TV review

Who Do You Believe in ‘The Affair’? A Clever Web of Truth, Deception, and Interpretation

The Daily Beast

October 11, 2015

Yo, couples of America—it’s your favorite TV show!

Any doubts that adding two perspectives to the foundation of The Affair would add too confusingly to the show’s already-muddied waters were laid to rest in the second episode of season two. Beautifully written by co-creator Sarah Treem and directed by Jeffrey Reiner, it just made the tapestry of The Affair that much richer.

We were still orbiting the day sketched last week: the day that Noah (Dominic West) headed to the city for his variously perceived day of discord with soon-to-be-divorced wife Helen (Maura Tierney).

In the last minutes—as last week—we bounced into the far future, with Noah charged with the murder of Scotty Lockhart, brother of Cole (Joshua Jackson), himself the estranged husband of Alison (Ruth Wilson), Noah’s new partner and (in the future) his wife and mother of his infant daughter. This week, we first saw Alison’s story of that day, and then Cole’s.

In her retelling of it, it began hornily enough in bed with Noah. If last week he had awoken from a hazy, apparently incriminating nightmare of a hit-and-run, she seemed blissful (and who wouldn’t be, with Dominic West’s butt at your beck and call—it was on proud, pert display Sunday night).

Alison’s day soon became aimless and lacking. She is less in the throes of grief than last season, but she still seems acted upon, buffeted by the winds of her old marriage, and the affair and new relationship with Noah. Alison’s storyline is always one of struggle–to assert herself, to ascertain her place, to find her own role and space.

Her and Noah’s broken toilet meant she was soon squatting in nearby woods, in fear of a fisherman seeing her from the end of the dock. She seemed trapped, and a long walk into the town of Cold Spring was hardly idyllic, resulting in a nasty rubbing wound on her ankle; she is a woman of many wounds, of course, some visible and some not.

Luckily, she was picked up by Robert, who runs the rural Hudson River writing colony on which her and Noah’s woodsy, folksy, waterside shack is situated.

In Cold Spring, job-hunting on her mind, she asked a waitress how much she made.

Back at home, she was shocked to see Cole, and in her recalling of the event he was seething, menacing even—does he have a weapon on him, she asks. He has riffled through Noah’s manuscript, Descent, which she puts away. Noah has insisted this novel is purely fiction; we suspect it is at least the part-distillation of the marital and familial upheaval of the last year.

Whatever, the furious and bitter Cole that Alison recalls is the Cole we remember after the revelation of Alison and Noah’s affair—unpredictable and potentially explosive. Then he asks to use her toilet, which isn’t working—but which the practical Cole offers to fix.

The floaty and warmth-radiating Yvonne, Robert’s wife, then appears: She has a basket full of locally sourced this-and-that for Alison, who is bug-eyed with the stress and fright of Cole being there. Yvonne senses her unhappiness, and tells her that investing in a home is like investing in a marriage.

If that is the case, Alison and Noah’s new space is visually significant: It is charming, but feels rickety—its own performance of charm—with structural faults like the broken toilet, and a splintered bannister Cole later brushes his hand over.

In front of Yvonne, who thinks he’s handsome, Cole gives Alison a box, which we presume to be the belongings and special things of their dead child, which Alison—just like her grief, deep inside her—puts inside another cupboard in her shaky new home.

Later, Alison is offered the job of being the personal assistant to Yvonne, the head of a publishing house, we learn—and so when Noah returns from the city, she is making a delicious meal of Dover sole with a happy smile.

In his retelling of events of last week, Noah got home that night after his awful day to see Alison at the stove in full sensual domestic goddess mode. They shared a romantic dinner, danced, and then he sat out on the dock contentedly with a beer–a gathering storm on the horizon, but not at home.

However, in Alison’s retelling Noah was much more the snarling, aggressive Noah that Helen recalled in their mediation session last week. He forecasts he is finished, wonders if she has read his manuscript, and puzzles over the ratted pages of the manuscript. She does not tell him about Cole’s visit, although Noah benefits from the toilet being fixed.

Noah is coldly dismissive of Alison’s job offer from Robert and Yvonne, seeing it as “completely inappropriate.”

And then he calms down, and is the romantic partner of the first scene again. But we see elements of Noah and Cole in each other—the man who has the potential to be as abusive as he is empathetic.

Flashing forward in time, Alison is at the courtroom, with her and Noah’s infant daughter, where Noah stands to be charged with Scotty’s hit-and-run; and she learns that Helen is paying for Noah’s defense.

Helen’s appointed lawyer, played by Richard Schiff, dismissively refers to Alison by her maiden name “Bailey,” and so we see her excluded from her husband’s plight, with the lawyer’s promise that things would work out “as they should” the resonant, foreboding final line. Helen, she sees, is purposefully inserting herself in her family, to what—win Noah back by trying to save him from incarceration?

The second half-hour, Cole’s part of the story, was—for this viewer—the best of the first four segments, Joshua Jackson skillfully portraying a man grieving, on the edge, lost, and broken. It also advanced and splintered the story intriguingly.

Just as seeing events from Helen’s perspective for the first time last week made us see her as all shades of reckless, angry, and vulnerable, so we saw a Cole of many shades on Sunday night.

The ranch Cole and his family oversaw is no more. Now he is a taxi driver, ferrying rich customers from Montauk’s airfield.

His customer for the fare we first see is Helen’s father, Bruce (John Doman), who—not knowing Cole who knows who he is, and their connection—reveals that he, like his “son of a bitch” son-in law, is preparing to leave his wife, the serrated and formidable Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant), for an old friend he had reconnected with over the Internet.

Did Margaret know about his last week, informing her own fury when she set about Noah on his visit to the family home in Brooklyn?

Bruce’s arrogance and brutish nature rumbled in Cole’s cab as it did in Season One, assuming Cole himself was an incomer to the Montauk he had first bought a property in 40 years before. This was when it was a rural getaway, he said, and not the smart and raucous New York City dormitory hotspot it had since become.

Bruce had already been away to Barcelona with his new paramour. You have to keep moving forward, Bruce told Cole, even if he was “going back” at this moment.

Cole was also about to do the same, though he did not reveal the men’s connection, but his tiredness—he had been driving the cab non-stop for 24 hours straight–meant he almost ran over a small child.

Cole seemed a wreck, far from the menacing, sharper-contoured Cole that Alison recalled.

Concordances are accruing in all the stories. Like Noah, Cole took a beer as a desperate salve from his cab office fridge—a far less opulent fridge than Noah and Alison’s. His brother Hal (Danny Fischer) asked Cole angrily when Alison was planning to sell her part of the house—the same question Noah himself asked Alison angrily (in her recalling). Noah had told her he was running the risk of being broke; Hal told Cole the same prospect faced their family. Does Alison have more financial power than she herself recognizes?

Part of a menacing Cole was visible when he found Alison’s friend Jane (Nicolette Robinson) at their home sorting through clothes to send on to her. He demanded and got his wife’s address from Jane, and then he continued his shift, with a purring drunk woman making a pass on him. She told him he seemed strong, and Cole does—but the camera stayed unflinchingly on his jagged grief to show us how looks can be deceptive. Stalked by corrosive fatigue, he almost crashed headlong into another car.

In Cold Spring, the next day, in the same cafe as Alison sat in and served by the same waitress, Cole watched Noah take the train from Cold Spring into the city for his own terrible day, the unseen Cole cocking an imaginary gun at his nemesis.

At Alison’s he saw her not in the blue dress she recalled wearing, but in a relaxed oatmeal-colored jersey. She doesn’t look flustered and rattled, as she recalled being, but sexy and assured. Their meeting couldn’t be more different than the one she recalled.

Cole, in his telling, is not menacing but muted, and their conversation—according to him—is gentle and a moving catch-up of recent events, with news sensitively exchanged and withheld. Alison fixes him some eggs, sensing he is hungry. There is no broken toilet, no Yvonne interrupting them, and no box of a dead child’s keepsakes handed over.

He asks if she is happy, if Noah is good for her, and she affirms both questions as gently as she can. He asks if she will come home. No, Alison tells him, also gently, and so Cole leaves, she rushing up to him to hug him and thank him.

This departure couldn’t be more different from the abrupt one Alison recalled. They promise to keep in touch. Cole inhales the smell of her hair deeply, his face balling into grief. We last see him—broken and exhausted—sleeping in his car.

When Cole’s story flashes forward into the future, it is also to the courtroom that day far in the future. He and Alison greet each other with friendly hellos, and she introduces her and Noah’s daughter, Joanie. Cole is smartly dressed, and far from the broken man of the past.

Alison evenly offers her condolences for Scotty’s death. He follows her into the courtroom, where Noah is charged with obstruction of justice, leaving the scene of an accident, and vehicular homicide. Bail is set at $500,000.

And then a chilling oh-my-goodness moment, for this fan anyway: in Cole’s memory, Noah catches his eye, and suddenly Cole has a masterful, purposeful look as Noah is led away to the cells. Cole looks gently pleased, and then he looks more emphatically to Alison, and the look said to me, “I want you back, and maybe I want you back enough to have somehow set Noah up for murder.”

This viewer thought of the imaginary cocked gun, the flipside gentleman and menace of Cole throughout The Affair, and thought, “He did it, or colluded in doing it.” Or the orchestral swelling, and Joshua Jackson’s facial settings, were meant to be more ambiguous than they seemed.

Whatever, all four main characters are now established as believable victims and aggressors, truth-tellers and deceivers (self and otherwise), depending on who you believe. With these four storytelling perspectives now firmly established and the split time zones in place, The Affair is getting deliciously denser.