TV: The Affair - S04 E01 - Reviewed

After more than year in between seasons, The Affair finally returned on Sunday with an episode that, in almost every way, set up completely new story lines for the rest of the season. It’s been called a return to form after season three -- which took some risks and I mostly enjoyed -- getting back to its original formula of he said/she said when it comes to events where two characters’ story lines intersect. 

The season premiere opens with a fantastic “okay, now you’ve hooked me moment” set six weeks into the future with Noah (Dominic West) on a payphone in seemingly the middle of nowhere trying to find out information on a potential missing person. When he hangs up, he walks across the parking lot to an exhausted Cole (Joshua Jackson) explaining that no one has seen “her” for 72 hours. Cole seems stressed and annoyed, and the two get into his truck before we jump back in time to follow Noah’s adjustment to west coast living in Los Angeles. 

Seasons one and two had a future timeline that focused on who murdered Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell) before Noah ultimately took the fall and spent three years in prison. Season three, instead of jumping to the future, looked at Noah’s past time in prison, where he was tormented and beaten by a guard, John Gunther, played by a surprisingly frightening Brendan Fraser. When season three ended, it seemed as though there could be fresh starts for everyone: Noah finally moved past his post-traumatic stress from prison; Helen (Maura Tierney) secured a future with her new love, Vic (Omar Metwally); Alison (Ruth Wilson) regained custody of her daughter; and Cole, easily the most compelling character on the show (my favorite), chose to remain with his wife Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno), despite an offer from Alison to rekindle their relationship. All caught up? Good. 

This opening for the new season is brilliant in many ways, not the least of which is introducing a new future timeline to eventually catch up to, but perhaps most surprisingly, Noah and Cole working together to track down someone who we can all safely assume is Alison. Cole hates Noah for destroying his marriage with Alison; Noah hates Cole for being the man in Alison’s life he can never be. Both exist as part of Alison’s complicated past, so to see them together, briefly in this episode, is a surprising treat and one that I look forward to seeing more of in future episodes. 

In the present timeline, Noah is struggling with Los Angeles life, teaching AP English at a high school where no one in his class seems to give a damn, while in his off time trying to stay a part of his children’s lives. Helen moved the children to Los Angeles after Vic accepted a job at a west coast hospital, and Noah has relocated in attempt to remain a present father. Helen, meanwhile, (the episode’s other perspective) is struggling for different reasons, namely, Noah, and the fact that he’s still in her life. 

It’s fun to see familiar characters in new locations, adding discomfort to an already uncomfortable situation. It remains to be seen as to whether or not Noah and Helen can ever reconnect on civil terms, considering Noah, however well-intentioned, is, quite frankly, an ass. Helen is a deeply layered and complicated character, the reason I and I’m guessing many other viewers put up with having to see Noah’s struggles. In fairness, season three explored a lot of Noah’s backstory and actually managed to do the impossible: generate sympathy for one of the most unforgivable of characters, in my opinion. In this premiere, however, it seems that Noah has returned to being the same selfish jerk he’s always been, his backstory less of an excuse this time around. 

Tierney plays Helen’s anger and depression so perfectly that you believe every scene she’s in. She inhabits this world beautifully, and in this episode manages to find new ways to express what panic attacks actually look and feel like. As someone who suffers with panic attacks, I can definitely relate, and find it refreshing to see such an honest portrayal of someone in crisis. 

Still, I’m always a bit bummed that I have to wait an extra week to see what’s become of Cole and Alison, as the last few seasons tend to focus on Noah first, before we catch up with everyone else. It’s interesting, or maybe a fault of the show (who knows) that its two most interesting characters, Helen and Cole, are the spouses who were left behind by the show’s leads, Noah and Alison. I do root for Alison and enjoy seeing her grow as a character, but Jackson and Tierney are simply miles ahead in terms of acting and emotional rawness. 

I’ve read several reviews of The Affair since it first came out, some of which describe the show as a guilty pleasure, or a show that we think is good but really isn’t. I find it to be one of the most original and fresh takes when it comes to “relationship shows,” with every new season managing to pull of the impossible: keeping a show about two people who had an affair going on for years, and exploring the never-ending repercussions of one choice. It’s a fascinating character study on all fronts and one I continue to unapologetically love. 

Welcome back, Noah, Helen, Alison and Cole. You do not know how much you’ve been missed, at least from this writer’s perspective. 

--Matt Giles