A Television Review by Akash Singh
NOTE: SPOILERS OCCUR!!!!!!!
What is a great man? Is his greatness synonymous with remembrance and if so, then whose remembrance would that be? Perhaps a man is enamored as great because of how his family remembers him or by his extension his loved ones at large. Perhaps a man is remembered because of how history remembers him, a figure larger than life with the term “The Great” helpfully attached perhaps. Is said greatness established by certain deeds and whom judges those deeds to be great in the first place? If a man is great by whatever methodology devised, then what does that ultimately mean about him as a person, about the entirety of his existence? The word “greatness” when applied to an individual almost What about his mistakes, his failures, his sins? Do those diminish his greatness or are they a vital part of it? Once those flaws are taken into account, is he still great or does that diminish his stature? Noah is obsessive over this question, his new novel constructed around that thesis statement. A year has passed since The Descent first made those shockwaves that landed a naked Noah in a pool of water where, unbeknownst to him, was Whitney. After that exceedingly destabilizing moment, Noah professes that he came to a realization. He realized that after the pulpy success of The Descent (which is an admission I never expected him to make after that pathetic self-pity session with Helen in the bar), he wanted something more significant from his work, something that would steer him into a more respectable echelon of literature.
Noah’s new novel jumps towards a figure that fits right into his idea of a white, straight, masculine hero, a man who went down in history with a legacy of heroism and valor on the most desperate of battlefields. That legacy provides him in his mind with the framework for an entry into a much more respected genre in historical fiction. But Noah in espousing the life of World War II General Omar Bradley is less about the wartime general than it is about what Noah feels about himself. Noah perhaps may not understand it and this is perhaps a result of a bias in which the audience has a greater understanding of the characters than they themselves do, but he is effectively living vicariously and rarely for himself. That doesn’t necessitate that him living by himself being a good thing (my dislike for Noah stands quite strongly), for himself or anyone else for that matter. Yet no one besides Noah could deny that The Descent mirrored his life so closely as it was and that his war project is a projection of where he wants his life to be. It’s the insight into his character that crafts the most sympathetic portrayal of him since the beginning of the series, but I still can’t bring myself to find much sympathy for him as a whole. That feeling in and of itself is rooted from the vantage of Noah, despite being in a therapy session with Dr. Marilyn, being completely at odds with his tremendous amount of dishonesty about his own self. His therapy session with Dr. Marilyn (played superbly by the fantastic Cynthia Nixon) functions as a half-hour constructed around that entire reality, already tainted by incredible self-doubt as he notes that Joanie only says “Mama” and not “Dada.”
That self-pity becomes a grander feeling of judgment. Dr. Marilyn notes succinctly how Noah feels judged by all the women in his life, how he sees a similar expression on all of their visages. Alison stares at him, Whitney looked upon with scorn, and he remembers how Helen looked at him when Alison first appeared in their relationship. And when he notes that he wanted to fuck one of his students, he sees judgment in the eyes of his therapist. After the Whitney incident, Noah spent the entire year stepping up in his relationship to give Alison more leeway, which on the surface is more admirable but all of the things he touts are things that he should be involved with anyhow, like chores and changing Joanie’s diapers. But that underlying fear of the cheater he might become again because he’s already done it once remains constant, coagulating uncomfortably with his father feeling proud that he gave up on Noah’s sick mother but he never cheated on her. That was where my understanding of Noah reached its greatest depths, right before he tipped the scale backwards. Noah notes off a plethora of men like General Bradley who were considered great, ending his list with wanting to emulate Ernest Hemingway and go to France, do whatever and whomever and simply write. Dr. Marilyn chillingly notes that Hemingway blew out his brains at the age of sixty. Noah laugh that off, but he can’t laugh off the points his therapist makes in regards to great men who didn’t cheat and those who do cheat but are nowhere near the greatness Noah envisions for himself. Despite her ending with a kind note towards her patient, the crux of Noah’s existence is that he is torn between the trappings of his past and present and his desires to commit adultery, using the pretext of wanting to become great.
For once, Noah’s half is much more plot-substantive, but Alison’s journey feels a lot more sympathetic than a man who simply wants to cheat all the time. Alison is going back to school to complete her dream of becoming a doctor, but the pressure of getting back on that track is pressing upon her significantly. Her self-doubt that’s accumulated over the years condenses into this course, her face palpably filling with fear when the words “protein bonding” are mentioned (I feel you, Alison, I truly do). She leaves quickly, considering dropping the course altogether and on her way home she runs into Scotty. Except this Scotty seems to have taken a significant turn for the worse, which is saying something considering Scotty hasn’t ever really looked that good to begin with (health wise, for clarification). He notes that he’s done dealing drugs since Noah’s novel caused his police cover to disappear and the hurricane from before had caused enough damage to the Lobster Roll that Oscar wasn’t able to complete the repairs at all. Alison wisely neglects his offer, but it’s an offer that Cole’s ears notably perks up at. Alison meeting Cole a year after was an interesting scene to watch, as his impending marriage, job in the city, and spiced olives craft the happiest Cole we’ve ever seen. Their meeting was more amicable than one would hope for, but as nice as the two are with one another, Alison’s sadness is palpable. As she walks out of the bar door, she looks back through the glass towards Cole and Luisa, wondering perhaps if the life she had garnered was the one she had wanted, after all (not that she knows about Noah’s infidelity desires). When she arrives home, Noah is in the kitchen, wanting to end couples’s therapy because he’s assured that everyone is happy. Alison agrees quietly, her eyes speaking a completely different truth. Her refrain of “I love you” during sex was another moment of sadness for a character whose known little of anything else for so long. Joanie at last says “Dada” and Noah’s face lights up, but even that moment is ephemeral, cast with a darkened shadow.
Great/Not So Great Moments Not Mentioned Above:
+Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, show runners on The Affair, were instrumental in the sublime HBO series In Treatment. A high recommendation if one enjoyed the strong therapy sequence.
+Helen is still with Dr. Ullah a year later! Go, Helen!
+The detective from Montauk
+“I’m not judging, Noah. I’m just thinking.”
+“I am a terrible, terrible, fucking sick, bad guy.
+“You wanted to die rather than face yourself?”
+Drunk, delinquent husband, terrible father
+“Skepticism about fidelity as a virtue.”
+The use of Captain America is the best use of pop culture for a metaphor since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in season one
+I really love that Cole is into spicy olives. It’s such a subtle, random, yet perfect detail of how he’s changed
+Noah choosing not to show Alison the divorce letter after therapy and lying that he went and saw Captain America instead. So much for the “I don’t want to lie” refrain from the session.
+I love how Gottlief’s opening ends with “[Noah] is a good man.” He can never be great on this trajectory.
–The Affair usually stays away from soapy moments, but the whole “She looks like her daddy” moment was eye roll worthy
Episode Title: 210
Alternate Title: A Great Man
Written by: Anya Epstein
Directed by: Scott Winant
Image Courtesy: Showtime