Review: 'The Affair' - 'Episode 9': It wasn't your fault!
A review of tonight's "The Affair" coming up just as soon as I'm Facebook friends with my daughter...
For the most part, the split-POV structure of "The Affair" has been very much to the show's benefit. Every now and then, though, I think it changes the meaning of a scene more than might be intended. A few weeks ago, we had Helen seeming to act passive-aggressive with Alison after finding out about the affair, when we would find out a few minutes later that their encounter took place a few hours before Helen found out. Or in tonight's episode, we have Alison and Noah appearing to make independent decisions to leave their spouses at the exact same time, only to learn at episode's end that Noah called Alison to tell her he had left Helen; collaboration, not coincidence.
In the grand scheme of things, this may not seem like a big deal, and it may be that Sarah Treem and company wanted us to make that initial assumption in each case, which they would correct later. But I think the show tends to stumble when the lines between the two stories are drawn too neatly, whether it's the cheated-on spouses finding out about the affair around the same time, or (also in this episode), both Alison and Helen being reassured that a mistake made involving their child (Gabriel dying of secondary drowning, Whitney getting pregnant) wasn't really their fault, or an abandoned suicide attempt by Alison being paralleled by Noah seeing someone jump to their death in Max's neighborhood. There's a messiness to these different family groups, and to Alison and Noah's affair, that feels true to life and interesting and very much fitting with the different ways the two leads remember things. The more symmetrical the stories become — or even briefly seem — the less it fits the basic nature of those stories.
Or maybe these are just minor symptoms of my more ongoing issue with the show and the giant hole at the center of it. When Alison is off on her own, grappling with guilt over Gabriel's death — including a wonderful cameo by Jeffrey DeMunn as the boy's pediatrician (and, it's implied, Alison's once upon a time), who treats her cutting wounds without judgment — the show is great. Ruth Wilson is that good, the beach scene so well shot, the complicated intertwining of Alison's life with Cole's family so fascinating and ugly, that when the show is just focused on her, it's terrific. So is it, for that matter, when we're just watching the crumbling of the Solloway family, particularly in the way Helen's simmering anger over Noah's request for a separation hit full boil once she found Alison's bra mixed in with his clothes. (The pantomime that Maura Tierney does as Helen does the mental math on an equation she really would rather not solve was perfect.)
The relationship that's causing this problem, though, remains a boring riddle wrapped in a dull enigma. And this is where I feel like the POV structure might be actively hurting the show — even though the series as a whole suffers the more straightforward the narrative becomes. We're at a point right now where Noah is blowing up his life because he's convinced that Alison is the love of his life, a belief he sticks with even as Max makes a very potent argument against it. Here's the thing, though: the split narrative, and the change in perspective, memory and incident (say, Noah not recalling that he took Alison to see the tiny stash pad he wanted to rent her) makes for a fun play-at-home game for the audience, who can debate about what's true and what isn't, but it also makes it much harder to actually trust and believe in the emotions and motivations of the characters in moments like this. I've seen nothing from either perspective to convince me that Noah actually loves Alison, or that she might love him, but I also have no idea how much of what we're seeing from either or both perspectives is meant to be real. So I don't know if I can go with Noah doing this self-destructive thing, even if he was spurred on by the image of the roof jumper, nor do I have a clear enough sense of why Alison would pull the Kelly Taylor "I choose me" move and get on the train alone rather than going with either Noah or Cole. The show gives me a clear sense of what motivates both characters in their dealings with everyone else in their lives, but not with each other.
Maybe that's the point of the thing, and maybe next week's season finale will be largely about that. We'll see. I'm not asking for a show called "The Affair" to suddenly stop being about the relationship promised by the title. But it's so much better at almost everything else than it is at dealing with the two people on the poster.
What did everybody else think?