It’s the second-to-last ever episode of The Affair, and contains perhaps one of the show’s boldest choices: Rather than explore any of the most pending plot points, the bulk of the episode is devoted to Noah and Helen talking about Noah’s affair.
To be clear, that would be the first affair — the first-season dalliance between Noah and Alison that tore apart the lives of two families. Yep, we go all the way back to the beginning, a time before murder mysteries, secret abortions, phantom prison guards played by Brendan Fraser, and robot gardens from the year 2053, as the show returns to its roots as a character drama.
Okay, there are still plenty of moments of oddity, from Helen enabling the “bioweapon-defense mode” for Sasha’s borrowed Tesla to the fact that much of Helen and Noah’s confrontation takes place during a dangerous hike through the hills of a Los Angeles on fire. But between the flashbacks to the very first episode — utilizing archival audio as well as clips to make Ruth Wilson’s presence felt — there’s a definite sense of nostalgia evoked, as both Helen and Noah remember what they used to have together, and Noah admits why it ended.
Things begin first from Helen’s point of view, picking up immediately after the events of last week’s episode, including Whitney’s reveal about that one time when Noah hit on her at an orgy. When Helen tries to talk to Whitney, Noah takes that as an opportunity to make an exit, much to Helen’s frustration — especially when she realizes that Noah has Whitney’s birth certificate, which Whitney and her fiancé need urgently so they can apply for their marriage license.
Despite the news of surging fires in the hills near Noah’s house, Helen makes the trek there to ostensibly get the certificate, but really to continue their fight. When she arrives that night, she finds him passed out (thanks to a now-nearly-empty bottle of Scotch) and ends up climbing into bed with him, also exhausted.
The next morning, as they search for the birth certificate, Helen fully confronts Noah about that whole orgy thing, and Noah admits that he knows he lost Whitney as a daughter as a result of that night, calling it the worst of his life. This round of the fight gets interrupted by the arrival of an officer informing them that the fire has now gotten a lot worse, and they’re implementing mandatory evacuations.
Noah, feeling fatalistic, decides he doesn’t want to abandon his home, but Helen decides to leave, snapping, “I hope you burn.” Hitting the road once again in the Tesla, she picks up two hitchhikers also trying to escape the fires before getting stuck in gridlock traffic, with the fires getting ever closer to her destination.
Left alone to his own devices, Noah manages to find Whitney’s birth certificate amongst his papers, but she leaves him on read (that’s how the kids say it, right?) when he texts her the news. Perhaps that’s what inspires him to dig around deeper into his files, pulling up the discovery from his vehicular manslaughter trial, which includes the audio from both his and Alison’s testimony.
The rush of memories inspires him to leave his house and try to track down Helen on the road, where she’s still stuck in traffic. Noah, sure that the fire is only going to get worse, convinces her to abandon the Tesla and hike across the hills to potential safety.
That’s the first two parts of the episode, followed by an interesting aberration for the show: Part three is from the point of view of both Helen and Noah, which perhaps means that we’re meant to take this section of the episode as an objectively honest representation of what they discussed that day. And here’s where the real cleansing begins: Helen and Noah, as they hike, dig into seemingly everything, from the way in which Noah uses people to Helen admitting that she never really defended him when it came to her parents. Helen gets to tell him the unvarnished truth about how miserable she was after their divorce, and Noah admits to how Alison captivated him because “she needed to be saved.”
With the exception of a nail-biting sequence where Noah and Helen scale down a cliff face, this ends up being one of the talkiest episodes in recent memory, as both Helen and Noah take full advantage of the opportunity to clear the air between them, almost seeming to come full circle by the end. “Hello, friend,” they say to each other at Helen’s hospital bedside, which was how we first saw them greeting each other in the pilot, all those seasons ago.
Oh, yeah, the hospital bed — perhaps because the writers were worried there wouldn’t be quite enough drama in this episode, just as Helen and Noah seem to reach safety, a rattlesnake enters from stage right to bite Helen. Panicked, Noah ends up carrying her until a helpful ride appears, and they seem to get to the hospital before the worst can happen.
Hospital aside, it might be the best thing ever to happen to them as a couple — whether or not they reunite romantically, the reconciliation is real. However, the biggest question raised by this episode is, frankly, whether or not Noah has really earned it. He gets his hero moments, as well as some appreciated scenes of honesty. But over the course of the years since meeting Alison, he has gone from being his own worst enemy to the enemy of all happiness around him. Helen might be on the way to forgiving him, but Whitney may have a point about how the Solloways, after everything, might be broken as a family. The fact that Noah understands this, and doesn’t push Helen to get him reinvited to the wedding he planned himself, is maybe a sign of growth. But it may well be too little, too late.
There Is No Objective Truth (Just Bullet Points)
• There is something magnificently douche-y about Sasha’s vanity license plate being DAMANN1.
• It appears that when Noah and Helen left those hitchhikers behind, they left them to what was probably a pretty gruesome death, which adds an odd note of tragedy to the ending.
• Important to note that the Tesla “bioweapon-defense mode” is in fact a real thing today, not just in the year 2022-2024 (or whenever, exactly, this show is set — the dates have not been lining up perfectly, despite earlier reveals this season).
• Also a real thing: Colin’s “Chalamet and Chill” T-shirt, which was designed by actor/director Zoe Lister-Jones. Sales benefit Planned Parenthood, if you want to do something good while looking good (though unfortunately, the site where you can buy the original is on hiatus until the end of November).
• People typically keep souvenirs from places they remember fondly, so it is bizarre that Noah brings along a baseball cap from their Montauk days for Helen. But there is just something pitch perfect, when it comes to this show and its legacy, for a character to wear a hat saying “THE END” in bold letters.
• There’s a dozen different storylines that deserve to get wrapped up in the finale, though it’ll likely center around Whitney’s wedding as well as whatever happens next to grown-up Joanie. And then it’ll be time to say good-bye to these very imperfect but fascinating people, and this also imperfect but fascinating show.
• An important and sad note: Wildfire season in California is upon us now, and it is brutal. As this episode aired, multiple fires were in real life ripping through various regions of the state, and untold numbers will lose their homes and/or worse. If you want to support causes aiding the victims, here are a few local groups actively working to help those in need: Rebuild North Bay and California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund. (Also José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen is on the ground there serving meals.) Much sympathy to everyone affected.