The back half of Season 4 brings home the realities that, for the women of The Affair, this is still very much a man’s world. Last week saw sensitive turns and deep revelations for Cole and Vik that still ultimately hinged on sexual dalliances with beautiful women; this week finds Noah unable to hold the frayed edges of his fading family together while simultaneously tearing at the fabric of another’s. Alison discovers truths about two men that send her reeling to the West Coast herself and into the predatory grasp of a third. Men are jerks, this episode sky-writes in our living rooms, and here are about a hundred reasons why. But for a few saving graces and hopeful lights, this is a bleak hour of television.
However, it’s worth it to remember — and really, it’s hard to forget, especially in — that these are just the stories that these characters are telling themselves. And yet it’s still hard to constantly watch these characters struggle against the plots in which they find themselves, often seemingly without their consent (literally the case in this episode). But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
Once again, we forgo the cold open investigation into Alison’s whereabouts in favour of a jump straight into Noah’s English Lit class.
Part One is from his perspective.
In committing the cardinal sin of film/TV teachers everywhere — assigning what sounds like pretty hefty homework at the very end of class, which is due tomorrow — Noah cements himself as the worst, and I’m not just saying that because I’m an English teacher. Even Anton recognises the faux pas and calls Noah out on it after class, after asking his teacher to help him with his entrance essay for Princeton. Noah is ecstatic, of course thinking that it’s his divine presence that has turned this wayward youth onto the path of higher education, but the essay that Anton hands in is troubling for the way it paints his relationship with his mother (who is also Anton’s principal and Noah’s boss, Janelle Wilson, played by Sanaa Lathan).
For being a Noah episode, Noah sure plays role of bull in a china shop to perfection; you’d expect this kind of characterisation from Helen or Cole, honestly. Crashing around and destroying everything whether he meant to or not is kind of his thing here — it’s what he does best.
In swift succession, he:
- piles onto the shitstorm that Janelle has to deal with, following the shitstorm Noah caused last time when he basically incited a riot at school, by barging into her office and leaping to her defence as she battles for her job with the school board brass;
- inserts himself into the precarious family dynamic at play between Anton and his parents by handing Anton’s essay over to his mother;
- runs headlong into trouble with his son, Trevor, and Helen after Trevor refuses to go to the Ed Sheeran concert Noah paid $300 to attend.
Where to begin? Noah has been labouring under the misapprehension that he’s supposed to save everyone and everything in his life, and somehow manages to do precisely none of that every time. I don’t know why he keeps trying but, to his credit, he does seem to be starting to get it that this plan of attack just ain’t working. Janelle is more accomplished and savvier than he is, and in rushing to her aid every time he sees her he’s undercut her authority and her position with everyone in the school; her superiors, and even her own son (though admittedly there wasn’t much authority there to begin with). Hard to know if Anton really sees Noah the way Noah thinks Anton sees Noah, but at least we see the exasperation in Janelle’s eyes through Noah’s, and he seems to recognize that he’s done goofed. Maybe he’s learning after all?
Then again, maybe not — after his plans with Trevor fall through (Trevor is clearly very upset about something, which is why he doesn’t want to go to the concert anymore, but while it sucks that Noah is out $300 and disappointed about not getting to spend time with his son, that’s no reason to yell and stomp around demanding answers, or to passive-aggressively tear up the tickets and scatter them on the driveway for his family to find the next day…shit, Noah…) Noah goes to Janelle’s house with wine and they have a heart to heart about the real reasons Anton doesn’t want to go to Princeton before making out like teenagers right up until the moment Anton and his father arrive home unexpectedly.
With the grace of the aforementioned bull, Noah extricates himself, answering a phone call that brings him down to a police station where he finds his wife has been booked and is awaiting bail…
Alison’s mother Athena (Dierdre O’Connell) is in town, having returned from India bearing gifts (a Magic 8 ball for Joanie, a statue of Krishna for Alison) but it’s the secrets that she’s been hiding that ultimately intrigue Alison more. She answers one of the mysterious, persistent phone calls to Athena’s mobile, and finds that the caller is looking for her. She goes to the address the mystery caller gives her — a beautiful big home out in East Hampton — and is greeted at the door by a man named James (Tim Matheson) who claims to be her father.
What follows is a pretty textbook conversation between a disbelieving adult child — who’d been told her whole life that her father was unknown to her mother — and aging, absent parent looking for reconnection in their final days. Of course Alison is skeptical and she has every reason to be, especially when James admits that he is sick, and that he needs a kidney transplant, and won’t Alison help him? It’s only after this that James tells her that he saved Alison from drowning as a child during a brief encounter on the beach, and Alison’s memory of being saved from the water starts to make sense.
She confronts her mother, however, and hears a very different story. Where James told her that Athena was once his children’s nanny and that they had a passionate love affair, Athena tells Alison that James raped her. Where James said if he’d known about Alison he would have done the right thing and probably even left his wife for Athena the way she asked him to, Athena says she left and changed her name in order to avoid him entirely. And where James said he and Athena were discussing their affection and trying to figure out a path forward for their unlikely family at the time when Alison nearly drowned, Athena says he was threatening her, trying to make sure that his reputation was intact and she hadn’t told anyone what he’d done to her.
Of course Athena never pressed charges, something which Alison can’t believe, but Athena is adamant that a nineteen year-old hippie would never have been believed, especially not with accusations against a wealthy East Hampton family man. Does Alison believe her mother? It’s hard to tell. I don’t think even Alison knows what to think; she calls Ben for advice but then decides she’s gonna drive to his office instead, where she makes the discovery that Cole made a few episodes back: Ben is married. Crestfallen, she takes the gift card from Noah and boards a plane to Los Angeles. In her bewildered state, she orders two mini bottles of wine and her flirty seat mate begins to press his advantage, which rightfully sends Alison into a tizzy that results in her being arrested on the plane, which is how Noah’s and Alison’s stories connect.
It’s also how Alison’s story connects to her mother’s — both women have their respective assaults dismissed by the people around them — and how we see this perpetual theme of men behaving very very poorly play out across the intimate lives of our main characters. Leaving aside the (rather tame, in comparison) way that Noah asserts himself all over the lives of the people around him, we still have so many instances in Alison’s half of the episode of men standing unchallenged in their assumptions and behaviors. From Alison’s father’s assuming Alison would give him her kidney after knowing him for all of thirty seconds, to Ben not getting the grand heave-ho from Alison or his wife after his infidelity is revealed, to the attempted sexual assault on the plane, at which point Alison is blamed for the entire thing, shadows of #MeToo haunt every frame of Alison’s story here.
Well, almost every frame.
The best part of “406” is after Noah bails Alison out of jail, after he has her questioning her own memory of the events (“Maybe it didn’t happen,” she even says at one point), and after the ensuing massive panic attack brought about by the realization that even Noah might not believe her. Alison winds up at the unlikeliest of places: in Vik and Helen’s home. She gets anti-anxiety pills from Vik, a cozy place to stay on the sofa made up by Helen, and after Noah is shooed away, on the receiving end of the best advice ever given by one character to another, and possibly the most on brand message The Affair has ever offered.
“Why do men look at me and see someone they can fuck with?” Alison asks. And Helen — who, it’s worth mentioning, is positively beatific in Alison’s version of events—props to Maura Tierney for playing yet another version of Helen Solloway to absolute perfection!—sagely replies that Alison keeps playing the victim when she doesn’t need to. “You can manifest your reality,” she tells her. “What if you changed the narrative?”
Change the story.
Play a different character.
It’s surprisingly smart advice, and something I’ve told myself and my friends and the characters I write in my own stories all the time. “You have so much time. You’re so young. You could have more kids. You could have a second act. You could do whatever you want to do. But if you want to change your life, you have to do it now.” I’m not sure that hearing it from Cole or Noah would have had the same effect as hearing it from Helen, someone Alison has clearly endowed with so much feminine power that she may actually listen to the words being spoken.
- Does anyone else suspect that Trevor came out to friends at school that day and that things went badly?
- Refresh my memory: this feels like the first time that we’ve seen Alison and Noah in the same physical space in a long time…
- My heart just aches for poor Joanie, who was asking about Cole earlier in the episode and now has to hear it from her grandmother — who doesn’t seem to be in Alison’s life very much at all — that her mother, too, has disappeared again.
- “The ocean’s on the wrong side.” “Takes some getting used to.” Legit laughed out loud at that part.
- I think Alison and Helen’s final conversation passes the Bechdel Test but even if it didn’t completely pass, I don’t really care — I want more please and thank you! Just a whole show about Helen and Alison. And maybe one about Cole in California. Separate shows. With crossover episodes once in a while. I’d so watch the crap out of that.