TV review

Sex, Lies, and Swimming: Season 2, Episode 3 of ‘The Affair’

The Daily Beast

October 19, 2015

We may not know who killed Scotty Lockhart in Showtime’s sexy murder parlor-game, The Affair.

We may not know whose perspective to fully trust—maybe a patchwork of them all.

But one thing all Affair devotees can agree on is what an unbearable, awful brat Noah’s daughter Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) is, and how a good dunking in the water at the end of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison’s (Ruth Wilson) bucolic riverside dock would benefit her and make us all cheer as one.

This shrill teenage chainsaw was at her venomous best Sunday night, from both Noah and Alison’s perspectives. And while one could sympathize with Whitney as she confronts her newly broken home, with Noah and wife Helen (Maura Tierney) split asunder, she has always been a brat, and the marital split has only made her worse.

She turned up at a dinner party, hosted by Robert (Peter Friedman) and Yvonne (Joanna Gleason), who run the writing colony where Noah has been staying with Alison. Whitney’s presence possibly signaled the build-up to what we know to be Scotty’s death—The Affair shuttles between time zones—which Noah is later charged with.

In Noah’s recalling of events, he is still in the time zone of a free man. He has great sex with Alison yet calls her a sphinx—he can’t read her. When he asks for her to join him in the saltwater pool for some post-coital—well, you choose: butterfly, front crawl, breast stroke?—she recoils. The pain of her son Gabriel’s ocean-related death is immediately etched across her features.

This moment reminded us that water is the most prominent and ambiguous symbol of the show: We first saw Noah at a pool in Season 1—sexy, studly, and powerful.

Alison’s son died in a mysterious drowning that was further explained Sunday night. Water surrounds their new home, and Noah again goes for a swim in the pool attached to their dockside retreat.

The sub-surface light at the pool’s end then serves as what—a premonition?—of the hit-and-run that will later claim Scotty Lockhart? Noah sees something alarmingly akin to that and comes up for air. Water is liberating in The Affair, and also a portent and instigator of danger and worse. It is, like everything in the show, as fans have come to learn and endure, ambiguous.

Whatever, before that night’s dinner with Robert and Yvonne, Noah presents Alison with an engagement ring. She is initially horrified. You sense she feels she is not worth it. Then she accepts. They go to supper, and Noah is shocked, as Alison—in lackadaisical and slightly frisky mode—invents an entire history for them.

We know how they met. It was in the Montauk diner, with Alison a waitress, Noah and Helen having a meal, and Alison aiding as one of the children choked on something.

But in Alison’s telling at the dinner table, Yvonne ravenously asking for details of the newly engaged couple’s first meeting, she invents a story of star-crossed lovers meeting at a lighthouse on a rain-lashed night.

Noah is disturbed by the ease with which Alison lies, and for this viewer it also brought into sharp focus how The Affair is also about the act of storytelling and the role of storytellers—and how both are unreliable and malleable.

Noah, the author, is of course supposed to be in charge of the story in some sense, but he is not, and in the next scene the sharp Yvonne interrogates him on his own work—she wants to read it—and tells him that fate takes over a story ultimately and the author loses control.

Gleason as Yvonne and Friedman as Robert both almost stole the episode from the principles with flinty, nuanced performances. Gleason in particular is a brilliant mix of wise and bitchy, empathetic and demanding (when it comes to seeing Noah’s book). She rightly described Whitney, in my favorite description of the night, as “a holy terror.”

Noah’s manuscript floated at the fringes meaningfully in this episode: Yvonne wanted it, his own editor isn’t happy with it, and Noah tries to avoid discussing it at any mention. How fraught its conception has been—and what level of truth is in it versus fiction is still its own mystery.

When Whitney turns up at the dinner—“daughter gone rogue”—she not only shatters the romantic fiction Alison crafted for Robert and Yvonne, later she utterly loses it when he sees the engagement ring on Alison’s finger, demanding her father remove it.

He does not, and Alison uses the next moment to confess to him that she slept with her sleazy boss Oscar, that she tried to hurt herself, and that her ex, Cole (Joshua Jackson), had come to visit her, as we saw in last week’s best episode of the series so far.

The level of detail and pace in The Affair this season is so much sharper and faster than Season 1. After assuring her he is staying with Alison, Noah heads to the station with Whitney. She wants to live with him, she says.

He tells her they’ll see but she must not tell Helen that he is with Alison. But, oh dear, the next thing we see is Noah and Helen’s mediation sessions at a sudden end, and Noah served with a petition for divorce.

We do not fast-forward in time to Noah’s courtroom arraignment for Scotty’s murder before switching to Alison’s view of events. That kicks off at Yvonne and Robert’s dinner party, where Alison recalls herself being diffident and nervy, not the loquacious, blissfully lying Alison Noah recalled.

Later, Robert asks the reason for her nervousness and tells Alison about his own secret: He has been feeding Pete, a part wolf, part dog. At home Alison overhears Whitney viciously calling her a slut. She goes over to the box of Gabriel’s possessions her ex Cole bought over and takes out a little stone. Grief engulfs her. In Alison’s recalling of events, we consistently see her vulnerability and shattered spirit.

Suspiciously, Whitney is all-smiles as she makes Alison eggs the next morning—but she wants Scotty’s number from her. Alison demurs. After all, the big meltdown in Season 1 was over Scotty impregnating Whitney. Whitney becomes vile again but cheerily says she hopes they speak again soon when her father appears. And so, the viewer thinks, this is how Scotty comes back into their lives, leading to his death.

At Robert and Yvonne’s, whom Alison now assists, the news is Pete has caused a “chicken holocaust,” and so Robert and Alison, on Yvonne’s stern orders, head out to kill him.

The scenes between Wilson and Friedman are beguilingly played, perfectly pitched confessionals. He tells her we are all fundamentally alone, but marriage helps offset the worst of that. She tells him Gabriel died of secondary drowning, a rare condition that happens when one swallows too much water nearly drowning, and dies afterward. In Gabriel’s case, it was later, in his sleep.

Alison blames herself for not somehow seeing this, and saving him: The stone was his stone that he rubbed when he was nervous in the hope it would make things all right.

Pete appears, and Robert shoots the gun but up into the air; the wolf-dog escapes, and both Robert and Alison lie to Yvonne.

Later, as night cloaks the pool, Alison—her grief newly, healthily modulated following her own confession, finds the strength to swim in the pool she recoiled over in Noah’s telling—and Noah arrives home to meet her for some hot sex in it. You are relieved for her and hope this at-least partial catharsis sticks.

Dominic West’s gift to all of us is his willingness to disrobe, and Affair fans thank him for it.

In the future, Noah now charged with Scotty’s murder, he and Alison visit Richard Schiff’s sharky lawyer, who tells them they need to figure out what happened the night of Scotty’s death: Noah is adamant he did not kill him.

Yes, he wanted his car cleaned up—a mechanic has incriminated him—because he had knocked over a deer and didn’t want to be wrongly accused of Scotty’s death.

Noah insists he is a “civilized human being,” but other people’s view of him does not back him up. And why was Scotty’s death, or the apparent crash on a lonely country road, prefigured in his mind so many months before?

What this third episode conveyed was the frailty of memory and the reliance this universe of characters, and by extension us, has on bonds that may be frayed, and loved ones who are fallible, as weak as they are strong. As they live as best they can, they are all necessary weavers of their own truths.

In The Affair, the skewed storytelling concept shows that the characters are mysteries to others and to themselves. They are flawed, sometimes terribly. But their bonds and loved ones are all they have. And so, imperfectly, do Noah, Alison, Whitney and co. swim as best they can in ever choppier waters.