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Everything, from the opening theme song of every single episode of this series to the events of the last 7 episodes themselves right down to tonight’s episode description should have prepared us for this.
I have only one thing to do and that’s
Be the wave that I am and then
Sink back into the ocean.
The bank account set up for Joanie a few episodes back.
“A hopeful epiphany leads Cole on a journey to a horrific discovery; Noah questions his role in tragic events.”
After watching the events of this hour play out on our screens, is it even possible to think what else this could have possibly foreshadowed?
I re-read that episode description over and over in the hour leading up to the episode, and again — literally — as the opening credits rolled, speculating about Cole’s horrific discovery, or what tragic events Noah was going to be facing down. Luisa’s death would have thrown Cole into disarray but how was that going to involve Noah?; something happening to Joanie would have consequences for both men, but the show couldn’t do something to a child, could it?
I certainly had not anticipated this and, in the immediate aftermath of the reveal, it appeared that no one on Twitter could have imagined it, either. But we finally found out where Noah, Cole, and Anton were heading all season: Alison Bailey, whose life had been marred by tragedy had drowned herself, leaving behind grieving parents, a child of her own, and two ex-husbands scrambling for answers in her wake.
How could this show kill off one of its stars? It turns out that the answers were both pretty mundane and telegraphed fairly strongly throughout the season, if you knew where to look. But I’ll get to that in a moment.
Our standard cold opens have been abandoned in recent weeks but here we were treated to Cole arriving in Milwaukee to surprise Alison and attempt to win her back. He changes, brushes his teeth, puts on deodorant, and walks into the conference centre, flowers in hand. He was following through on the promise he made to himself in Morro Bay three episodes back, only he doesn’t know that he’s already days too late.
Part One (and, indeed, most of this episode — this is the first time that almost a full hour was devoted to one character’s storyline), is from his perspective.
Cole’s journey of self-discovery had led him to the realisation that what he wanted in life was Alison, and so he set out to win her back. But when he can’t find her, we get his version of the events we saw last episode, in which Noah first hears that Alison is missing. Cole puts the pieces together with lightning fast precision, first ascertaining that she never showed up to the PTSD conference she told him about, then — after phone calls with Athena and a random encounter with Ben — that she had gone to Los Angeles, apparently returned, but hadn’t been seen in about three days.
Cole calls Noah, and the two men (plus Anton) meet up at Chicago’s O’Hare airport to head to Montauk.
I didn’t know how much I wanted to see these Three Musketeers together until it was happening. It wasn’t a let down. The simmering animosity between Cole and Noah bubbles to the surface now and again — memorably, in a scene at a diner on the way from Chicago to New York — and Anton’s laser perception and witticisms make watching the three of them truly enjoyable. But nothing could possibly top Noah and Cole being forced to pretend that they are a married couple on a prospective college campus tour with their son so that they can get adjoining rooms at a roadside motel. Later, when Anton’s midnight tryst with the inkeeper’s daughter incites the man’s rage — I swear to you, I’m not making this up — things take a weirdly hilarious turn that I felt conflicted about laughing at, really. Noah’s delight at Cole’s discomfort with the entire ruse, the fact that they have to refer to one another as “honey” and “my husband”, Cole shooting a “pardon me?” look at the door dividing the rooms when the irate father refers to them as “f*cking f*ggots”, or frantically whispering to Noah to turn the TV channel back to the Say Yes To The Dress-style wedding show so the scene looks natural when the inkeeper barges into their room — it’s funny how absurd this situation becomes, even as the homophobic undercurrent drags us along. These are two characters who haven’t had more than two words to say to each other since the start of the series, and within fifteen minutes of their first episode together, they’re forced to play a married couple to protect Anton from a vengeful father’s wrath. And this all comes after Noah and Cole remark on Anton’s sexual prowess, which can be heard loudly against the adjoining wall between their rooms. If you’d have told me that this is where the show would be heading back in Season 1, I never would have believed you.
Of course it’s somewhat cruel in hindsight for these scenes of levity to play out before delivering Alison’s fate to us. But I sort of get why they did it.
Cole and Noah learn about Alison’s father, James, from Athena, and so a pitstop in East Hampton is warranted as they trio make their way back to Alison’s last known whereabouts. Of course her father knows nothing, and while it was interesting to watch the dynamic between rich and poor play out here — with Noah playing the wealthy couple off like he used to play his in-laws, and Cole acting understandly rough in comparison — the real gut-punch happens when James gets the call from Athena that Alison’s body has been found. Visibly shaken, Cole vomits all over the East Hamptonites’ dining room set.
(Can I sidebar here to say that if this episode is not part of Joshua Jackson’s Emmy and/or Golden Globe reel next year, I just don’t even know why we’d bother with handing out acting awards, honestly. He is an absolute tour-de-force in this hour. He has been all season. Hell, he has been since Day one. I think he’s criminally underrated as an actor, and I hope he gets recognised for his portrayal of Cole Lockhart. I honestly think his work here is on par with Kyle MacLachlan’s in The Return, and that’s saying a lot.)
The two men head to the morgue to ID Alison and, in what is probably the most harrowing of scenes yet, Cole demands to see Alison’s body, not just photographs of her identifying marks. But at the last minute he panics and makes Noah do the identification instead. We see the scene through Cole’s eyes behind a window, watching Noah’s reaction as the technicians uncover the body; we don’t see what Noah sees, but what we do see — damp, sandy hair at the top of her head, a mottled and bloated wrist and forearm on the metal slab — is not enough for Cole to lose hope. Or for us to lose hope, too. Maybe it’s not Alison. Maybe it’s some other woman who looks like Alison, and three days in the water has made it hard to identify her. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
It’s Noah’s eyes that give him — and us — the feared confirmation. Cole’s breakdown is heartrending, as is his refusal to believe that is was suicide, which is what the coroner eventually rules. In his denial, he tracks down Ben, whom he believes murdered Alison when she broke up with him. Even though Ben’s alibi checks out, for a while I wanted to believe it too; Alison seemed to be on the mend. She had so much to live for, including Joanie and a seemingly fulfilling career. After her talk with Helen in Episode 6, I and many others expected her to change her narrative but I didn’t think that this is what would end up happening. I saw people online speculating that Ben killed Alison, that Luisa killed Alison, that Alison’s father killed Alison after harvesting her kidney for himself…but at the end of the day, that just doesn’t seem to fit. But it’s easier somehow to explain this away as the result of someone else, something else, and not the demons that lived inside Alison’s head.
Whatever Ben’s involvement — and an interview with showrunner Sarah Treem in the Hollywood Reporter suggests that we haven’t seen the whole story yet — I think the stark reality that Alison was not well, that she wasn’t going to be magically cured, and that she eventually succumbed to the disease that she’d been fighting for the past three and a half seasons is something that we are going to have to get used to. As much as we talked about transformative experiences this season, there doesn’t seem to be one in store for Alison, or at least not in the way we expect.
But where does that leave Alison? The last time we saw her, Helen implored her to change her life, recast herself in her own story. It seems brutally unfair that she wouldn’t be given a chance to write her ending as she sees it, and so I’m quite nervous about next week’s episode, where it seems we will get some kind of closure on that front. I don’t want to watch her die, but the final image of Alison on this show should not be the barely-glimpsed bits of her badly decomposed body on a morgue table.
Noah and Cole come to blows in the end, and the pent up rage of the past three-and-a-half seasons comes out in a parking lot. “You had her in your hands and you let her go,” Cole accuses Noah, referring to her trip to California, the last time either of them saw her alive. Cole could have very easily been saying to himself, projecting onto Noah his own feelings of guilt over the matter; it would have been very easy for Noah to brush his outburst off as over-emotional. But in the five minutes we get of Noah’s perspective this episode, we watch him as he breaks, and it’s hard not to think that Cole’s words found their intended mark.
Here, as is so often the case — we’ve already seen it with Cole this season, and now with Noah — a random woman in a restaurant reminds him of Alison. This time, she’s a waitress, waiting on a table full of smiling, happy family faces not terribly unlike the faces of the Solloway clan that day in Montauk when their worlds first collided. We leave Noah, sobbing and alone, crushed under the weight of what’s happened.
For all the posturing and White Knighting these two are so fond of doing, especially when it comes to Alison, in the end it was all for naught. Did they not know she was crying out for help? Could they have prevented Alison’s death if they did? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s hard to say.
But I think Ben was right when he wondered what any of them could have possibly said to her to trigger her decision to end her life. And maybe that’s the ultimate point of what we’ve seen this season; Cole may need to externalise this event, find a place to lay blame, but it’s no one’s fault at all. Maybe Alison did change her narrative after all, and maybe she made this horrible and tragic decision from the only place of power she felt she had.
But of course that wasn’t true either; Alison had more power over her destiny than she ever believed she did. We knew it. Helen knew it. Cole knew it. Somewhere deep down, Noah knew it.
It’s likely Alison never did. And that’s the greatest tragedy of them all.
- In the wake of tragedies, isn’t it weird what we focus on? I kept wondering if Anton was actually going to make it to Princeton or not. Somehow I doubt that Noah is going to be up for a campus tour…
- Why did Athena call James at all and not Cole, whom she knew she looking for Alison? Especially since Athena had previously claimed that James was her rapist? Yes, Cole and Noah gave up their phones before lunch, and I know this is from Cole’s point of view, and that he doesn’t know about Alison’s parents’ past. But it did make me question Athena’s account, and I pretty high-key hate that because it makes Athena’s remembrance out to be faulty, and if her admission that Alison was the product of rape was not wholly true and it somehow led Alison to make the decision to end her life, that would be like pouring salt into this already gaping wound, and I’d have a hard time forgiving that.
- I love the way that Cole sees Noah in this episode. Perhaps his recollection of this horrific day has softened his stance toward the man he feels ruined his life, broke up his marriage, and (to his knowledge) murdered his brother — listen to his speech to Anton about the lives of small town waitresses; that’s pretty damning stuff. But he and Noah are on the same side here, for the first time.
- Further to that: If it had been anyone else’s perspective that we heard Anton describe Noah as an excellent teacher, I’d have called bullshit. For Cole to remember the conversation in that way says something.
- In that same Hollywood Reporter piece, Treem talks about Ruth Wilson’s decision to leave The Affair, and how Alison’s suicide was not something that had been planned from the beginning but rather something that grew out of her request to be written off the show. It’s a good read and well worth a look if you’re struggling to understand why this happened.
- Those blue flowers in Cole’s truck are going to haunt me for a long time. He never got the chance to tell Alison that he loved her, to let her know that she had worth beyond the way she felt she was viewed by other men around her. I guess that’s a big takeaway from this episode too — that it’s never the wrong time to tell your loved ones how much they matter to you, unless you simply don’t tell them at all.
If you or someone you know is considering self-harm or suicide, please call the suicide prevention hotline nearest you.