For the first time (I think — at least I can’t remember another episode like this) we get a three-part look at a few days in November, between Alison’s chaotic funeral in Montauk and the tumultuous scene at Vik’s hospital bedside in Los Angeles. It wasn’t a typical episode in that regard, but also in the sense that we didn’t see the different perspectives on events the way we’re used to. And that’s okay. We’re leaving these characters for another year or so and it’s fitting that we get to say goodbye to them in this way, watching them navigate the storms as best they can before they go.
Part One was from Noah’s perspective.
So I guess Anton got to Princeton after all. Funny, that.
Of course it’s strange to imagine that Noah Solloway of all people would be all smiles and pretense, shepherding the son of his latest conquest around to his friend’s writing class in New Jersey when, three hours away, Alison is awaiting burial. It can’t have been more than a day or so since Noah identified Alison’s body in the morgue, and he’s surprisingly upbeat, sitting in the quad waiting for Anton to arrive (from where? Surely they arrived at Princeton together, so why was Noah acting like it was their first time seeing each other that day?) and listening to an a capella choir rehearsing in the shade of an overhanging tree. But maybe that’s all beside the point.
Anton visits a writing class led by Noah’s college friend Ariel (Janel Moloney, otherwise known as the best supporting character in The West Wing, and honorary Canadian, Donnatella Moss) and is given a chance to let his creativity shine when asked to write a character study using a Walt Whitman prompt about contradictory characters. Even though he never names his character, we know Anton is writing about Noah. And it’s both brutally honest and scathing, and for a moment I thought we were finally going to get to hear all the criticisms of Noah that I have been writing about all season spoken from the mouth of the character he’s been trying to save. Anton writes that this character is creative, has swagger, is all the things he wishes he could be… but he’s also fucking his mom, and has kids of his own that he should be helping instead of him; and Anton wonders if his character is able to walk through life this way because he’s white or because he’s a sociopath.
And the audience goes wiiiiild!
In between the prompt and the reading, Noah slips off with Ariel to discuss their lives and the twenty years since they last saw each other, which is convenient in the sense that we get to see yet another woman fawn over Noah and his tragically tragic life — divorce, doesn’t see his kids, oh! and his second wife died a millisecond ago — and admit that she had an über-crush on Noah when they were in college, which is the perfect set-up for Anton’s delivery. Noah as he sees himself — which is usually through the eyes of his adoring female audience — and Noah as Anton sees him, are two very different people, and it’s nice that he is confronted by this, finally.
Of course, Anton doesn’t mean any of what he wrote, as he tells Noah immediately after class. See, Anton reads the room — full of performatively “woke” Millennial students who try to impress Anton with talk about campus protests and changing the name of the hall named after a segregationist in an attempt to convince him that they are, in fact, “woke”; it’s a cringeworthy moment — and delivers exactly what they want, which is for him to validate their stereotype of the inner city black kid. And Anton knows the game. Noah says that that is sociopathic, and Anton questions why Noah is there in the first place, since he really should be dealing with Alison.
I wondered for a moment if the tables were turning for a reason other than to force us to feel bad for Noah again. But in the end, this was just a way to get Noah out of Princeton and back to Montauk.
Cole’s part starts on the morning of the funeral, with Cole sitting under the water spray in his shower, unable to process what he was about to face. And who can blame him. Luisa is at the door, urging him to get a move on, and he knows that he came home originally in order to get Alison back, and that he doesn’t love his wife, and now Alison is gone and the life he was hoping to build back up for himself is gone too. So yeah, Cole, you sit under that shower spray, my man. Do what you have to do. Take all the time you need…
Alison’s mother has taken the reins of Alison’s funeral, changing the plan in subtle ways we — like Cole — don’t even recognise until it’s staring us in the face. Luisa mentioned votive candles, and directs Cole away from the church and towards the beach instead, where Athena has planned a beaching ceremony, wherein everyone in attendance would get to bury a small handful of Alison’s ashes in the sand to be carried away by the sea.
“I told you I wanted to bury her,” Cole snaps. Clearly Athena is doing this for herself — Alison, who was afraid of the ocean and whom everyone thinks drowned herself, would very likely not want to be buried in the sand and washed out to sea — but Cole has no legal or moral right, really, to dictate the details of his ex-wife’s funeral. Of course he calls her his wife, right in front of Luisa, who tearfully gives her condolences to Athena (Athena, to her credit, tells Luisa that she is sorry for her loss, too; literally everyone can see that the second Lockhart marriage is over.)
This scene is a set up for three things: for Cole to steal Alison’s ashes in a dramatic display of self-righteousness and take them to Gabriel’s grave in the Lockhart family plot, and for the two separate conversations that inevitably take place graveside between Cole and Noah and then Cole and Cherry. It all reminded me a bit of a much sadder version of the scene in Secretary (you know the one… when Lee sits at Edward’s desk for three days?) — Cole, despondent and defiant, leans against his brother Scotty’s gravestone with Alison’s ashes beside him, ignoring everything else.
When Noah arrives to ask him what the plan is, the conversation inevitably turns to the fact that, had Cole and Alison remained married, he and not Athena would have had the final say about Alison’s funeral arrangements, and Alison would have been buried next to Gabriel (as I’m sure she would have wanted). Noah can’t say anything except that he’s sorry. The truth that even he can see now is that Cole loved Alison in a way that Noah never could have, and Alison made Cole truly happy in a way that she never made Noah. It’s a true tragedy that they are never going to be together again.
A flashback to Season One — the scene where Alison asks Cole how many times they’ve had sex and he says it must be 10,000 times, before Alison asks him to hold her hand — bridges the gap and moves us forward in time. It’s night. Cole wakes up, and the hand he’s holding turns out to be his mother’s. Mare Winningham is a treasure in this scene, and I love the pep talk she gives her oldest son, about how she sent him to California to teach him about life, and that he’s not his father’s son at all but hers, and that her strength is his strength. It’s what Cole needs, because as we know Alison shouldered the burden of Gabriel’s death for both of them, and Cole doesn’t know how he can carry on without her.
“Not everyone gets to grow old Cole, but if I had to bet, I would say that you will,” she tells him. “And the sooner that you understand that as the great, radical gift that it is, the sooner you will start to think of what you have instead of what you’ve lost, and the happier you and your little girl are gonna be.”
Cole hears this while sitting in front of the grave of his father (who died by suicide), his brother (who died after Helen hit him with Noah’s car), and his son (who died by drowning), next to the urn containing Alison’s ashes.
Dude, really, you should have just stayed in the shower.
But he doesn’t. Because he can’t. He heads home to Luisa, and they break up amicably but agree that they will stay married on paper until Luisa gets her citizenship. Cole then plans to take Joanie on a trip, and the final scene for this section is Cole’s Jeep — his father’s board strapped to the top — heading out of Montauk. Possibly to California? Who knows.
Helen gets the largest chunk of time in this season’s finale, and we meet up with her two weeks later in the hospital. Vik has suffered an infection in his gallbladder caused by the growth of the tumour on his pancreas. He’s still refusing treatment; his doctor (a former girlfriend) tells him that he might get six to nine months if he were to start treatment now, and heartily recommends it, as it would ensure a better quality of life for Vik in his last months.
Helen, who has been down this road with Vik since the start of the season, is resigned. She can’t bring herself to care much about Vik’s parents’ microagressions toward her, or the fact that she has Vik’s vomit on her pant leg. She’s going through the motions, and who can blame her?
Turns out there is one person who can…
Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles) has flown in to surprise her mother, along with her boyfriend Colin and her exuberantly vegan lifestyle that Helen just can’t help but roll her eyes at; like almost everything else that Helen has encountered since moving to California. Turns out that it’s Thanksgiving weekend — a fact that has, obviously, slipped Helen’s mind — which is why Whitney is in town, asking to spend the holiday with not only her three younger siblings but also her dad, as long as Vik doesn’t mind. Which is how we find out that Helen hasn’t told Whitney about Vik.
Whitney’s reaction to this is pure Whitney. I love this character so much — she is so self-centered and full of her own importance that even the imminent death of her stepdad isn’t enough to pull her out of herself to see the pain that her family has been going through in her absence. It’s so easy to see how Noah and Helen influenced her — she is the perfect mix of their unique brands of narcissism. I was happy to see her return.
Of course things are complicated when Sierra arrives, bearing orchids for Helen. Typically befuddled by the gesture, Helen doesn’t really know how to respond, and thinks this is a come-on following their Joshua Tree rendezvous a few weeks earlier. Of course it isn’t, because Sierra has something she wants to tell Helen, but they are interrupted by a call from Vik’s mother urging Helen back to the hospital because he’s gone into sepsis. So Sierra drives Helen to the hospital and are turned away from Vik’s bedside because they didn’t jump through the precise bureaucratic hoops required of them, and in the resulting chaos, we find out what many people believed for a very long time — Sierra is pregnant and it’s Vik’s kid.
Helen’s shock at the news is tempered only by Noah’s arrival at the hospital, and their resultant conversation is truly one of the highlights of recent memory. It’s actually a very poignant reminder of what made them a good couple back in Season 1 — even though I worry that Maura Teirney has sometimes, and not always to the benefit of the storyline, been relegated to comic relief (such as here, when she tells Noah about sleeping with Sierra and then chastises him a few moments later for his rapid-fire listing-off of all her bad qualities.)
But I forgive it. This was a heavy episode. We buried Alison and we’re watching Vik die before our eyes. So it’s okay that Helen wants to laugh, and that Noah is there to hold her while she does. And here’s the kicker — after everything they’ve been through and all the heartache and betrayal, nobody truly gets either of them the way that they do for each other. Yes, their marriage imploded; yes, they struggle with co-parenting and often hate each other in the course of it; yes, they’ve said awful things to each other. But what Ariel told Noah on the Princeton park bench doesn’t have to be untrue just because they’re no longer together. The way they support each other in this scene — Helen providing Noah with the strength and stability he needs to realise that he is not to blame for Alison’s death, Noah providing Helen with the reminder that she is full of love and goodness and is the one person Vik needs more than anyone right now — is reminiscent of the support that the best relationships offer, and allows Helen to go back up and give that support right back to Vik, who has pulled through the septic shock and is now filled with regret about his refusal to undergo treatment.
It’s heartbreaking to hear him talk about being on the other side, wishing he could be as alive as Helen is. Helen can only comfort him with her words and her body at his side; it’s Sierra who can give him what Helen (probably rightly) believes is the only thing that matters. So she sends Sierra into the room to tell him that she’s pregnant with his child, and Helen walks away.
“We’re so lucky to be alive,” Noah told her downstairs.
When we meet up with her, she’s on the roof of the hospital, overlooking Los Angeles, bathed in golden sunshine.
And — as we’ve seen this season — that’s truly a beautiful and tragic, awful and awesome place to be.
- It was a nice touch to have the choir singing Death Cab for Cutie’s “What Sarah Said” in Noah’s part, and then to have it replayed over Helen’s moment at the end of the episode. After last week’s episode it was made clear by showrunner Sarah Treem that the music used was not chosen at random, and I know I wasn’t the only one to imagine that the Sarah of the song and the Sarah leading the team of creatives behind the scenes of The Affair are meant to be connected, but I wonder now if maybe this is foreshadowing a reunion of sorts between Noah and Helen in Season 5? Cruel, that, if they come full circle and Cole and Alison won’t be able to.
- It was cruel to see Ben sitting there at Alison’s funeral like nothing happened at all. I know that we never did get to see Ben’s side of the story of Alison’s last night, but damn! That’s cold…
- Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Gabriel die when he was 4? Wasn’t that a big reason behind Alison’s issues around Joanie throughout Season 3? And yet, his gravestone here lists his death year as 2013 when I could have sworn is was 2012 when we first saw it in Season 1.
- I love the way Cole protectively covers Alison’s ashes as Noah approaches. The ways that this show reenforces the old traumas and the effects they’ve had on these characters can sometimes hit you too hard over the head, but other times it’s remarkably effective.
- Ditto for the way Cole folds over into his mother’s lap…heartbreaking.
- I hate the idea that Noah is right to criticise Cole for being selfish in his grief, even though I agree with him. I can’t fault Cole for feeling the way he feels. But there is something so giving in the way Noah and Helen explore their grief together that makes Cole’s attitude stand in stark contrast.
- Cole and Joanie driving past the old Lobster Roll on the way out of Montauk was kind of beautiful.
- Where does this leave us for Season 5? I’m as curious as ever to hear your predictions but I have a few of my own.
- A few years will have passed. At least a year, I think, but maybe more.
- Vik will have died.
- Noah and Helen will be on far friendlier terms, and I’m thinking it will lead to them reuniting.
- Helen will still be living next door to Sierra, who will be raising her dead husband’s child. Because The Affair loves this kind of fuckery…
- Cole and Joanie will be living in California, without Luisa.
- Cole and Noah will be on good terms.
- Cole will be plagued by doubt over Alison’s death and will want to investigate, which is what will drive most of his plot with Noah.
- Anton will be a regular cast member. (Please?!)
- Ben will get what’s coming to him
- (Probably not that last one, but hey, a girl can dream…)
It has been my pleasure being with you on this journey through Season 4 of The Affair. I have lots more to say about this so look forward to further analysis of the first three seasons and, when Season 5 picks up, I hope to see you all back here!
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