Well, for anyone who was missing Joanie last week, episode six of The Affair’s final season more than made up for it. In a move that’s only happened occasionally over the course of the series, the entire installment is devoted to Joanie’s ongoing visit to Montauk in what we can now confirm is the year 2053, ending with her making the big realization that her mother Alison’s death might have been the result of murder.
For Joanie, though, getting there involves making a new (somewhat annoying) acquaintance, learning an awful lot about Montauk’s history and climate, exploding her marriage, and eventually beginning to process her grief over the loss of her father. It’s very much in line with this show’s character-focused storytelling, in which solving a murder mystery is given the same weight as confronting one’s personal guilt over a father’s death.
While Joshua Jackson only appears in flashbacks shot during season four, we still learn an awful lot this week about Cole’s life in the years prior to his death: specifically, his happiness that due to the decline of Montauk, the “summer people” had stopped coming, returning it to the state of a sleepy fishing village. There’s also his devoted love for Joanie (which she found suffocating at times) and his lifelong heartbreak over losing Alison (even at the expense of his second marriage).
Much of this comes courtesy of EJ (Michael Braun), a local historian who focuses on the families of Montauk, whom Joanie encounters at the cemetery — when he figures out who she is, he reacts like he’s meeting a rock star. The Lockharts, he says, fascinate him because “the whole family is steeped in cyclical tragedy,” and he’s not shy about interrogating Joanie for further insight into the past, while also helping her find her own answers.
Also helping to fill in the gaps is the appearance of a now-decades-older Luisa (the returning Catalina Sandino Moreno, under several pounds of old-age makeup and prosthetics), who appears to be a semi-regular presence in the life of Joanie’s family. It’s not totally clear how much of a role Luisa played in Joanie’s childhood post-Montauk, but the fact that Joanie refers to her as “Mom” speaks to both her anger at Alison, the mother she feels abandoned her, as well as her affection for her stepmother. However, their relationship isn’t close enough for Luisa to realize just how damaged Joanie is, as she encourages Joanie to appreciate her “perfect” life, not realizing just how imperfect Joanie finds it to be.
Anna Paquin is in nearly every moment of this episode, and despite the occasional slips into what sounds like a Southern accent (despite learning in this week’s episode that after leaving Montauk she grew up in Vermont), she takes the bluntness of the script and imbues it with a keen sense of nihilistic rage and despair, especially when confronting her husband in the vertical garden.
The episode’s biggest flaw is that within Joanie as a character are two key threads: her grief over the deaths of her parents, and her grim acceptance of the way climate change has escalated to the point of an extinction-level threat. Anyone keenly following today’s ongoing news cycle can identify with her frustration and terror when Paul tries to be optimistic about their family’s chances of survival on a dying planet — as a scientist, she has the actual data in front of her to prove her worst fears, and he’s not listening.
That’s not an excuse to be regularly unfaithful (EJ being the latest example), and certainly not an excuse to throw her infidelity in Paul’s face, leading him to angrily kick her out of the house. Perhaps he has a point, if only because having a mother who feels like she’s “just shepherding [the kids] towards the apocalypse” can’t be a very healthy situation.
But it’s tied up in the bad decision-making she’s worried she inherited from her mother, a fear that has haunted her her entire life — and the way in which her very real and justified fears about the future of the environment interplay with her ongoing internal trauma doesn’t really coalesce here. Simply saying that Joanie is “broken” doesn’t do justice to what she’s going through, and there’s so much being packed into just these few scenes that it’s hard to really get a grip on everything she’s going through.
The use of Alison’s voiceover also doesn’t really come together, and if the show is suggesting that a psychic connection between mother and daughter is what leads Joanie to put together the very small number of puzzle pieces necessary to determine that maybe Alison was murdered … well, that’s quite a stretch.
The show does make a point of establishing that because of Alison’s history, no one really questioned the idea that she would die by suicide. But in 2021, the police had to have had the same information about the local tides that Joanie pulls up with her AR glasses, and per the case file they even interviewed Benjamin Cruz. It’s not impossible to believe that the cops missed something and despite his own research, Cole was never able to prove that Ben was involved in Alison’s death. But boy, this mystery seems like it got solved quickly.
By the end of the episode, the implication is that Joanie might be on the way to regaining some level of healing (at the very least, she’s able to enjoy sex with EJ without being choked), while also unlocking the truth about what happened to her mother. It’s not a journey that feels truly earned, but the question of what comes next for everyone involved is enough to keep me engaged. We know the end is coming, and it’ll be fascinating to see just how happy an ending The Affair is capable of.
There Is No Objective Truth (Just Bullet Points)
• Not to get too hung up on the timeline, but thanks to Joanie’s AR glasses we learn the exact day of Alison’s death: October 13, 2021 — as well as the fact that Joanie was 7 years old at the time. This doesn’t quite line up with math based around the Lockhart family gravestones, which suggest that Joanie was born in the year 2016, but at this point it’s probably time to stop overthinking it quite so much.
• From a 2053 perspective, the movies EJ references or quotes, including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Singles, Brokeback Mountain, and Moana, range in age from 61 to 37 years. Imagine, in the year 2019, expecting someone to recognize your references to Auntie Mame (1958) or The Secret of NIMH (1982). EJ’s a movie nerd, is what I’m saying.
• Though EJ’s nerdity will totally be worth it if it turns out that he has a copy of Sasha Mann’s Descent that he and Joanie can watch. That’s some Cloud Atlas–level stuff there. (Yeah, EJ’s not the only movie nerd around.)
• The sight of the broken miniature garden drone and those moldy strawberries was gut-wrenching, to be honest, given the hope they represented for Joanie’s family. False hope is still hope, sometimes.