Early Review: A Return to ‘The Affair’

Note: This is an early review of the Season Two premiere of Showtime’s The Affair. This review contains mild episode spoilers.

The Affair‘s Season Two premiere marks an evolution of the series beyond the boy-meets-girl thread that carried viewers through Season One into a darker exploration of a broken marriage’s debris. Those who have come expecting answers to last season’s murder subplot, for which Noah Solloway (Dominic West) was arrested in the first season finale, need to adjust their expectations. There are traces of that story here in the second season premiere, but the themes of the episode draw more from the destructive power of divorce and its aftermath on those left behind.

It is telling, then, that Noah’s new love Alison (Ruth Wilson) is only briefly seen in the episode. This portion of the story isn’t hers to tell – she has a uniquely different relationship to explore, a different path to travel than Noah. Part One of the premiere, taking place well in advance of his eventual arrest, focuses on Noah and the mechanics of his pending divorce. We begin with a nightmare-inducing sequence that could have easily come from An American Werewolf in Montauk: Noah drives a sports car down a winding road during a foggy night. As he speeds into the unseen, a figure emerges from the mist, and he slams on the breaks, waking before we witness the outcome. We then experience the next 5 or so minutes of the episode in complete, stark silence as Noah prepares for his day: bad meetings with his publisher who is unhappy with the latest revisions to the end of Noah’s eventual best-selling book, with his mother in law (Kathleen Chalfant, giving a smart, wicked performance) who rages and spits venom at him, and with Helen (Maura Tierney) over divorce arbitration.

It is the arbitration that forms the crux of the episode. Here, it is told from Noah’s perspective with Helen holding her trust fund over him as he always felt her family did. The arbitration is facilitated by a clownish attorney who claims they deserve kudos for putting their marriage “humanely to sleep” rather than rage and fight to end it. When the subject of custody comes up, Helen questions Noah’s living arrangements, and she belittles his money-making potential from his novel. Yet, it is the children who are clearly suffering the most with the eldest son experiencing dread-induced stomach aches, the eldest daughter refusing to speak to Noah, and the youngest son completely crushed that his “parents will get back together” fantasy will likely not come true. Back at his ramshackle cabin, Noah’s salve from the difficult day is Alison, who has prepared him dinner and slow dances with him by the lake. As he sits quietly nursing a beer, an ominous storm (on which the camera lingers a little too long, making the effort a tad on the nose) appears just around the corner, foreshadowing future trauma.

We return to the present day where the arrested Noah is in a holding cell awaiting a bail hearing. The arresting officer encourages Noah to take a plea deal – two years probation max and a fine. He even admits to Noah there isn’t much evidence linking him to the crime, but Noah demands an attorney.

With Part Two, instead of the expected Alison story, we shift for the first time in the series to the Helen perspective. Here, she has rebound sex with Noah’s seedy best friend, Max (Josh Stamberg), who represents everything Helen hates about her life – namely the money and privileged lifestyle expected of her by her mother. Yet, the life he offers is the wrong choice, clearly. Depressed and unhappy, Helen cries in the shower like a broken woman after a bout of unfulfilling sex with Max. Next, the mediation with Noah is cast in a different light with Helen generously offering to arrange for a more suitable home for Noah in the city to facilitate their child exchange. It is Noah who is terse and short in this sequence, demanding time to finish his book before re-admitting the kids in his life. This side of Noah is most definitely the starkest contrast between the two versions of the event.

As Helen’s section closes, she is brought closer together to Max through a social event orchestrated by her mother. When she goes home later than night, she looks at an empty spot on the wall where a picture owned by Noah once hung. The scene is devastating because the storm of emotion that rages under Helen’s visage is quiet compelling – some excellent non-verbal acting by Tierney who has wildly impressed me with her participation in this series and, here, she wows me again, proving she may be the star of Season Two. Back in the present day, Helen has arranged for a high-profile attorney (Richard Schiff) to support Noah as they prepare to fight the pending charges.

The first thing that came to mind as I revisited The Affair is how the framing device would work while incorporating different perspectives. Season One focused on two sides of the same story that eventually led to murder, and the details that Noah and Alison omitted/embellished/forgot became one of the aspects that propelled us forward through the narrative. However, in Season Two, writer Sarah Treem knows the device of the multiple perspectives must remain – it’s a hallmark of the show – but it cannot simply focus on the murder. Now that we know Noah and Alison end up married with a child of their own, the perspectives now must focus on the aftermath of the seismic split between Noah/Helen and Alison/Cole (a yet-unseen Joshua Jackson).

We are now focusing on the darker, more emotionally resonant effects of divorce, naturally overlaid with the ongoing murder story, which deepens the story and gives it room to breathe. The broadened perspectives, I suspect, will give the show avenues to explore that won’t feel redundant to the brilliant premiere season. Is The Affair’s second season as intoxicating as its first? No, but separations and divorces aren’t as intoxicating as illicit romance and falling in love all over again. If Season One is about finding and rekindling passion, then Season Two appears to focus on rebuilding after admittedly selfish choices tear lives apart. The season premiere didn’t “wow” me as much as the pilot episode did, but I’m not sure that it ever could. But it may prove to be more emotionally honest and resonant in the long run. At any rate, the season is off to an accomplished start thanks to sharp writing and two beautifully drawn female characters (Helen and her mother) who are performed to perfection by accomplished actresses.

This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it suited me just fine. And I look forward to drinking it in for the rest of the season.

The Affair Season Two premiere is now available on YouTube and through other avenues. It officially premieres on Showtime October 4 at 10pm ET.

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