The precise messiness of The Affair Season 2 (spoilers)
James R | On 28, Nov 2016
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not caught up with Season 2 finale? Read our review of the first five episodes here.
“At first, Noah seems like the greatest guy on Earth. But then, you start to really get to know each other…”
That was Alison in The Affair Season 2, which continued the story of her relationship with Noah, a relationship that ruined his marriage to Helen, fractured hers to Cole, and was also somehow connected to the death of Cole’s brother, Scotty Lockhart. Season 1 was a patchwork of memories refracted through their recollections, as the couple were interrogated by Detective Jeffries about Scotty’s hit-and-run killing. Season 2 muddied the waters further, with Noah apparently about to go on trial for Scotty’s murder in the future, and Cole’s and Helen’s perspectives added into the mix.
The result not only introduced other sides to their relationships, but also bound each of the subplots together. That’s what makes The Affair so compelling to watch: the production precisely recreates the messiness of real life in every single department. Emotional entanglements are mapped out by the show’s form, the colliding narratives driven by the quartet’s intersecting lives. The canvas gets bigger, but that only makes its focus smaller, made up of tiny details.
After a first half of reappraised scenes and revealed unseen conversations, the second half of Season 2 subtly reinforces just how much Noah and Alison are drifting apart. It’s not its usual tricks of make-up, lighting and camera angles; the episodes move from overlapping accounts to separate strands that barely seem to meet.
Noah (Dominic West) almost spends more time with Helen (Maura Tierney) than Alison, as their son, Martin, has stomach problems (that Helen’s mum blames Noah and the pending divorce for). But he and Helen also end up revisiting old haunts for a drink, after he does a reading from his book, Descent, the one that describes Alison (Ruth Wilson) as “the very definition of [sex]”. Alison, on the other hand, reconnects with Cole (Joshua Hartnett), who is starting to form a new relationship with Luisa.
The chemistry between Hartnett and Wilson, and between Tierney and West, makes these moments often feel more natural than their new partnerships, as the writing team, led by Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, accurately capture the underlying affection that can exist between old flames. We also get new depths revealed for each character, from Noah encouraging Helen to have an abortion while at college to her secretly wanting his first book to fail, so he would stay at home more with the family.
And so it comes as no surprise that, amid all this rekindling, the paternity of Noah and Alison’s baby should come into question – you can easily believe that it belongs to Cole. So much so that Scotty, who crashes back into Alison’s new life away from Montauk, tries to blackmail her using that suspicion, in order to get her financial support to buy out the Lobster Roll. Cole, ordering Scotty to sort out his drug problem, ends up buying it at auction with Alison instead; a union that they both keep secret from Noah.
It’s inevitable that he finds out, of course, just as it’s inevitable that he keeps getting tempted to have sex with every woman he meets. Like Alison, we soon grow to realise that Noah isn’t perfect. In fact, he’s a horrible person with an ego the size of his sex drive. Season 2, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from that, as we see Noah rise in the publishing world (Descent is a literary smash hit) and sink into debauched parties, almost having sex with his publicist, Eden, not to mention a student of his. He even starts perving over two women making out at a fancy shindig – only to discover one of them is his daughter. (She disappears soon after – presumably in an off-screen race with Martin to see who can reach the Annoying Offspring finishing line first.)
All that occurs in Episode 9, one of several bold departures from the traditional back-and-forth structure. Noah’s party, which takes place during a severe storm (hello, dramatic symbolism), is just one of many events that are presented in chronological order in a single hour-long story, a sign that things are beginning to coalesce. It’s in the same episode that Alison has her baby, without Noah present, and that Cole discovers that Luisa is infertile – by the time we learn that Alison’s child is Cole’s, it’s a double-sting of tragedy that really hits home.
Episode 10 goes one step further, with Noah’s storyline solely consisting of a 30-minute therapy session with his couples counsellor. It’s a fantastic turn by West, who is magnetic to watch for half an hour, as he tries to reason with himself that his infidelity, and his urge to go to Paris by himself and write and have sex, is somehow part of what will make him a great author – a sexist, pathetic argument that he delivers with enough conviction for us not to hate him, but without the show ever condoning it. Alison, by contrast, gives up her med school dreams to look after her child – and, eventually, to buy the Lobster Roll with Cole. (Their faces, in particular, remain fascinating to watch, from her twitches of doubt and pain to his smug smirks.)
Following a nifty time-jump by one year, so that we can see Alison and Noah grow close again, all of our parties collide at Cole and Luisa’s wedding. Things are as complicated and torn as ever. The paternity truth emerges, but Noah tells Alison he loves her anyway on the dance floor – and yet still spends half the night away with Helen drinking on the beach. Scotty, meanwhile, belts out House of the Rising Sun on-stage, in a fab little montage that captures the misery lurking underneath the surface of a shiny, romantic occasion; The Affair isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s moments like this that make it worth watching.
Throughout all of this, Noah’s still having his nightmarish visions about running Alison over, something that’s not helped by the fact that he changes Descent’s ending so she dies, as per his publisher’s wishes. When he and Helen end up back in a car together after the wedding, therefore, he gets her to drive, and – wouldn’t you know it? – that’s the point at which Scotty finally gets hit by that mysterious car. Just beforehand, Noah touches her hand, as they reminisce over a familiar tune on the radio (again, the show’s writers are great at those details, understanding how music can trigger memories of the past to bubble up), and Helen looks away from the road. So does that mean it’s Noah’s fault as well? Before we start to process his decision not to say that Helen was in the car with him – a decision that also helps to explain why Helen has been paying for his defence lawyer all season – The Affair delivers its final alternate timeline of Season 2. And it’s a humdinger, as we see Alison’s take on the day. Confronted by Scotty over the Lobster Roll and Cole being her baby’s father, she pushes him into the road… just as Helen and Noah’s car goes past. So does that mean his death is her fault, as well as Helen’s and Noah’s?
Like we say, not subtle. But if you’re going to do melodrama, don’t do it by halves – and boy , does The Affair commit to that philosophy, using its over-arching mystery to once again make sure that these people are inseparable from each other, both sexually, emotionally and morally. This trio don’t just dismantle a marriage together; they also kill someone. Which, perversely, brings them closer to each other. It’s a superb ending to a season that manages to feel both contrived and logical.
And so, just as in Season 1 with his love life, Noah has to choose between two options: implicate Alison (Jeffries finds a wedding card with her name on it at the scene) or admit Helen was driving. His answer: Lie and take the blame in court by himself. Does that make him the greatest man in the world? Or is it a self-pitying act of penance from one of the worst men on television? Did Scotty get hit by a car? Was he pushed? In a series based around conflicting accounts and the constant doubt that plagues everyday life, sometimes, both answers are the truth.
Season 1 to 3 of The Affair is available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on-demand on NOW, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to other Sky channels, including Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash), Sky Atlantic (Westworld, Game of Thrones, Billions) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead).
Photo: Phil Caruso/SHOWTIME