A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
The Affair returns from a controversial end to its first season to a refreshing hour that eschews focus on the murder mystery to focus instead on the complexity of its characters’ emotions. The construct of the Showtime series was built upon a novel deceit that somehow paid dividends, the telling of an affair from the perspectives of multiple people, specifically Noah and Alison. The framing device of a murder mystery in the present was certainly less original, but for at least the first half of the season it wasn’t a problem. In the second half of the season, however, the show began to concern itself a lot more with that murder mystery as if a bit determined to solve the mystery by the end of the season. That clearly didn’t happen, but the plot mechanics did take a good chunk of attention away from the emotional drama at the heart of its narrative and the series suffered for it. To add a bit of bemusement, the divided narrative took a dramatic scene with a gun and warped the two perspectives so much that no matter the artistic liberties taken with the concept of memories, the scene simply didn’t work. It was on that troubling note the first season ended, but the season opens with a far stronger narrative streak. That that strength arises from the focus on the emotional complexity of its narrative and only inserts the murder mystery is not a mistake.
The most welcome addition into the narrative is the creative decision to branch out beyond the viewpoints of Alison and Noah. Ruth Wilson and Dominic West were astounding in the freshman season but the supporting cast in Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson were as equally riveting. This year they get their own perspectives and it breathes new life into this show like never before. The first ten episodes told from a singular duality of perspectives was already stretching the narrative a bit thin. To divide that duality further in half lifts some of the stagnation the show had fallen into. It’s also a fairly shrewd move by the show runners, giving them license to branch out in several directions without it necessarily feeling like they’re stretching the narrative for the sake of doing so. Even more so, it gives them an additional license to retread some of the old ground without it necessarily feeling like so. The premiere is split into Noah and Helen’s points of view while the second episode follows up with Alison and Cole. The Affair, for all of its problems, nevertheless remains one of the most brutally honest stories about relationships and the complexities within them that tend to get brutally whitewashed on a regular basis. Helen and Cole’s perspectives as the spouses cheated on are inherently valuable to the integrity of the series’s storytelling efforts and if the premiere is any indication, the series is delivering on that integrity.
Helen’s perspective is more unique of the two, but that also stems from my partial dislike for Noah as a person. She certainly has the more difficulties awaiting her in this split and that imbues her arc with a heaviness that is mildly absent from her former husband’s. There’s the children, the stigma, the heartbreak, the anger, and the crushing realization that she still loves the man despite everything he had done. Clean breaks never occur, nothing ever separates in perfect halves. Cookies can’t do so, let alone marriages that have been together for decades and have produced several children. Every moment Helen is awake or perhaps even asleep, she’s bombarded with something or someone that reminds her of so many years of her life that just seemingly snapped and left nothing behind. She tries to hide behind vaping or work or Max, but she simply can’t break free. It was extremely gratifying to see Helen getting some with Max, almost as much as seeing some nice gender balancing on the nudity as Max goes full frontal while Helen remains covered. To see her laugh in any capacity at a dinner later despite the presence of her horrid mother was even more so. At home, she has no peace. At her daughter’s recital, she’s bombarded with disgusting gossip. With her mother, there’s no quiet. With her children, she has to become their emotional anchor as they come to grips with what they had perceived as their world being coming to an end. In every sense, Helen is the strongest character out of the four, the one imbued with a knowing sense of responsibility that she espouses even when it eats away at her with an unrelenting drag.
The centerpiece of the opening hour was the mediation between the two, as they had to come to terms with what they wanted from one another now that their greatest expectations were quashed into the ground in a sense. Noah, as per usual, sees himself as the victim in this case and Helen as the abrasive one in command, who simply revels in her callousness and emasculates him with little effort. In his memory, he has things at the very least in some semblance secure. He’s responsible and he has an advance of $400,000 coming in, no less. In her memory, he’s far less composed, far more brusque, and certainly not in any capacity to house his children. She wants ultimately what’s best for the children. None of the finances really matter to Helen. What matters most of all is that clean break she wants so badly, the one where the entire divorce happens as quickly as possible with as little fuss as possible. Then Noah can build his own life, Helen can build hers, and they can both go on their way with their children garnering some semblance of stability between the two. All she asks is for Noah to keep Alison away from their kids, which he refuses to do. Her simple response of “selfish” seems perfectly in order here. There would still be nothing clean here, suggested by their distinct versions of mediation no less, but there would be something that would provide some avenue of hope. Well, for Noah at least, that hope was in the form of lawyer Jon Gotlief, brought to him by a reserved Helen. Perhaps there was a clean break, but thin threads remained after all.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+“Two people at dinner with a terrible secret between them.”
+“Have you read A Mice of Men?”
“Is that a rhetorical question?”
+“It’s fiction, Harry.” Is it?
+“I want a fucking lawyer.”
+The juxtaposed shot between Max saying “Penthouse D” followed by his full frontal was hilarious
+The focus on how each of the children is taking the split of their parents was incredibly well-done. Trevor angrily tearing himself away from his father and breaking into tears in his mother’s arms was heartbreaking.
+Helen’s expression at the “sixth sense” nonsense was perfect
+“You know, now that you mention it, there was a sort of rainbow shooting out of his dick last summer. I probably should have paid more attention to that.” Maura Tierney kills it in this scene.
+So Max is some sort of sold out conservationist?
+Move over, cough drops, Helen’s got some pot lozenges from Max instead
-The oncoming storm metaphor was a bit heavy handed
*I am generally annoyed by the lack of episode titles by this point, so I’m going to just make one up for the posts and the alternative titles will also be down below.
Episode Title: 201
Alternate Title: In Mediation
Written by: Sarah Treem
Directed by: Jeffrey Reiner
Image Courtesy: Showtime