Ruth Wilson and Joshua Jackson in Showtime’s “The Affair.”
There was much to love about this episode; much that showed itself to be something of a slight, but pleasant surprise, even as there was much to remind us of the shortcomings that arise with this kind of storytelling – or possibly even because of a failure on the part of the creators of this particular. In other words, we really loved this episode for opeing up the possibilities of this story even further but we also got a reminder of the show’s limitations and weak points.
Not only does this episode continue the format of last week’s by adding the former spouse’s perspective to the retelling, but it also retracked the exact same day as last week’s, which has us wondering just where the show’s going to go as it moves forward. Are we to see every day from four different perspectives? Will we always have the exes paired this way each episode, or will we see and Alison and Noah or even Helen and Cole-specific episode going forward. It’s amazing how much this opening up has refreshed the show, which had already gotten a little stale by the end of its first season. We can thank Maura Tierney and Joshua Jackson for really bringing their A game to these first two episodes. If they couldn’t get the audience on board with their new prominence in the story, this season might have crashed and burned right out of the gate.
Not that we have a problem with Alison’s story or Noah’s last week. It’s just that neither of the two tales really told us anything new about either character because they’d both been so exhaustively explored last week. Like Noah, Alison tends to render herself as practically blameless in all her actions and beset on all sides by people who don’t understand her or ask too much of her. Granted, you could probably say that about all four lead characters, because Helen seemed beset on all sides as well, and certainly no one’s envying Cole’s life right now. What was once a story about two people who blame everyone else for their problems has now become a story about four people who do – and somehow, that made it better. Or maybe it just made it more palatable, because last season felt like the story of two selfish people but with Cole’s and Helen’s stories taking center stage, it now seems like the show creators are trying to make a point about how all people paint themselves as victims of the world to some extent. In other words, it’s not a story about two selfish people anymore. It’s a story about how all people are selfish in their own way.
Alison is barefoot and vulnerable, sweaty and bleeding when she sees Cole for the first time. And in her eyes, he looks fit and healthy; imposing, even. He sneers at Noah’s inability to fix a toilet and charms Yvonne with his apparent devastating manliness. And yet in Cole’s version, he’s an utter, hollow-eyed mess being greeted by a sweater-wearing Alison who smiles at the sight of him and hugs him goodbye. In Alison’s version, he angrily shoves their dead baby’s belongings in her face while in his version, he tenderly smells her hair as she thanks him for stopping by.
In the story of Alison’s day, we find that she’s six miles from the nearest town and without a car; that she hasn’t had much dealing with the people who own the house she’s in and has no idea if they think she’s Noah’s wife or not. She finds out that Noah never told his agent that she was there and he also never told her that Yvonne, who owns the house, is his publisher. She has little to do every day except wait for him to come him and cook him Pinterest-ready meals. She walks into town without a phone or a plan to get home and just sort of wanders around her life, chronically passive until someone inexplicably offers her something, in this case, a job almost impossibly well suited to her experiences. When she asks Noah what she is to him, he responds with a non-answer wrapped in a compliment: “You’re the best thing that ever happened to me.” When Cole shows up, he’s aggressive, sneering, and pushes all her buttons. When Noah finds out she has a job, he becomes angry, insulting and petulant, but is so passionately attracted to her that he can’t help himself. It’s a fantasy version of her life mixed in with the revelation that she’s dangerously lonely and detached from just about everything.
Cole, on the other hand, tells a story of a man beset on all sides by wealthy assholes, selfish family members, and attractive women who throw themselves at him. Cole’s story, like Helen’s, is a story of intense heartbreak and disappointment. What made his version so interesting was how well it stacked up against hers and how it revealed the class issues at the heart of this show. Because sure, Helen is having a hard time of it right now, but being rich sure does help paper over the rough spots. With Cole’s story, we got a perfect rendering of the idea that being poor makes everything suck that much more. He’s living in a trailer because he doesn’t feel he has the right to sleep in the house Alison owns, he’s working himself sick to make money while his own family members pressure him about their lack of it. Everybody around him either wants something from him or is flaunting what they do have. In Alison’s version he came practically crashing into that cabin but in his, he was like a meek boy in a place he knows he doesn’t belong. It was a side of him we’d never even considered before, even if it’s always been obvious he has issues with people who are better off than him. Through Alison’s eyes, those sentiments just looked like class envy, but through Cole’s, it becomes more nuanced; less about wanting things and more about having self worth – or lacking it, in his case.
But that very class envy and lack of self worth also produced one of the scenes that made us cringe this week and reminded us how the show can sometimes lapse into narrative cliche. When Bruce got into Cole’s cab, we were vaguely irritated by the narrative convenience but we could wave it away by noting how small Montauk is, relatively speaking. But when he started talking about Noah, and about how Noah inspired him to leave his own wife, we could not roll our eyes hard enough. Forget the extreme, credibility-stretching idea that he would just so happen to bring up the man who stole his own wife from him, people just don’t start telling total strangers their deepest thoughts and hopes for no reason whatsoever. The whole scene struck us as silly and no matter how much we try and attribute it to Cole’s personal point of view, it’s hard to deny that something like that must have happened because he couldn’t have made up those details himself.
The other pitfall to a show like this told this way is the temptation to make everything lead to something else or call back to something else in someone else’s story. Last week, the storm clouds that Noah saw on the dock in Cold Spring turned into a thunderstorm over the Manhattan of Helen’s story hours later. This week, when Noah mentioned the broken toilet of his story to Alison, Tom turned to Lorenzo and said “Just wait. We’ll see her peeing outside before — ah, there it is.” There’s a fine line between cleverly making connections and overthinking them a tad, and sometimes, this show falls into the latter category a bit much.
Still, we can’t deny that we’re fully caught up in the stories – all four of them – and happy to see interesting new cast members like the always reliable Joanna Gleason join the fray. Looking forward to more – and wondering what form the storytelling is going to take going forward, now that things have opened up so much.
Photo: Mark Schafer/SHOWTIME
For more discussion on your favorite shows and movies, visit our TV & Film forum.