The Sea, the Sea: The Heart and Soul of ‘The Affair,’ Episode Recap S4E4
In one of the best episodes of the series, Alison ‘stepped back into the ocean’ in a big way to exorcise the demons of her son’s drowning. Cole headed west to do exactly the same.
Are you OK on that couch, hun? Need some chamomile? Many, many things happened in The Affair on Sunday night. There was a lot of plot, a lot of feeling, and more than a lot of looking and brooding—enough brooding, in fact, to produce a sky full of the kind of cloud cover that hung above Alison and her new squeeze Ben’s boat trip.
And there was an affair. Finally, the show’s title was relevant again.
That boat trip was supposed to be cute, but I also kept thinking about Dead Calm, too. That’s what could be a cute date gets redrawn as on The Affair. It’s less will they get together and more: will they both get home with minds and bodies intact?
Obviously, one shouldn’t stigmatize people with mental illness, but Alison and Ben, the military veteran whose many ishoos sit alongside his general hotness, are a disaster impatiently waiting to happen.
For this beautiful, moving, and startling episode—really, a standout of the entire series—we were back in Montauk. The series co-creator Sarah Treem wrote it, and it was directed by Rodrigo Garcia, who really knows how to shoot the sea and coast at its most mysterious.
The episode began six weeks in the future again. Or is it four by now? Or two?
Well, anyway, the men—Cole and Noah are now love rivals turned best friends—are still looking for missing Alison. One guesses this bromance may sprout when Cole becomes the latest character to head to California to wherever his dad had his spiritual reawakening many years before.
But anyway, from being rivals and nemeses, they are now joined in concern for their one-time wife and affair figure, with Noah’s student Anton, who—remember—is not a plagiarist but a genius. Anton is refreshingly incredulous at Noah and Cole’s loopy backstory in a way that seems to be The Affair nodding and winking to its own fans.
Everyone we thought doesn’t get along is apparently getting along.
Alison’s point of view kicks off the action in what is supposed to be a few weeks back, with a friendly computer chat with Noah, in a sweet we’ve-been-through-the-wars-and-share-the-scars kind of a way.
Noah points out that he thought he was little Joanie’s dad for a couple of years, so likes to still feel involved, and offers Alison a couple of plane tickets to Los Angeles should she ever feel the need to get away, or “for a rainy day,” as he puts it.
That suggested to me that Alison may have gone to Los Angeles in the present day, especially as half the show is anchored there this season. We shall see.
Alison returns to Montauk to a conference about EMDR, which stands for “eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.” This means a kind of meshing of hypnosis and regression involving touch and a metronom-ing finger to get you into a trance state. Ben is there at the conference, too, and of course he and Alison end up being work partners practicing EMDR.
Alison—Ruth Wilson’s face a multitude of painful, raw-upset contortions—reveals a lot of her history to him, and what seems to be about the moment her son Gabriel drowned.
So, then Ben—who is handsome but whom you wouldn’t really trust with personally sensitive information, as he seems beyond fragile himself—suggests they take a boat trip.
My thought: The best thing to do would have been to give each other some space, or take a quiet walk along the beach.
But Ben and bug-eyed impulse are close bedfellows; even if it’s against his 12-step program practice. This will help Alison get over her fear of the ocean, he suggests. Everyone else watching: THIS IS A TERRIBLE IDEA.
Ben isn’t drinking, but he gets Alison to uncork a wine bottle and confess more—self-cutting, a suicide attempt, and then another big Affair moment beautifully acted by Wilson, a simple moment of voicing the unvoiceable that has been the heart of the show since the beginning.
She said: “Gabriel died that day. He was 4. Nobody saved him. Anyway, it’s taken me a very long time to say this without wanting to die. My son drowned. He drowned.”
Alison also reveals she wonders if she had had a premonition of Gabriel’s death ever since she was young. Ben says it may have been part of a long-held desire to be saved on her part, or to take on blame—both of which she has done throughout the show, for sure.
They share a non-kiss, and then she falls back into the water. She really is stepping back into the ocean, just as in Fiona Apple’s opening theme music.
First it seems like a blank-eyed suicide attempt, then it seems like self-baptism or rebirth. In Garcia’s ethereal direction, light dances magically over Alison’s face as she is submerged. Ben dives in after her, thinking she’s had a “fucking stroke.”
But she’s fine, she insists as she resurfaces. It really is a baptism, or some kind of reckoning and rebirth. She’s having a nice time not having sex with him, she says, splashing around. “Well, don’t get too used to it,” he says. Oh dear, it looked cute, it sounded cute; it also still screams “inevitable disaster.”
In the second half of the episode it is the next day. We’re with Cole, who seems to be about to set fire to surf dude’s tent. Surf dude is the miscreant who toyed with Cole/Forever Pacey the last time we were with him, walking on the beach feeling embattled over Luisa’s fury over both feeling trapped and dependent (as an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador), and also Cole’s continued feelings for Alison.
That night, Surf Dude humiliated and robbed Cole, leaving him on the beach. We don’t like Surf Dude. We also think burning him to death may be a tad overdoing it.
Cole really isn’t going to fry this sun-kissed douche’s summer abode. He’s going to drag him to AA. Surf dude calls him “a fucking psychopath,” clearly never having seen the last three seasons of this bananas drama. This is a vanilla Cole freakout.
At AA, Ben is there. Cole doesn’t know Ben at this point. Here, Ben is talking tough beneath a baseball cap about cocaine, drinking, and the effect both have had on his marriage. He alludes to Alison, their time on the boat, him trying to reform himself and his life for her.
Cole thinks Ben would make a great new sponsor for surf dude. These people have TERRIBLE skills and instinct when it comes to judging personality. Truly terrible.
Cole heads home, where Luisa wants him to get Alison to sign a document admitting to being an unfit parent, meaning Luisa can claim to immigration officials she’s a vital, healthy legal guardian for Joanie.
This would fry Alison’s vulnerable, hard-fought-for stability, and Cole says no just like we hope he would.
A blow-up ensues, with Catalina Sandino Moreno’s performance as Luisa another standout. If her demand sounds unreasonable, her frustration and anger is totally understandable. She not only feels nothing more than a vulnerable little-more-than-a-domestic-help, she also knows her husband has stronger feelings for another woman.
Having gotten burnt at home, Cole decides to go and get a finishing set of grill marks from his hardass mother, played so well (and this fan hopes she returns for more scenes) by Mare Winningham. He only comes to see her when something is wrong, she notes with a careworn cynicism. She also concurs with Luisa: It’s obvious Cole still has feelings for Alison.
She advises her son to go on the same kind of self-discovery “walkabout” her husband did during their own marriage before Cole was born. He came back from this Californian idyll with a surfboard, and “lighter,” she remembers.
Next, Cole heads off to pick up Joanie from Alison. He recognizes Ben and interrogates him: Does Alison know that he’s married? No, Ben says, he’ll tell her. Cole is grizzled and disturbed because he sees, like us, a disaster around the corner, but heads home without blowing Ben’s cover.
Another fight with Luisa looms: She is upset he won’t recognize her as a stronger, kinder, and more capable partner than Alison.
He suggests he leave, without owning up to his mother planting the idea and him having already made the decision. Luisa tearfully agrees, which doesn’t ring particularly true, but what she can say or do.
The very real place Cole is going to head off to is called Morro Bay, “the Gibraltar of the Pacific,” as it reads on the postcard his dad sent home to his mom all those years ago.
Off Cole goes with the postcard and his dad’s surfboard on top of his car. His dad was called Gabriel, we discover, just like his dead son. More sea, more waves, and possibly—as it was for Alison—a chance for redemption and a reckoning.
Hmm, this viewer thought, that sounds poetically dandy, but what about Joanie, what about his own duties as a father? Not for the first time does one mull how selfish the people in The Affair are, and how they don’t seem to exist in a real world of bill-paying and quotidian responsibilities the rest of us labor within.
The image of Luisa, disconsolate, recedes in his rearview mirror. His wife’s very real vulnerability—her sense of safety and security—is under threat. She needs him, emotionally and very practically (a couple of episodes back, it was his driver’s license that saved her from a sticky situation with a cop), but still, off Cole goes to find himself or whatever. Cut up his shirts, Luisa. That way, when Cole finds himself, he can also find a Gap.