Why do we do it to ourselves, Affair fans?
Perhaps it’s televisual sadomasochism. Perhaps we like fiendish puzzles. The acting and the writing of this Sunday night Showtime drama are smart, and the story line now so byzantine and complicated, it’s an addictive parlor game. That might have something to do with it. Maybe we like watching rich New Yorkers suffer.
Whatever, The Affair is back to torment us, and Episode 1 of Season 2 was pretty determined to muddy matters further than they are already muddied.
A slightly new version of the haunting theme was sung by Fiona Apple, with the main characters’ faces rippling into view amid the foaming waves.
In Season 1, the conceit was to watch the gestation and results of an affair in Montauk, Long Island, between novelist Noah (Dominic West) and waitress Alison (Ruth Wilson), as told from both their skewed perspectives behind the backs of his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), and her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson).
In various readings, Noah was a self-obsessed asshole or trapped in an impossible situation. Alison was mired in grief following the death of her and Cole’s son, and self-destructive. Helen was long-suffering, and finally furious. Cole was decent but ultimately a menacing central cog of Montauk’s prime Mafia-style, drug-running family. That family was not to be messed with—especially its matriarch, played by Mare Winningham, whom Alison learned…well…never to lie to while chopping tomatoes with.
At the end of Season 1, Noah and Alison were living together in a flashy New York apartment, now husband and wife, he a huge writing success, and they had a baby daughter. Film deals were on the table. But then the police came and arrested Noah for the murder of Scotty, Cole’s brother, who had gotten Noah’s daughter, Whitney, pregnant.
Now in Season 2, we add Helen and Cole’s perspectives. There are now four perspectives to one story and, well, things are just as baffling as they were when, told from just two perspectives, we weren’t sure what happened at any key moments. Everything was dependent on who was speaking. There was no one truth to anything.
It turns out, if we believe Episode 1 of Season 2, there was no swanky apartment or writing success or new baby. That was a figment of Alison’s imagination.
In his version of what happened next, Noah awakens from a nightmare of a hit-and-run—which is how Scotty died, but maybe this is just an invention of Noah’s, knowing that there had been a hit-and-run.
When he wakes it is in his bed inside a cool shack in a writer’s colony in Cold Spring, New York, where he’s writing. No sign of Alison.
He goes to see his agent, who questions whether the ending of the book he is working on—a couple sitting in silence, a hideous secret between them—is a good enough ending. Couldn’t it be more salacious? Of Mice and Men ended with a murder, written by John Steinbeck as both unexpected and inevitable, and that had literary merit.
Noah’s story features four brothers and is very East of Eden, says Noah’s agent, but Noah insists it is fiction, not reality.
Noah heads to his former marital home to pick up some possessions, where he is met by Helen’s mother, Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant in magnificent, vinegary form—she steals the whole episode), who slices and dices Noah every which way for his behavior, and telling him his children aren’t there.
She is lying. Martin, his older son (Jake Siciliano), overhears Noah threatening to push Margaret down the stairs. He is suffering from stomachaches and is clearly falling to pieces.
Both Noah and Margaret ask each other venomously how each can look in the mirror every day. The brilliance of The Affair, maddening as it is, is that both are right.
Then Noah sees his other son, Trevor (Jadon Sand), who asks—devastated after learning his parents have broken up—how is it his father can fall in love with somebody else.
“I don’t know exactly, I just did,” Noah says, earning a punch and a bloody nose from his son, an injury he takes to his first mediation session with Helen.
The mediator, an inappropriately cheery fellow in Noah’s vision, calls both Noah and Helen rookies, and says the sessions are meant to put a failed marriage humanely to sleep. Noah wants nothing from Helen except joint custody of the kids. She can keep the house—it’s hers, anyway—and her store. She won’t agree to anything if Alison is anywhere near their children.
In his version she is gimlet-eyed and cold.
Noah has a $400,000 advance for his book, so he is well off, but the puzzlement over the last episode of the first season persists. Even in his own vision, Noah is not living in a flashy New York apartment with Alison and their child.
And he appears to be a free man, with no mention of the murder or Scotty’s death, apart from that dream flashback.
Indeed, he returns to the shack in the writing colony, and Alison is there—no baby—and they have a romantic dinner. Then they dance, and then he has a beer out on the riverside dock attached to their property as storm clouds gather over the river.
Noah then wakes up in the cold light of the police station, charged with vehicular homicide—Scotty’s homicide. “I want a fucking lawyer,” he says.
What has happened to time here, the viewer thinks? We left the show with Noah’s arrest in Season 1. Was all of what we witnessed, with mediation sessions and visits to the family home and the writing colony home, a dream?
Part II of the hour is Helen’s perspective. She too recalls the mediation session, but while in her husband’s eyes she is cold and in control, in hers she is the victim and all at sea. She offers to help pay for an apartment so he can see the children—her parents could help—but he spits that he doesn’t want their money.
In Helen’s version of the mediation session, the mediator sits alongside Noah, not—in Noah’s version—in the middle of them; the two men ranged against her. He lies to Helen that he is not living with Alison, when—if we are to believe him—he is.
Noah has always been the struggling writer and Helen the already financially well off wife, independent of him. And in her version, he is still subservient to her in this sense.
Noah is aggressive and sneering in Helen’s version of the mediation, and the mediator sharper and less ridiculous. Intriguingly, in both versions, they each imagine themselves as behaving more decently than the other.
Helen, in her version, is not the weepy victim of Season 1. She vapes dope in Washington Square Park and accepts pot lozenges from her new squeeze, Max, a mutual friend of hers and Noah’s. In a neat reversal of television norms, it is Max’s body on display—bum, nut-sack, and all—in the opening bed scene that forms Helen’s story. Helen’s stays mostly wrapped up in a duvet.
Max couldn’t be more different from Noah. He is a successful, wealthy hotel developer with a thing for almond milk who’s very particular about the ingredients of his fruit salad.
His and Helen’s affair is immediately couched in hedonism. The hotel room is in one of his new properties, and booze bottles and the paraphernalia of a lost evening out litter the room.
Helen says it’s embarrassing: They should tidy it up (a lovely piece of writing—you can take the domestic goddess into a licentious sexual relationship, but you can’t remove the domestic goddess from the room, even if she has a raging hangover).
Later they go to a benefit, where Max regales their table with how they met; how much he still admires Helen’s bohemianism. Her snobby witch of a mother sees Max as a much more suitable partner than Noah, who was always a failure in her eyes, and now more so for breaking her daughter’s heart. Indeed his adultery merely confirms for Margaret his innate failure as a partner.
In Helen’s version of the mediation session, Noah says he needs time but will get the money for a property big enough for the children to stay in; in his version he already has the money.
Sometimes the differing interpretations are subtly drawn. In the mediation scene, Noah sees Helen wearing wan white and being abrupt; he is wearing a jacket and tie. In her interpretation, she is wearing black, and he is in chaotic casual clothes.
In Helen’s version, other mothers whisper behind her back about the breakdown of her marriage when she picks her youngest daughter up from ballet, and one of those mothers asks Helen if she ever saw any signs of Noah’s affair.
The new, angrier, bitter Helen shoots back: “There was a rainbow shooting out of his dick last summer—I probably should have paid more attention to that.”
Back at home, Trevor is crying after Noah’s visit, which we saw from Noah’s point of view. So, although Noah awoke from dreaming about that visit, that dream was based in a reality, even though that reality bears no relation to the flashy Manhattan life with Alison we saw in the final episode of Season 1. And what of the baby from that scenario?
Whitney, Noah and Helen’s troubled teenage daughter, appears, wanting to write an essay about Scotty holding a gun to her head. Her grandmother, funding her university life, forbids from her doing so, calling it self-indulgence rather than self-expression.
Margaret wants Helen to litigate Noah out of her life; Helen—far from being the cold ex seeking to detach herself as she is in Noah’s eyes—tells her mother that 25 years together, and four children, means she hopes she can figure something out with Noah. Which Helen is the real Helen? Of course both are.
In Noah’s version, Helen wants nothing to do with him; in Helen’s, although she is with Max, the years with Noah still mean something, even if her children will not talk to her over Margaret’s inedible attempt at dinner. She succeeds in getting her children’s attention only by saying Justin Bieber is in the room.
The same storm Noah saw over the river in his section produces thunder and lightning outside Helen’s brownstone. As the cracks and rumbles sound, she observes the space where Noah took his picture from the wall in his version of events, another confirmation that Noah really was at the house, that his dream was a version of reality.
Oh no, you thought. Not again. Another slice of my year given over to The Affair, never knowing what is for real. But the performances and writing are so good, and the mystery so dense, that you have to watch it, if only as a test of your own faculties. How couples watch The Affair is the real mystery. Please, someone, film this.
In the final scene for Helen—no dream for her—The Affair cuts to a police station, and Helen employing a ruthless lawyer, played by The West Wing’s Richard Schiff, to defend Noah. “Thank you,” Noah says to his wife. The murder charge is current.
So Alison’s vision of her and Noah’s future life of Manhattan glamour rudely interrupted by his arrest was either a lie or The Affair has led us into another time vortex. Far from becoming a success, Noah and Alison have decamped to an arty shack by the river—no baby—after the revelation of the affair, with him working on his book. Perhaps the $400,000 advance helped buy that apartment; perhaps Alison did have a child later. Perhaps the last scene of Episode 1 happened long after the events of Season 2’s first episode.
Perhaps time is the strange arrow here, and there is more time for Noah and Alison to be together where he does become very successful and moves from the writer colony shack to the swank apartment, where he is arrested, having started a new family with Alison. Maybe Alison was telling the truth.
Alison’s part of the story—and also Cole’s—will presumably come next week, and elucidate this.
Or, knowing The Affair, it make things a thousand times more complicated. We fans will be there, cursing the madness we have signed up for and the twisted brilliance of the writers and producers behind it.