The most miserable people with nice houses on television are back.
For some time, fans of The Affair have been concerned. The series did not return for its usual stint in the winter. The winter suited The Affair. Noah (Dominic West), Alison (Ruth Wilson), Helen (Maura Tierney) and Pacey-sorry-Cole (Joshua Jackson) existed in an icy crucible of dysfunction, and even if the series began with an affair on Montauk, the beach even in summer seemed a chilly place, and New York even colder.
For three seasons, the fallout of the initial affair between Noah and Alison (behind the backs of Helen and Pacey-sorry-Cole) has included a mystery manslaughter, tugs of love over children, a real or not-real sadistic prison guard, and thousands of tortured glances as the stories of what has happened diverged between the four characters. Truth is the slipperiest character in The Affair.
Season four of Showtime’s drama finally arrives on our screens in summer, with a significant new, warmer (at least meteorologically) setting, Los Angeles. That’s where Helen has moved with Daily Beast favorite, the hot Dr. Vic (Omar Metwally), and—to rebuild his relationship with his two youngest children—so has Noah.
How Noah and Alison are, and how the triangle of Cole and Alison and Luisa are back east, will just have to wait till next week. Alison and Cole, presumably still in Montauk, will helm episode two next Sunday. We presume it was perennially damaged Alison, following a presumed bout of depression or some other inner disaster, who has disappeared in a glancing opening scene, featuring Noah and Cole in Montauk.
Six weeks earlier, we find Noah and Helen in Los Angeles; The Affair resumes its usual format of one character’s perspective for the first half of an episode, another character for the second half.
One thing the two exes’ perspectives agree on is that they are both at odds with Los Angeles. The traffic and endless driving is Noah’s initial bugbear. He is no longer a lauded and shamed author, a figure of tarnished glamor, king of his island of notoriety; now he’s a teacher at a tough public school.
This storyline initially feels another reverb—rougher around the edges—of Noah’s storyline last season, where he had a teaching job at a posh college. Part Dangerous Minds meets Dead Poets Society, this strand first saw him bested by crafty students, flirted with just as he was flirted with in season three by students, and then misjudging Anton Gatewood (Christopher Meyer), a gifted black student who has a past reputation as a plagiarist and who has been made to take this year at school again. He’s angry, about what we do not know.
It turned out that Anton’s views on Animal Farm (cheery cheery, kids: next week, it’s T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land) and what it had to say about propaganda and the abuse of power, were his own. This felt like the series taking its first direct punch on a Trumpian nose.
In many respects, Noah is a small “l” liberal pushover to his students; order was restored by principal Janelle (season four join-ee Sanaa Lathan) whose appointment was dismissed as affirmative action by white teacher Joel—who also wanted an introduction to an agent via Noah, for his novel East of Pasadena. (Noah’s oh-save-me face was the most fun image of the episode.) Janelle and Noah are set for an affair this season…
A combination of traffic and zealous security at his son’s school meant Noah couldn’t see Trevor (Jadon Sand) at a special evening. When he finally did see his kids, with Helen and Vic, it was Noah who looked as if he was on the outside, desperately trying to communicate with them, and even get a margarita (no salt). He was a spectator to his own life, mocked by his own children for living in Topanga Canyon. They had Googled it, and found out that’s where Charles Manson had lived. The prospect of a sleepover is creepy.
In Noah’s memory, Helen tried to coax Trevor to come out; and in an angry conference in the ladies’ restroom, Noah accuses her of trying to lead their son to come out; that should be his decision. She was also trying to jettison him from his children’s lives, he complained.
But, as in the previous seasons, this first episode of the fourth saw Noah rejected and beaten up on by everyone close to him. Business as usual, then.
It saw him read heavy metaphorical scenes from books. It saw a new female character look at him with quizzical, likely-future-episodes-sexual eyes. It saw him alone. He told the children he was twice divorced. He looked knackered, to be honest. The sex bomb of early seasons—remember those swimming scenes?—looks like he’s been dragged through a hedge, and not slept for years.
Still, at least he’s not being stalked by that crazy prison guard, who may or may not have been real. That’s a result. Let’s see how he helps screw up Alison from afar.
Throughout Helen’s part of the episode, she imagined the next big Los Angeles earthquake was about to strike. Knives and glasses wobbled, the water in her bath swirled. Except it wasn’t an earthquake. She began to realize this was a psychological manifestation of the fear of chaos having Noah back in all their lives.
She told him this in what she remembers as the men’s, not women’s, restroom at the Mexican restaurant. Where Noah had recalled meeting the family as a whole, a victim of Helen’s machinations in the parking lot, Helen recalled him angrily confronting her and Dr. Vic before the kids turned up.
Helen is trying to like Los Angeles. She knows she should. But she can’t. We first see nervously eyeing her own home in the hills, positioned jutting out over a bluff. How do the houses on stilts stay up, she wondered.
If you hadn’t got the metaphor: the physical and psychological ground under Helen feels unsure and shaky.
Vic is now a Chief Surgeon; Helen doesn’t have to work. Is Helen happy? Is she hell—Maura Tierney’s magnificently sour features, the best cloud on a sunny day, could still curdle milk at 50 paces. Noah’s terrible-parent status is sealed by his inability to pay unseen son Martin (Jake Siciliano’s) college food card.
But what really got those sour features scowling in overdrive was her new LA therapist. Therapy is one thing New Yorkers do with focus and dedication, and Helen was pissed off with Ezra, her new LA therapist. First he had her “scanning” her body, the he repeated things back at her. Then he posited the prospect of Trevor being gay as her feared “earthquake.”
If you could be flattened by rolling eyes, that therapist would be a pancake.
But his interjections were occasionally clever, such as challenging Helen on her easily voiced liberal insistence she had “always wanted” a gay son, as Martin was so macho (really?—not as we remember).
She said she was more worried that Noah would think Trevor being gay, if he was, was about his own poor choices.
The therapist reminded her that would not be the reason for anyone being gay. He also noted her physical discomfort when talking about Noah; Noah was the trauma hiding in her body, he said convincingly. Or she still wants him—which is what this fan thinks, given all the tortured looks she throws Noah, even while reviling him for his latest failing.
She’d left all Noah-related pain behind, she lied—although we can totally identify with her relief at having her crazy ma and pa 3,000 miles back east. We did find out Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) was now at college, with “an age-appropriate boyfriend.” The session ended with Helen telling her therapist to fuck himself after one too many recommendations to look within. Oh Helen, we love you. Never smile.
One meddling mom jettisoned, another one was at home waiting for Helen. Vic’s mom was waiting for Helen. Vic’s new-found skinniness (he was skinny before; I’m confused at any suggestion he wasn’t) cause his mom displeasure. She had stocked the fridge with Indian food to fatten him up, she was doing his sewing. Why on earth was Helen so polite, and why on earth was the mom in their house; why on earth would anyone be OK with unannounced visitors letting themselves in. Vic’s mom is just as snide as her own parents, so at least she’s used to the sniping territory.
Another interloper was Helen’s sexy, mysterious female neighbor who we know is incapable of dealing with her trash, and also thinks avocados are an acceptable getting-to-know you gift.
She recommended Helen used the avocados as a face mask to get toxins out, just as her mother’s blog suggested (is the mom famous—we don’t know). When hot neighbor invited Helen to goat yoga. Helen’s disdain of Los Angeles was elevated to new levels, possibly enough to set off an earthquake.
We saw her and Vic at the parents’evening before seeing Noah. Trevor’s friendship with his buddy Brooklyn was very close, their teacher said, and the school was very supportive of their possible same-sex desire. This was telegraphed as another example of wacky L.A. plurality, whereas really it just seems decent and right.
Unlike Noah perceiving himself to be frozen out as an interloper in his own family, Helen recalls him at the Mexican restaurant swiping beers off trays and loudly imposing himself on the family.
Their confrontation, she recalled as taking place in the men’s restroom, not the women’s. Trevor was too intimidated to tell Noah he’s gay, she said. Noah said he’d be fine about it, and then Helen is honest with herself enough to say she does have a problem with it. She blames Trevor possibly being gay on Noah. (Intriguing that in Noah’s recall Helen is shown as being fine about this.)
“You have weird ideas about people becoming gay,” Noah rightly tells her.
My favorite divergence of perspective this episode: Did you notice that in Noah’s version of the story he tries to make Helen and himself seem OK with the idea of Trevor being gay; and then in Helen’s version an honesty reveals that she is not fully OK with the idea (Noah’s version that shows a kindness towards his ex-wife, and in Helen’s we get a difficult self-honesty).
Helen tells Noah that he lies beneath her fear of the big quake. She has a new life. “The only problem is you’re still in it.” She asks him to stay away for her, but it feels like a weary, ambiguous plea.
Back home, a cliffhanger: Vic suddenly collapses in the bathroom. Was this a result of his green juices to get skinny; or just the inevitable result in being caught between Noah and Helen’s battling. Or did his mother poison his electric toothbrush?
The third parties in The Affair, like Vic and Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), spend their time on the show trying to prove their place in this swirl of betrayal and psychological war games. We can see from the season four trailer Luisa will be having similar rows with Cole. Alison also looks as if she has a new “dangerous” love interest in Ben (Ramon Rodriguez).
The sea is still churning in the credits, and it looks more pitch-black than ever. In the manner of heavy-handed The Affair metaphors—it knows no other kind, and that’s fine—take from that what you will.