of the most awkward scenes possible: “Ellen” confronting “Daniel” as she discovers a bra that’s not hers in their bedroom. Helen’s in a near stupor over her grief, but when pressed to offer up her feedback on the scene, her advice is to make Ellen “more of a bitch,” so that the ostensible hero is more likable. Given that one of The Affair’s biggest flaws has been the way it tends to be overly sympathetic to Noah (despite Noah kinda being a crappy person), it’s hard not to enjoy that meta-commentary, even while Noah meekly acknowledges that Daniel might be more of an anti-hero than a hero.
Last week brought a taste of the movie star embodying Noah’s onscreen alter ego, but this week, in both his brief interaction with Janelle at the beginning of the episode (including his shock that Janelle doesn’t recognize him) and his extended afternoon with Helen, we get to know Sasha Mann a whole lot better. At least once during this episode, someone calls Sasha “the perfect man,” and honestly, after he invites Helen over to his fancy, empty beach house for green tea, basketball, and tears, it’s easy to see their point, even if Buddhist philosophy, taking a basketball to the face, and vomiting aren’t necessarily the ingredients for a dream date.
As weird as the experience might be, Helen is finally able to watch Vik’s final video message to her once she gets home, and when he tells her to enjoy her life and live for the both of them, she actually seems ready to do it. It’s the biggest sign of real change and progress across the entire episode, which features plenty of high points, but could move the football a lot further down the field.
There Is No Objective Truth (Just Bullet Points):
It’s a bit surprising that Janelle has never really met Noah’s family, as it seems like they’ve been dating for several months. Then again, it’s not like anyone in his family really likes him all that much.
If you’ve never seen Fun Home, fix that if you can. A simply beautiful modern musical, as spotlighted by Trevor’s production. Like Whitney, I was in tears.
“I think it’s so awesome that you’re my dad’s girlfriend. Dating a woman of color is one of the coolest things he’s ever done.” Whitney is surprisingly bearable (at least, in comparison to past exposure) during Helen’s section — her genuine empathy for what Helen’s been through, and what she’s protected her children from, was lovely. But it’s not shocking that during Janelle’s brief exposure to the oldest Solloway child, Whitney managed to be annoying in her own special way.
It’s hardly important, but I do wonder if the movie is going to stick with the title of Descent; a funny plot point down the line would be the director, or Sasha, trying to come up with something “punchier.”
Noah didn’t need to laugh quite so hard at the fact that Janelle didn’t recognize Sasha, even if he was more laughing at Sasha’s dismay than Janelle’s ignorance. Dude, lady works hard and was a single mom for years. There’s no reason for her to be a loyal Us Weekly reader.
Last week, there were two very different pictures of Vik on display at the funeral, depending on who you asked: Noah remembering him as the patrician and professional doctor, while Helen’s version featured a casual and happy photo of her partner. Janelle, meanwhile, remembers an unsmiling portrait of Vik in a suit — she didn’t know the man at all after all.