TV: The Affair - S04 E08-10 - Reviewed

There are spoilers ahead in this review. Be forewarned. 

Grief takes many forms, and while one could argue that The Affair has always been about grief, season four took it to a new and surprising level. The show killed off one of its lead characters, Alison (Ruth Wilson) and took its time letting the aftermath of that event, along with the mystery surrounding it, unfold in both Episodes 9 and 10. But let’s start with episode 8, arguably the season’s strongest chapter.

Episode 8 finally reveals how Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Noah (Dominic West) ended up driving across the country together: Cole, visiting the conference in Milwaukee Alison had previously told him about, arrives at the hotel exhausted and unkempt with cheap flowers to tell Alison how he truly feels. Upon speaking with the folks at the check-in desk, however, he realizes she never checked in and it’s the third day of the conference. After several phone calls he learns that Alison visited Noah in Los Angeles, prompting the phone call we saw from Noah’s perspective at the end of Episode 7.

Cole realizes he can’t make the 18-hour drive back to Montauk on his own and that he’s close enough to O’Hare to pick up Noah and Anton (Christopher Meyer) and have 2 people with whom to share driving duties. Thus begins one of the oddest, but compelling pairings in the show's history: Cole and Noah driving across the country to find out where Alison is. 

I should say that my own bias is loving road movies and bottle episodes of television shows. While this wouldn’t technically qualify as a bottle episode – an episode that stays in one existing set for most of its runtime as a means of keeping production costs down – I would argue that it has many of those qualities, as much of it takes place behind the wheel of Cole’s Jeep. The fact that it forces these two characters, who have every reason to hate one another, to work together for a common goal, makes it that much more compelling.
Jackson and West are great scene partners, and the dichotomy of their characters really shines when they’re trying to find ways of locating Alison. Cole approaches everything with anger, while Noah takes a more diplomatic approach, concerned that Cole will very likely kill anyone who gets in his way or speaks poorly of Alison.

And then comes the big reveal: Alison has apparently killed herself, drowning along the shores of Montauk with wounds consistent with smashing up against the rocks near the lighthouse. Jackson’s performance when Noah confirms that it’s Alison’s body (which he himself has shared as a humorous meme to combat James Van Der Beek’s ugly crying face from the Dawson’s Creek days) is nothing short of devastating. If Jackson does not get an Emmy or Golden Globe nomination it will honestly be an injustice.

Cole’s grief comes in the form of anger and a sense of failure on his part. At one point in the episode, another character tells him he’s looking for someone to blame, and it’s not until the episode’s end that one realizes that Cole is doing everything in his power to not think about how he may have failed Alison. Of all people, Noah is for once the most level-headed, and while his perspective in the story comes late, lasting mere minutes, his breakdown at the end is also devastating, but quite different from Cole’s.

Episode 9 takes an interesting approach, revealing what may or may not have happened to Alison from her perspective shown in two parts. What do I mean by that? Part One offers one explanation as to how she died, hinting at a possible suicide. Part 2 offers a darker explanation: Ben (Ramon Rodriguez) came to Alison’s place and when she asked him to leave, he got angry, they fought and in the struggle he threw her against the wall, knocking her out. He later dumps her semi-conscious body into the water, leaving us to wonder which side of the story really happened. 

In both, Ben comes to visit her. In Part 1, he tells the truth about his marriage and, despite Alison asking him to leave, the two find common ground and sleep together. In Part Two, he’s much more hostile toward her from the get-go, angry over the fact that she skipped out on their date to visit Los Angeles. The show leaves it to the viewer to decide what really happened, with the only definitive answer being that Alison is truly dead. Wilson gives a stellar performance in what ends up being her final episode of the series, anchoring the character in truth and redemption, no matter which version of the story one chooses to believe. 

Episode 10, the Season Four finale, begins and ends with different versions of Death Cab For Cutie’s “What Sarah Said,” the first of which, according to Sarah Treem herself is from The SoCal Vocals. Noah and Anton have finally arrived at Princeton, and you hear the a cappella singers in the background, which sets the tone for the rest of the episode.

Noah is struggling to keep it together, feeling as though he didn’t do enough for Alison in Los Angeles and calling Cole offering to help with funeral arrangements. Unlike most episodes of the show, the finale has three parts, with Noah’s being the shortest (clocking in at around 15 minutes) and pretty much existing to resolve the Noah/Anton storyline in which the season began. Cole’s story takes up the majority of the episode, once again (in my humble opinion) offering the most heartbreaking take on grief.

He can’t motivate himself to get out of the shower, or get dressed for Alison’s funeral. He’s forgotten that the service will be on the beach instead of in a church and is shocked to realize that Alison’s mother, Athena (Deirdre O'Connell), had Alison’s body cremated instead of letting him bury her next to their son, Gabriel. Ultimately, Cole steals Alison’s urn and ends up sitting at Gabriel’s grave with Alison right beside him.

Noah shows up, attempting to reason with him to no avail, and the two part ways for what could be the final time. It’s not until Cole’s mother, Cherry (Mare Winningham) shows up in the middle of the night to comfort Cole, still at Gabriel’s grave, that he breaks down and confesses that he failed Alison. He was too late and doesn’t know that he can get through losing her.

It’s a beautifully profound admission, and one that I’m sure will have ramifications in the recently announced fifth and final season. What we’re left with is a character who has experienced more loss than anyone should ever have to, but still has not yet given up. Throughout Season Four, Jackson has turned in amazing performance after amazing performance and the finale is no exception. His grief is felt the instant you see him on screen, and no matter what you’ve gone through in your own life, you cannot help but relate in some way, and sympathize in others.

Helen (Maura Tierney) closes out the finale with Vik (Omar Metwally) in the hospital with an infection as a result of his refusing to get treatment for his pancreatic cancer, and like most of Helen’s chapters unfolds in a fury of everyone seeming to blame her for the things that are going wrong. Vik’s death at this point is a foregone conclusion, and Helen is grappling with all of the realities that come with watching someone she loves, or believes she loves, dying helplessly.

Her storyline takes place 2 weeks after Alison’s funeral and in one key scene, Noah shows up to offer a literal shoulder to cry on, along with some kind words about Helen being the strongest woman he knows. Amazingly, despite all of their turmoil, Noah is still the only one who “gets” Helen, and through their conversation, she finds her own strength to deal with the inevitable future, closing out the season on the rooftop of a Los Angeles hospital to the second, normal version of “What Sarah Said,” the sun setting, and a smile on her face. 

I was moved to tears by this episode, because I was not prepared for both the profound sense of loss and renewal that it offered each character, though specifically, for this writer, in Cole’s acceptance of Alison’s death. “Love is watching someone die,” the Death Cab For Cutie song argues. “So who's going to watch you die?” It rings true for Helen and maybe for Noah. But Cole is the only one who, arguably, won’t have anyone now that Alison is gone and Luisa (Catalina Sandino Moreno) has called it quits. 

It’s that realization that is the most haunting of all, and the main reason why Season Four is bittersweet. 

“It sung like a violent wind, that our memories depend, on a faulty camera in our minds.” The same could be said about The Affair and its approach to memory. In the end, it’s all we are.

-Matt Giles