As Helen, Maura Tierney just supplied Affair fans with the standout scene of the second season so far.
Drunk and slugging wine by the gulpful, she kicks off her shoes, strips down, and throws family laundry baskets to the four winds, to the tune of Lucinda Williams’s “Changed the Locks.”
An extra treat: Sunday’s episode was directed by John Dahl of The Last Seduction and Red Rock West fame, and also, more recently, Breaking Bad and House of Cards, among others. There are some visually arresting elements to this Affair episode—with Noah (Dominic West) swimmingly out of focus as he approaches the camera, and a desperate night in a down-at-the-heel motel.
This week is a capsule of the Decline of Helen, or the Making of the New Helen. It also sharply observes the decline of their children’s well-being as the effects of their parents’ split plays out.
It begins at the custody hearing of the distant past, which—given her husband Noah’s behavior—Helen should have coasted.
He has, after all, left her for Alison (Ruth Wilson) and shacked up in their Hudson Rover writers’ colony shack, the fate of his novel unknown.
But as Helen’s lawyer (played by a brilliantly ratlike Richard Schiff) soon discovers, in overreaching on evoking Noah’s villainy and shortcomings he lays his own client open to the antagonism of the “Bolshevik” judge. The man in robes’ expression turns quickly to baleful when he discovers that Helen is the owner of her and Noah’s Park Slope brownstone.
Tierney’s facial expressions are a constant riot—and every time Schiff refers to Alison as “paramour” (14 times, Helen counted), her expression curdles. Outside court, they run through alternatives—concubine, fuck-buddy, slut-face, though Helen is happiest with “cunt.”
Understandably, Helen is in no mood for her mother, sparky and lighter-in-mood than usual with her newly dyed and cut hair, herself acclimatizing to her husband having left her for another woman.
Helen’s mood worsens when Max (Josh Stamberg), magnificently nude in the first episode, turns up for some afternoon sex. Max carries himself, dick-swagger always to the max, like a man ready for sex at any time.
She isn’t so sure, so she accepts his gift of travel tickets first. But then he reveals he has also given Noah $50,000, figuring it would help get him out of Helen’s life sooner, which would be good for them. And also Noah is his friend, he says.
Helen, thoroughly confused, sends Max packing—with no nookie. He idealized her in college, but now he says tonelessly, “No one is good enough for you.”
“Noah left me,” Helen reminds Max. And that tone of grievance—why is she being punished when she is wronged?—has now infected all her behavior.
After her angry, drunken singalong to Lucinda Williams and a pot lozenge, Helen heads off to her knickknacks shop. There, in another amazing Helen moment, she rounds on a browsing customer for not purchasing an olive oil dispenser, made by “Vietnamese ex-sex workers living in Oslo blowing glass. They’ve lived horrible lives—not like yours, you aging, Botoxed, hipster bitch.”
Next she heads off to the hairdresser, where—getting highlights—she wonders aloud who her friends truly are—people have “evaporated,” she says, worried her marriage failure is “contagious.”
But, drunk and high, she has forgotten it is her day to pick up the kids from a summer camp date. She races to them, still with silver foil in her hair—Jackie Collins is the queen of this scenario, in Hollywood Wives—which leads to her crashing her car into another one, injuring Stacey, her young daughter—although, in Helen’s retelling, it’s a little bruise.
The police are called. Noah arrives. “Why are you doing this to us?” is all she can ask him. In jail for the night, one of the silver foil strips detaches to reveal a bleached patch of hair—what does Helen’s “makeover” mean she is becoming? Her expression suggests she is becoming unfamiliar even to herself.
In Noah’s memory, the custody court date is disastrous: The judge says Alison cannot have contact with Noah’s children, which he conveys to her over a lunch in Brooklyn, where she has excitedly been checking out city properties for them to live in.
When Noah tells Alison about what the judge has ordered, she suggests maybe he can just see the children at weekends. She doesn’t want him to sacrifice their relationship after all they have endured already to be together.
Their deliberations are interrupted by the police calling about Helen’s accident. In Noah’s retelling, Stacey’s head injury is bloodier and requires stitches. Helen, high and drunk, regales the cops about his affair.
The pot lozenge Helen’s recollection has her taking becomes a vaporizer and an eighth of marijuana in Noah’s retelling. “Why do you get to fuck up and I don’t?” Helen asks him.
And this, you realize, is the poisonous war Helen and Noah are now both in—punishing each other for screwing each other up.
As Helen is in jail, Noah and their three younger children—Martin, Trevor, and Stacey—go to stay with his sister Nina in the ’burbs. There is a brief moment of respite, as the children play in the garden with Nina’s kids (and the stability of his sister’s life is in painful relief to Noah’s own instability).
Noah’s dad recalls that his mother once encouraged him to have an affair himself when her health went into a perilous decline. “I told her no because I loved her,” his dad tells Noah. Nina tells her brother he can’t really want to take his children away from their mother, but Noah is unrepentantly gleeful that Helen’s intoxication and arrest will give him leverage in court. Brother and sister fight, and Noah leaves, driving his family into the night. Rather like his close relations, the viewer observes Noah ambivalently. Even in his own eyes, he is selfish, irresponsible, and also trying to do his best all at the same time.
The unanswerable and bigger questions Noah faces in the show are asked by Noah’s younger son, Trevor, first when Noah angrily retrieves him from playing on the trampoline (“What is wrong with you? What are you doing?”) and then later in the car (“Where are we going?”).
Martin’s antipathy toward his father, bubbling menacingly throughout the series, manifests as a crippling stomach pain in the motel they end up in in Jersey City. Alison turns up with some beer and another, bigger question for Noah: “What is going to happen to us?”
Noah’s bad luck continues far into the future, where the judge presiding over his murder case tells him that the case will be heard in Suffolk County, where Scotty Lockhart died. Noah and his lawyer fear that Noah’s bad reputation in Suffolk County—where his tell-all best-selling book is set—will hurt his chances of getting a fair trial.
By that time, we know, Helen is enough back on Noah’s side to be overseeing his legal defense. Time has not only done some healing but also further complicating, and perhaps for the better for the Solloway family.
In both their perspectives, Helen and Noah ruminate on the effects of their split on their children. Perhaps, just as in one time zone the vexatiousness around the separation sets them at odds, later—with Noah’s freedom imperiled—the emotional threat to their family it represents that makes Helen come to his aid.