Just over a year ago, the playwright David Henry Hwang, who wrote Sunday night’s episode of The Affair, was stabbed in the neck while walking home from the grocery store in a random attack in his Brooklyn neighborhood, Fort Greene.
The attack almost killed him. He wrote about it, powerfully, earlier this year in The New York Times, right from the moment he felt a blow to the back of his neck, only to turn around and see his assailant disappearing into the shadows, and then realizing it was so much worse than a blow to the neck.
Hwang’s attacker had severed his vertebral artery; he had to have life-saving surgery.
Of course, we don’t know how much of the awfulness and terror of the attack made it into Sunday night’s episode of The Affair, but there are definite echoes between his experience and what we see of Noah Solloway (Dominic West) in the aftermath of his vicious stabbing, also in the neck, as he stands in his kitchen.
The episode follows the events of the first episode of this season, with Noah now an academic at Princeton after being released from jail, having taken the rap for the death of Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell), saving ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney) and new wife Alison (Ruth Wilson). The latter had pushed him into the path of the car driven by the former.
We follow the day from the perspective of Juliette Le Gall (Irène Jacob), who—like every woman within smelling range of Noah—falls for him, or wants to go to bed with him. She is first interrogated by two students, who want to know what she is reading. Some obscure medieval literary text, she says, but it is really—hidden behind a veil of brown paper; oh, the shame of being caught with it—Descent, Noah’s potboiler and thinly disguised fictional distillation of his affair with Alison.
Like that hidden book, Noah, and hot student Mike Cornwall (another British actor playing an American, Guy Burnet—this show is addicted to them), are Juliette’s guilty pleasures, absurdly removed from her research into courtly love.
We discover that she has a husband, Etienne, who is sick with some kind of awful disease back in France. America, Noah, Mike, the dancing Statue of Liberty at some traffic lights: All are escapes and distractions. Her historical research couldn’t be in sharper contrast to her marital situation, and her sexual desires.
As Juliette glugs red wine and prepares dinner in a lovely kitchen (the writers really ramp up her Frenchiness), she takes a panicked call from her daughter, herself going through love pains: She will not die alone. Later she repairs to her own couch, where she masturbates to Noah’s book (or she seriously gets off on the thread count of her blue T-shirt).
Then, yawn, it’s a replay of that first dinner party and the current campus sexual assault debate, with Noah’s student Audrey (Sarah Ramos)—whose work he criticized harshly—the strongly feminist voice around issues of consent, and Mike Cornwall, whom she has slept with, the voice of those who think the consent issue has become overblown, and men persecuted.
Juliette says that sex exists in a hinterland of blurred motivations and desires, which makes certain cases difficult to deduce. Audrey wants the university to establish a mandate of verbal consent, but for Juliette sex is about giving yourself over to that which you cannot understand or control. Noah did that, of course, and look where that all ended up. Audrey, who is supposed to be unsympathetic, says Juliette’s thinking has led to women being seen as objects of desire.
Juliette gets up to check on something in the kitchen: Can none of these people just sit and have a polite conversation and a nice supper? They are the rudest, most pretentious guests even a brainiac could ever wish for.
Audrey confesses she wants to fuck Noah, that he makes her so agitated (just like Juliette). Mike notes that he’s her professor, twice her age, and an ex-felon, “so what’s stopping you?” And so the vortex of sex, love, and commitment continues to swirl, with a contemporary cultural sheen too. But why are Tierney, Wilson, and Joshua Jackson (Cole) so absent this season, so far?
Troubled stud Noah has disappeared upstairs looking for peace. Juliette says she is married, but not the full story. Juliette makes a move on him, and Noah scoots—is this about the abuse he suffered in jail, or something about Alison, whom he is now estranged from? Juliette has sex with Mike, her face a shattered reflection in some glass.
Later she finds Noah stabbed, and after the ambulance has come, covered in his blood, she speaks haltingly to her daughter again.
From Noah’s perspective, slipping in and out of consciousness, we maybe get an idea of how Hwang felt that terrifying night. “Noah, stay with me,” the EMT says, as the past flashes between scrambled images from his painful past and present.
He recalls being led into jail for the first time, a picture of Alison. On the operating table, he recalls meeting John Gunther, the prison guard.
It’s immediately clear Gunther, who knew Noah from swim meets when they were both kids—Noah was the star swimmer, Gunther was not—means Noah no good. Now that the power is with him, he will persecute his nemesis from so long ago—his nemesis, and also his unattainable object of worship somehow. Noah, of course, doesn’t recognize him.
Helen is there when he comes around, not the wife he has mentioned to the nursing staff—and we still don’t know how and why Noah and Alison’s relationship fell apart. Helen is curt, panicked for her ex-husband. He again rejects her (she really doesn’t hear this repeated message). The police want to know who did it. One of the detectives crinkles a cup very irritatingly and runs through the tangled set of suspects who could have wanted to kill Noah. One of Noah’s kids asks if his bed has a massage feature.
The stabbing itself framed the episode’s theme of violence, in sharp contrast to its more ranging, indulgent ruminations around sex.
Six months into Noah’s sentence, Noah recalls, Gunther bought him a typewriter so he could write, which gives the story an added note of Misery, especially as—when it comes to handing over the paper—Gunther doesn’t let it go immediately, emphasizing who has control here.
Out of the hospital, Nina (Jennifer Esposito), Noah’s sister, insists he take the keys to their father’s house, but for now Noah returns to Juliette’s, and she—having a real husband who is being taken care of by a nurse—nurses Noah herself, redressing his neck wound. They do not have sex. She is, as she points out, a suspect in his attempted murder, and him dropping dead at her place right now would not be good for her.
Asleep, he recalls the moment that Gunther’s sadism finally shows itself when he visits Noah to ask who one of the pictures on Noah’s prison wall is. His wife, Alison, Noah says. Gunther’s facial expression curdles. It’s an inmate violation, he tells Noah, and insists he takes it down, targeting Noah’s shoulder in a vicious wrench and then a punch (which would explain the painful shoulder and painkillers Noah now takes).
Noah tells the detectives about Gunther and his suspicions that he has been following him since he got out of jail. “The guy’s a real monster.” There is a neat piece of irony about that, because Noah has been the show’s monster until now—of the romantic kind. The irony is he needs someone like Gunther to make him sympathetic.
Gunther is a far more obvious, sadistic villain than Noah, operating way outside the show’s well-dressed, sexy, and naughty romantic confines, and cogitations on the nature of love and memory. That is, unless we eventually get Gunther’s point of view, and it turns out he and Noah were teenage lovers, until Noah treated him appallingly. Anything is possible in The Affair.