There are plenty of soaps out there that aspire to be viewed as serious dramas. The Affair is different. It’s a serious drama that aspires to be a soap. This season, what was once a subtle character drama gave us a paternity scandal, a twist ending to a murder mystery, an act of arson, and a whole lot of pulpy melodrama that could’ve been ripped from the pages of a Noah Solloway novel. Remember when Noah’s editor hinted that, after the runaway success of his breakthrough, Descent, he should plan something “less ambitious” for the follow-up – something less Nabokov and more Danielle Steele? Well, it seems that The Affair’s writers took that advice. If season 1 was their highbrow award-winner, season 2 was their beach read: compulsively plotted, but ultimately kind of disappointing.
One of the biggest problems this season was that the best part of the show – its ability to illuminate the subjectivity of experience – started to blur with some larger concept of “the truth.” In the past, whenever The Affair flirted with cliché – every emotional moment on this show seems to literally take place on a dark and stormy night – you could blame it on the characters, not the writers. Half of the season 2 premiere was shown from Noah’s perspective, so when Noah danced with Alison on his deck as black clouds closed in above them, it was possible to believe that it was Noah himself who was being overly dramatic, remembering that night as if the weather reflected his feelings of dread about the future of the relationship. But when an actual hurricane rolled into town, during the first episode that was divided by time, not perspective, it felt like a bad metaphorical device in an hour that was filled with them.
I could forgive the idea that Noah saw his own daughter making out with another woman at a Hollywood producer’s coked-up party, if (and only if) we were allowed to view that scene as some kind of drug-induced vision of daddy issues on Noah’s part. After all, the producer had just compared Noah to the author of Lolita. But the fact that this was supposed to be real life, and Alison was having Noah’s baby at the same time, while Cole happened to be lecturing Louisa about not being able to have kids? That’s what you call a cosmic coincidence. Throw in the fact that Helen’s boyfriend Vic insisted that he’d “rather drown” in the rain – a callback to Alison and Cole’s son, who drowned in the ocean – and the symbolism was way too obvious.
Not being able to separate fantasy from reality was a problem with the way The Affair framed its characters, too. Are we really supposed to believe that Noah is the Nabokov, Mailer, and Henry Miller of his generation? The same guy who wrote a cheeseball line like this one: “She was sex … the very definition of it, the reason the word was invented. … No marriage, no matter how strong, could survive her”? If this is a joke about the way an arrogant guy like Noah sees himself, then it’s a good one. I laughed when his book readings were only populated by beautiful young women who’d gladly shove their phone numbers at any man who can land a Great Gatsby reference. And the idea that Helen would view his readings the same way makes sense. She’s his ex-wife. Can you blame her for being paranoid? But the other details of Noah’s life as the “bad boy of American letters” were just ridiculous. His publicist throws a publishing party for Noah’s book on Thanksgiving night? And Jonathan Franzen, who’s not exactly known for praising other writers, wants to meet Noah in person to congratulate him on his success? The only thing that felt true was the undergraduate critic who panned Noah’s book for basically being a Fifty Shades of Grey rip-off. But Noah later punched the guy, so maybe that was a fantasy, too – a fantasy for any of The Affair’s writers who wanted revenge on critics like me, who laughed at the writing in Noah’s book.
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One thing saved this season for me, though: Maura Tierney. She delivered such an incredible performance as Helen, I wanted to fast-forward through all the other characters’ perspectives on the show. The jilted wife isn’t usually a character that allows for a lot of subtlety. She’s either a martyr or a villain who deserved to get cheated on. But I loved that Tierney made her a complicated person, someone who both took responsibility for her breakup and also felt a little sorry for herself, someone who mourned the wife she once was but also kind of hated the person she’d become. My favorite scenes were all Helen scenes: the moment when she schools Alison about what Noah does to the people he loves, the stoned sing-along to Lucinda Williams, every single time she shot Noah a pursed-lipped look that said, Oh, c’mon, seriously? That’s how you’re going to act now? She captured the simultaneous comedy and tragedy of divorce so well, I’m even willing to forgive her for singing the all-too-literal lyrics of a breakup song (“I still want you / I still need you”) out loud in Sunday’s season finale, while riding down the road with Noah. After all, she spent all season making Helen into someone who was more than just Noah Solloway’s ex-wife.
Another thing I liked about this season: Noah’s therapy session offered interesting insights into his decision-making that I hadn’t seen before, and I loved the way his therapist (played by Cynthia Nixon) kept his theory of good versus great men in check by asking about the great men who remained faithful to their wives and the mediocre men who cheated. Normally, putting a character on a shrink’s couch is a cheap way of telling the viewer things that you should be showing them, but The Affair comes from writers and producers who worked on In Treatment, and their experience on that show made for a quiet, thoughtful scene that reminded me of the smart character drama I loved in season 1.
It’s hard to tell where things are headed for season 3. (Read Sara Vilkomerson’s full recap here.) The twist-within-a-twist of Scotty’s death – Helen killed him, no Alison killed him! – was a much too convenient way to keep these miserable people not only entangled, but actively invested in one another’s lives. And that Hail Mary “confession” by Noah in the courtroom doesn’t exactly move things forward, plot-wise. Are we being set up for an entire season where Noah’s locked up in prison, and we’re forced to watch perspectives from, say, Whitney and Vic? And yet, somehow, I still can’t quit The Affair. Maybe I’m the Helen to its Noah Solloway. I need to stay involved with it, just to see what happens next, even if it’s bent on self-destruction.