If posh, liberal nerves are shot because of the election, then Showtime wants to shred them to their rawest, tingling ends. Yes, The Affair is back, that everyday story of happy, settled metropolitan folk who spend their days and nights engaged in friendly, intellectually zinging conversation, and hot romancing in fancy Manhattan brownstones.
As any fan knows, The Affair is a tortuous parlor game, focusing on the fallout of an upper middle-class marriage which has progressed to affairs within affairs, abuse, murder, and a miscarriage of justice. The Affair is now so complicated that one comes to dread the beginning-of-episodes, “Previously on The Affair…” because how on earth do you compress the précis of the merry-go-round of dysfunction these people excel at in their perfectly appointed milieus of Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Montauk.
Welcome then, dear brave fellow masochists, to Season 3. We left horny and mostly scoundrel-embodying author Noah Solloway (Dominic West) standing up in court and claiming responsibility for the death of Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell).
He didn’t do it. Noah was a passenger in a car driven by his ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney), after Scotty was pushed into the trajectory of said car by Noah’s perhaps-not-now-present partner/former mistress Alison (Ruth Wilson). He was protecting both of them, in no small part because they are the mothers of his children.
Or at least he thought he was, because he’s actually not the father of Joanie, Alison’s daughter, whose father is her ex-husband Cole (Joshua Jackson). Before the car crash, we had seen both original, pre-affair couples—Noah and Helen, Cole and Alison—together again and pretty happy. Not for long.
The first surprise of Season 3: Fiona Apple has remastered the lyrics to that opening theme to make it even more staccato and creepy; the credits themselves are darker and still feature the sea, but it looks even blacker, and even more characters descend blurrily into its depths.
The cast list has expanded to include Noah and Helen’s children, and Irène Jacob, who plays a sultry academic, Juliette Le Gall.
And, for at least this first episode, just one perspective. Affair fans are used to seeing two perspectives, sometimes of the same events, in one episode. In this season opener, written by Sarah Treem, the show’s co-creator, it was just Noah’s point of view we saw and not much of the wonderful Tierney and Wilson, which, this viewer hoped, was a temporary blip.
It turned out his false courtroom confession had worked: He had been locked up for three years, and this first hour weaved between his time inside and his new life outside, working as a creative writing tutor at Princeton University to a bunch of namby-pamby, mollycoddled millennials.
Noah is his usual difficult-to-love self, but is so sexy that any heterosexual female who may object to him, or is hurt by him, ends up fancying him or having sex with him. The message of Noah Solloway: All is not lost for terrible partners and terrible dads, who happen to be charismatic stud-muffins.
Noah begins Season 3 with a heavy beard (he really should shave it off, his sister says rightly, he looks “insane”), at his dad’s funeral, his sister protecting him from her husband’s charges that he is a selfish asshole. The husband, scary as he may be, is right—we know that.
But the first brilliant piece of screenwriting saw Noah deliver his father’s eulogy—haltingly because the niceties of the traditional tribute caught in his throat. He didn’t know his father, he admits, and didn’t like him.
We see Helen at the funeral, hopeful of a future with Noah, which he does not want. His eldest son Martin (Jake Siciliano) wants nothing to do with him—so a nice bit of history repeating itself there. Noah calls Alison later to try and build a bridge (but we don’t see her), and we have no idea what has happened to his relationships with Alison and Helen. We as yet have no idea how they lived with him accepting guilt for something he didn’t do to protect them.
He is no longer the lauded famous author, but an ex-con tentatively rebuilding his life. We see he is also pill-poppingly shaken-up and vulnerable because of some terrible experience related to a prison guard.
This first episode, with blurry sightings of said person first outside and then—literally most shatteringly—in a liquor store, had elements of horror movie about it. Whatever happened between Noah and the guard is somehow caught up with the outdoors and the sound of a train. This season: sounds of train/forests/nighttime—all BAD.
Vogueishly, The Affair trod into the hot current topic of campus sexual assault and cosseted millennials. Noah verbally rounded on Audrey, one of his students in his creative writing class—rightly, her composition was navel-gazing dirge-drivel—who dashed out in tears.
Later, exhausted, he awoke after taking a nap in a church (as you do) to the dulcet tones of foxy Juliette. They chanced upon a campus demonstration about sexual assault, and Juliette mused about students wanting to feel “secure” now. In their day, the whole idea of going to university was being in an arena where you, and your ideas, were challenged.
Juliette is smitten by this screw-up, because why not, and invites him over for dinner where there are two male students and two female students (including Audrey). The female students are exercised about sexual assault and gender transgressions, the male students feel they can’t fuck a female counterpart without being accused of being potential rapists, depending on the young woman’s whims the morning after.
Noah’s own crimes of passion and real crimes are bought up by Audrey. In Descent, his potboiler distillation of what happened in Seasons 1 and 2 between him, Helen, and Alison, the moment he and Alison had rough sex against a tree is brought up. Audrey describes it as rape; Noah describes sex as blurred itself, “a war between intellect and instinct.”
“Merveilleux,” sighs Juliette, très French-ly, très predictably. She spends this first episode gazing at Noah in horny wonderment. Because she is French and so much more laconic and worldly than the fools of American academia around her, she just loves ze fucked-up men like Noah who say ze bad things and outrage all ze social mores. Oohlala.
Audrey is bewitched too, because what point are your staunch feminist principles when confronted by the hot sex magnet that is Noah Solloway? That is until he wonders why she feels unsafe in his class, and says he only pushes her in class to take her out of her comfort zone; and she says, as a woman, she never feels safe, or in any comfort zone.
Well, OK. And well-distilled from headlines and all the right websites, Affair scribes. And thanks for listening to us watchers, who—as bewitched by West’s gorgeous butt as any reasonable human would be—have struggled to see Noah thus far as anything but an indulged, screwed-up abuser. But Audrey, just FYI: no one is in a safe space or in a comfort zone in The Affair, so welcome to the freakin’ party.
Lucky Juliette gets to bed the newly non-bearded Noah, and just as his muscular, zero-body fatted loins are getting into their rhythmic stride, there roars a train outside. Nightmare time. Evil guard time. Out into the night Noah sprints. Is this the evil guard he sees in the shadows? No, it isn’t.
But back at his digs, it all gets very Cronenberg. For some reason, his kitchen light is the only one in any suburb anywhere that is the flickering blue neon of a horror film mortuary. (We suggest a softer bulb. They’re a steal in Home Depot.) Ants are crawling everywhere. (Noah, babe, get some Raid.)
Horror appears imminent, because the bulb is also menacingly loud in its flickering. And indeed, our anti-hero is soon hitting the deck in his weird suburban mortuary kitchen, slashed in the neck by an unseen assailant, blood spurting from the wound as if Wes Craven himself had popped in to say a cheery hello.
The Affair, then, has a new mystery: Who tried, and maybe succeeded, to kill Noah? We have a missing three years, the usual cast list of suspects (minus Scotty), plus an evil guard for a storyline that looks set to be six parts Oz to four parts Shawshank. In short: another whodunnit, with loads of philosophical and sexual-political musing on the side to class it up. And, it would seem, the writers are going make Noah decent, just as they line up a gallery of suspects to kill him.