The Ghosts Are Very Real In ‘The Affair’: Review of S3 E6
The Daily Beast
January 1, 2017
If you had made a resolution for fresh starts for 2017, clean slates and all that, then The Affair was ready to throw you face-first back into the manure of the past. Amid the crud of secrets, ghosts, betrayal, and resentment is where the characters are happiest.
And so it was in episode six of the third season, which picked up from Noah (Dominic West), possibly being run off the road by evil prison guard Gunther (Brendan Fraser)—or was it the ghost of Gunther. Anyway, the evil guard who made Noah’s life hell in jail is still around, physically or corrosive memory.
Whatever and whoever, Noah crashed sexy French academic Juliette’s (Irène Jacob) little red runaround, and this after saying farewell to his ex-wife Alison (Ruth Wilson), just when they had been at their most honest and loving with one another–although she hadn’t told him she’d just had sex with her ex Cole (Joshua Jackson) too. Noah had signed his and Alison’s divorce papers. The mystery of who had stabbed him remained.
This episode, written by Alena Smith, opened with Helen (Maura Tierney), Noah’s ex, and her lover Vic (Omar Metwally), having dinner with her bombastic dad Bruce (John Doman). This would become an episode about parents and their children, and their strange, deep ties in particular.
Helen still loves Noah, we know that. We also know she was driving the car that killed Scott Lockhart (Colin Donnell), and that Scott was pushed into the path of that car by Alison. Noah took the rap for both women, went to jail for three years, and neither woman knows that the other was partly responsible for what happened that night. Nobody does.
Honestly, these people would somehow make a five-hour melodrama out of going to Duane Reade for deodorant.
Bruce had a surprise. He had been dumped by his lover and returned to Helen’s mother, Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant).
Luckily enough, their divorce had not been finalized. They had a big old snog in front of Helen. Vic was enjoying what seemed to be a significant supper with Helen’s parents, but Helen was finding it excruciating.
Bruce wished casually someone had stabbed Noah years ago: it would have saved a lot of trouble. Helen defended Noah, which wasn’t lost on Vic. Noah had been a bad father, said Bruce—which earned an ironic snort from this viewer’s couch at least, and later Helen’s scorn was clear in a tense walk home with Vic, where they seemed like two strangers—especially after a mistimed joke about a double wedding, featuring themselves and Helen’s parents renewing their vows.
The next day, Helen and Noah were due to meet Martin’s (Jake Siciliano) headmaster. The teen is a big cloud of trouble waiting to happen, and he had been playing truant. And he believes his father killed Scotty. He doesn’t care about anything.
“My husband…” she began to say of Noah. “Ex-husband,” said Martin.
Helen’s day from hell continued with a visit to Noah’s sister, Nina (Jennifer Esposito). It didn’t stay that civil for very long. Why, Nina demanded, did Noah continue to mean so much to Helen? Helen lied, and said it was about the kids. “Maybe it’s best for all of you if you just let him go,” Nina said, detecting obvious bullshit.
Nina also told Helen she had been blind to Noah’s true self—perhaps it was own narcissism or selfishness that obstructed her view. Noah was screwed up when he met Helen—his mother had just died. Did Helen imagine she was rescuing a vulnerable deer, Nina asked contemptuously. “Noah was using you. To get the fuck away from us,” she added.
Helen affected to know nothing of this, and seemed genuinely clueless: the whole half of her episode was realizing how little she knew about her own family life. The question is why: maybe she wanted to live in a constructed paradise, whose foundations were shaky from the get-go.
Despite Helen demanding she do so, Nina would not reveal a particularly dark secret from Noah’s past. “My brother has been in pain for years and you didn’t see it.”
Helen, horrified at the drubbing she had received, left Nina’s house pronto, but not before Nina directly asked if she had had anything to do with the accident that killed Scotty—and Helen lied she had been at home.
If Nina was in The Affair more, it struck this viewer, there would be like two episodes max. She’s got everyone figured out.
Helen decided to make her day that much worse by going to see Max (Josh Stamberg). Noah’s college buddy who Helen slept with last season. Now he was getting married to Danielle, a Vogue editor he met at the gym. Of course he was; that’s who exactly he would end up with.
“Between the two of us, I’m winning,” Max said.
“Between me and you?” Helen, asked, alarmed.
“Me and her,” Max said, meaning Danielle.
Helen took this as both rejection and challenge, particularly when it turned out he had considered where Noah and Helen had married as a wedding venue. “I guess I’m not the love of your life any more,” Helen said, repeating back what Max had once told her—and which he had now forgotten.
She asked to be kissed; he said he couldn’t. “Why not? I knew you first,” she said, desperately. Amid Max’s moving boxes—tellingly labeled, ‘Handle With Care,’ as the participants of this show usually only ever learn far too late, if at all—they had a partially-clothed fuck instead, which Helen looked like she was so not enjoying.
Afterwards, she asked Max if he had noticed that Noah was screwed up when they were all at university. Sure, Max said, his mom had just died. Did Max think Noah had used her for her money, she continued. She had been with him for 25 years, she knew him better than anyone else did. She insisted this as a person might insist a claim on a piece of ancestral land.
Helen is so desperate to claim Noah back, all she can invoke, realizing how little she may have known him, the privilege of the length of time that which they spent together. But she knows time has proved pretty meaningless when it comes to knowledge and loyalty. It’s another futile throw of the dice for her.
Max rightly told Helen to go: he can’t believe he felt for this all over again. Even when it feels like it could be about them, it’s about Noah and Helen.
Back at home, Vic—why has Vic become so pliant and weak suddenly?—was reading Bruce’s book to further establish a potential in-law rapport. Helen lied about her whereabouts, and asked if Martin had come home. He had not. Vic asked her not to be like Margaret and over-react. He said he sometimes felt like a stranger in this house. How had he failed Helen, he asked, when he had tried to be a good partner and parent?
Martin’s re-emergence abbreviated their argument. Vic told Martin they had been worried. “Fuck off, you’re not my dad,” Martin said. “He’s right, you’re not,” Helen seconded.
Vic, angry at being so undermined, left to go get a drink, and with him, he took a resounding set of encouraging cheers from Affair viewers who would gladly buy him a round, and let him move in—no kids here Vic!—if he ever so wished.
Martin told Helen he had been with Noah at Noah’s father’s lake house in Pennsylvania. Whatever had happened had been transformative: he seemed less at odds with his dad, and promised to go to school.
We saw Helen next to Vic’s gorgeous, slumbering hairy chest later, which she chose to leave (honestly, this should be a prosecutable crime) and go to see Noah, who she found in the lake, thrashing about in the water. Was he trying to drown someone? Was it Gunther?
Part two of the episode, belonging to Noah, kind of answered it. First, he had to deliver the smashed-up car back to Juliette, who had herself had yet another visit from the police wondering why she had been on the scene to discover Noah had been stabbed.
There was no ‘arrangement’ between her husband back in France and herself when it came to extra-marital sex, she told Noah. She revealed her husband had Alzheimer’s: half the time he did not remember he had a wife, the other half he thought Juliette was his first wife “whom he loved better.”
Later, she asked Noah to to tie her up. Noah demurred—one guesses because of all the very real pain he had suffered in jail. And so their steamy romance fizzled.
The next day Noah got on a bus to go to his dad’s place, passing through a town which included a gun shop called Gunther’s. Could it be connected to evil prison guard? Oh yes it could, implied the forbidding music.
Noah’s shoulder, painfully damaged since a disabling injury perpetrated by Gunther, was still playing up, and inside his childhood house the scene was a musty Glass Menagerie of rusty boxes, creaking doors, faded family portraits, empty birdcages, and memories.
In preparation to sell it, Noah began a clear out, which included discovering some old medals and letters. At a hardware store, an assistant turned out to be Grant, an old school friend–unlike Gunther, an actually nice one. He knew of Noah’s fame as a novelist and subsequent murderous notoriety, but—a first in The Affair—made no judgments, assumptions, and didn’t want to bash Noah’s face in.
Grant had lost his job at the local coal plant, now worked at the store, and had a family: would Noah like to come to supper?
Back at his dad’s house, a hooded figure turned out not to be Gunther but Martin. He had come to the house to be alone, the last person he expected to see was his father. He couldn’t stand him.
But in Noah’s old bedroom—still papered with Smiths and Husker Du posters, and Pittsburgh Steelers memorabilia—father and son worked towards a detente. Noah offered Martin the medals. His grandfather would have wanted Martin to have them, Noah said. As Noah came across his letter of admission to Williams College, Martin was saying he didn’t want to go to university. He wanted to join the army.
Martin noted his dad was in pain, and then it was off to the nice friend’s for dinner where another figure loomed out of the dark. It was not Gunther, but a bonehead nonetheless, a schoolmate called Stevie, just as bitter and twisted up as Gunther about Noah’s success, and now reveling in his misery.
At the party, Grant’s daughter Lila (who he wanted to do so much better than he had) and Martin shared an immediate cute connection: a rare moment of levity, as Noah registered it too.
Noah lied about the stabbing injury, and said he’d had a mole removed. Stevie had got burnt in a factory explosion, but didn’t want any of Noah’s sympathy: “Don’t pity me. At least I didn’t get locked up.” Noah was “trash,” just like the rest of them.
Amazingly, Noah didn’t get angry, especially with Martin sitting there, listening to all this vitriol. Grant also defended Noah, who wanted to know—after Martin and Lila had headed off to a party—what they knew about Gunther.
Nothing much, it turned out. At home Noah’s neck wound got more livid and he collapsed, just as we were readying ourselves for Gunther to appear in the bathroom mirror. Can he not just get some medical attention and sort it out: the next wound is now officially a kind of silly storyline.
Still, the viewer is now as scared of Gunther—real or imagined—as Noah is.
Martin arrived home, and helped his father, asking reasonably, “What is wrong with you? Why are you such a fucking mess?”
Elaborating on what he had told Alison in the last episode, Noah then confessed to his son that he had helped in the assisted suicide of his mother, Martin’s grandmother. Her suicide note was in his handwriting as she was too sick to hold a pen.
Martin asked Noah why he was telling him this. “Your grandfather and I didn’t really talk about anything,” Noah said, “and I know I have let you down. Severely. And you may never be able to forgive me. But I love you, more than you could possibly imagine. I just wanted you to understand a little about me.”
This was so, Noah said, that when Noah died Martin wouldn’t be in his house, clearing stuff away, rehearsing conversations with Noah he knew he would never be able to have.
Noah asked him to please go to school in the morning—for Helen, if for no other reason. Let her see him graduate, and then he could do whatever he wants. Father and son hugged, and now we understood why Martin was so emollient and at peace when he arrived home in part one.
But of course, a happy ending is an anathema here. Noah went into the woods, and we were sure Gunther would somehow catch up with him. At the lake Noah saw a hooded figure wading into the water. Was it Martin, Gunther? Panicked, he waded out to confront the figure, who turned around to reveal himself to be… Noah’s younger self, who we had seen a few minutes before in some pictures.
Unless it was someone else entirely. At this point, even the most patient Affair viewer wouldn’t mind some of Noah’s pain medication. So, stand by for next week, when Noah tells Helen, who is there watching this splashy tableau, that he was in the water thrashing about with the ghost of his younger self. And again folks, the water: the ur-symbol of The Affair, where the past, present, pain, absolution, and the truth are hidden in the murky depths.