It is rare to cheer the television set these days, but watching Helen (Maura Tierney) bundle her insane, awful parents into a fortress-like panic room in the basement of their Montauk home was one such moment.
Thank you, The Affair, for that—and for a brilliant episode so crackling with tension and (darnit) almost the revelation of what the hell has been so corrosively eating away at Noah Solloway (Dominic West). But wow, fellow fans, you were holding your breath too, right? OK, let’s breathe together again.
We began the episode with Helen, still laboring under the guilt of having knocked over Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell) last season, after Alison (Ruth Wilson)—her successor as Noah’s wife after their affair—pushed him in front of the car Helen was driving.
Noah took the rap for it, because he felt guilty for having the affair, and because he wanted Helen to care for their children, and because he loved Alison.
In jail we know Noah has been tortured by a sadistic guard called Gunther (Brendan Fraser). Noah’s beat up mentally too, and we don’t know what is real and what is not in his present mind.
In a show that centers on the different viewpoints of characters anyway, that uncertainty has made the objective reality issue even harder to decode.
Somebody tried to kill Noah, and so this season also has been an attempted murder mystery. Noah has been wearing a bandage on his neck for officially a very long time. We are all over the bandage. Unless an alien is going to mewl forth from that damn wound, let’s lose the bandage.
After breaking up with hot doc Vic (Omar Metwally), who could not be doing with Helen’s continued twisted love for Noah, Helen decides to take her kids to Montauk, and her parents, driving past the spot where she killed Scotty.
Her mind is untethered most of the time—but then so is everyone’s on this show—and especially so after Noah’s sexual assault of her the night before. Her parents, menacingly marinated in therapy and yoga, have gone from being harrying bullies—at least it seemed on first sight—to karmic sweetie-pies. Does Vic do yoga, her mother asks: He had great energy and a strong core (we agree, we agree).
Helen confesses that she and Vic have broken up, which her parents take as a sign of her brokenness. She is falling apart, a wreck, her mother says, adding that therapy would be the answer.
Helen rushes out to the Lobster Roll, because where else to go for respite but where all this agony began—the cafe where her family, then with Noah at its head and now without, ate and where Alison first met him.
Today she sees pies made by Mrs. Lockhart, and buys three out of guilt for killing her son.
At home, Helen’s mother is boasting about the cauliflower roasted in coconut oil, the children re praising Vic for his culinary and chess tutelage, and her parents want to know what happened.
Then Helen’s daughter Stacy (Abigail Dylan Harrison) reveals she knows that Alison housed Noah in the basement the day before. All hell breaks loose. The other children want to know why she hasn’t told them. Harrison’s acting is so subtle and beautiful to watch: terrified she has done something wrong, and full of upset at the state of her family.
Helen, seeing that upset so wrenchingly laid out in her own child, chooses the moment to tell the truth: She killed Scotty Lockhart, she tells her parents and her children. Her parents immediately revert to type, tell her she is ill and delusional, and try to lock her in the panic room, dreaming up all kinds of demons and lawsuits that could flow from some honesty.
“This is where sociopaths keep women as sex slaves,” Helen notes.
Or daughters when they inconveniently tell the truth. Her mother slaps her when she again restates she killed someone, demanding Helen never say that again.
Helen gets the hell out of there, leaving her parents locked in—we all cheered at home—and then goes to the bar where we saw her encounter with Alison play out. Last week, from Alison’s perspective, Helen walked in and seemed distressed, and the two women had a civilized exchange about Noah and who he was.
In Helen’s memory, she is on her own, drinking, and Alison—a little sloshed and sloppy—approaches her. Helen explains she has brought the kids to see their grandparents.
“I miss them, give them my love,” Alison says, which really doesn’t sound like Alison. The women desultorily mull their ignorance of Noah’s would-be assassin.
“You stole my husband,” Helen suddenly says, leading Alison to order two whiskeys on the rocks. Is Alison sorry? Helen asks.
Yes and no, Alison says. She doesn’t think she was solely responsible for her and Noah having the affair, but she doesn’t like causing anyone pain. “We kind of collided. One thing led to another, everything fell apart.”
The sniping culminates in Alison apologizing to Helen and noting that the loss of her son Gabriel led her to behave recklessly. Noah saw that recklessness as freedom. But it wasn’t freedom, Alison says: “It was me not giving a shit.” Having her daughter Joanie had made her feel properly again—even if we know she absconded for months, having had one of her mental wobbles.
Alison tells Helen she has something to tell her about the night Scotty died. No, she doesn’t, Helen said.
Last week, in Alison’s memory, this is the moment Helen left. But in Helen’s version, Helen stays. Alison confesses to being there that night too, and pushing Scott into the road.
Helen wants them both to confess all, but Alison declines: Scott tried to hurt her. There is no way she is going to sacrifice her life for him. Of course, we know Alison is fighting to remain a good and present parent for Joanie, and in turmoil over her feelings for Noah and her ex, Cole (Joshua Jackson), still.
Telling Helen to take care, Alison leaves, prompting the barman to say to Helen, “Weird night,” which is what Alison recalled him saying to her last week.
The next day—with no explanation about whether her parents are still locked away in the panic room; now that would have been a fun scene—Helen goes to see Vic and confesses everything to him.
She also says she doesn’t love Noah, as Vic thought, but she hasn’t told the truth about Scotty because she is afraid of going to prison, and that Noah taking the fall seems payback for him cheating on her. Most of all, she has been a coward.
Most people are cowards, Vic says. He isn’t, Helen says. “Yeah, but I’m an asshole,” he says. And so, with a gallbladder to remove in 32 minutes (gorgeous script pearl from episode writer and show co-creator Sarah Treem), Vic leaves Helen, but with the promise of seeing her later, and finally a smile from walking rain-cloud Helen. Telling the truth worked well for her, but is she really over Noah?
Speaking of which, in his half of the episode, Noah seems to be going full-scale, crazy, nuts, madder than mad. A railway bell at the start of his half sounds like one ushering a fight. And boy, are we in for one.
Noah is on the hunt for Gunther, convinced he tortured him in jail and tormented and beat him only the night before at Helen’s.
First, Noah stalks Gunther’s wife, right to their modest suburban home with an American flag fluttering on the porch, whose door-knocker, with the letter G, he raps at. The door opens to reveal a disabled child. Noah asks to see his dad, but his mother freaks out, understandably, and the boy does too.
And there to calm this distressing scene is Gunther, softly bearded, a dad with a disabled son, who blows comforting raspberries into his neck. Gunther asks what Noah wants from him.
Noah says Gunther is trying to kill him. Why is he following him? Gunther denies all his charges, and Noah does seem unhinged. Gunther claims he has not seen Noah since Noah’s time in jail. He hasn’t been trying to kill Noah, he claims. He doesn’t know him.
Gunther restrains Noah in this exchange, but not sadistically. He did not go to Helen’s home the night before, he says—even though we saw Noah fight Gunther in Noah’s recollection, which we figured might be a figment of his damaged mind. Noah asks him to show the cut he made on Gunther’s hand with the knife he now carries. But there are no wounds or scars.
Noah runs off, and not for the first time we see Noah from another time running in some woods. This time we see him as a kid, and someone calling his name.
Head in hands and back on the train, Noah recalls being in jail again, Gunther taunting him over his thinly veiled memoir of early life. In Noah’s memory, Gunther has kept him from drinking water, he says he has drunk his own piss.
In Noah’s mind Gunther tortures him with a passage of writing about his mother’s assisted suicide, and about being relieved to watch her die. Noah says she asked him for help to die—not what Gunther is reading.
“We both agree about what happened, but disagree about the meaning of the act,” Gunther says. Noah claims not to have written the passage. Gunther says who else would have? He is too stupid to. Noah next confesses to not killing Scotty, and taking the rap for Helen because he had an affair. He thought he could save Alison, he says.
As Gunther’s taunting continues, he becomes more and more of an apparition in the cell itself, appearing suddenly here and suddenly there, to the point we wonder if he is really the sadist Noah recalled.
Next, Noah returns to the apartment in New Jersey where he was stabbed in the neck, and again—just like that night—there are sounds and strange things like taps running. Is someone there? His assailant again? He again goes to the sink where it happened, and again recalls running in the woods as a kid.
His dad is pursuing him to the lake, where a few weeks ago we saw him thrashing about only to be confronted by a vision of himself as a teenager. “What did you do, son?” his dad asks Noah. There is no answer to this yet—although I’d put a far from certain bet on Noah killing another boy when he was younger.
And then, The Affair reveals the answer to who Noah’s assailant was: Noah. Yes, it turns out he stabbed himself in the neck, and on this return night stops himself from doing the same thing again.
And so, what did Noah do as a boy? Next week’s season finale promises a trip to Paris for him to see sultry academic Juliette (Irène Jacob), and the possibility of healing a relationship “in desperate need of repair.” This could be either Helen or Alison, whose own stories, and poor underwritten Cole’s, are also in flux, and still full of secrets and lies.
And that’s a yes to answer your next question: If you didn’t already know, there will be a Season 4.