The summary offered of Cole and Noah's relationship at the beginning of the third episode of the fourth season of The Affair made this fan smile: both men married to Alison, both cheated on by Alison, then she had a baby who she said was Noah’s, but was really Cole’s.
Why don’t Noah and Cole close the circle, and get together?
A few weeks in the future, Alison is still missing, and Cole and Noah are still looking for her, now in Pennsylvania. She just walked out of her home and disappeared, and her new boyfriend, the traumatized vet we met last week, is as clueless as to where she is as anyone else.
We’re not going to find out anything else about this mystery this week, because it’s Noah and Helen’s episode, and what happens when their white privilege smacks up against a bunch of varied cultural walls in Los Angeles. This season tangibly wants to engage with the political and cultural questions of the moment, and is clearly too aware that its main quartet is all-white.
In Noah’s case, his cultural collision occurs at Compton Academy, the tough school that he has rather implausibly ended up teaching at in Los Angeles, where’s decamped to be near to his kids Stacey and Trevor.
At a staff meeting at the beginning the black Janelle (Sanaa Lathan) made a point about imposing order through authority; the white teachers, who resent her iron-rod discipline, wanted the children to be allowed to express themselves.
As Janelle said, if a white kid has set fire to a trash can at their very white high schools, what would have happened to them. Why, she asks, should they expect and accept, and reward, a lesser standard of behavior at Compton Academy?
Asshole teacher Joel tells Noah that Anton is Janelle’s son, and she has kept him back in school for a year to make an example of him.
Janelle doesn’t want Noah’s apologies about not realizing the fact, recognizing – as we do – a celebrity novelist like Noah self-conscious heroically teaching somewhere like Compton Academy. “Don’t pretend to be a real teacher,” she tells him.
But we also hear Noah’s genuineness: he tells her he was a teacher before all this, and he’s here to seriously work, and help Anton.
Last night’s episode – written by Katie Robbins and directed by Colin Bucksey – saw him next trying to teach the kids of color in his class about The Wasteland. “Dead white dude,” is how the students see T.S. Eliot; and while Noah protests that the students should learn about Eliot, he also accepts supremely gifted and supremely surly student Anton Gatewood’s list of black writers, living and dead, they could be learning about.
Then he encourages the students, who say they feel powerless, to assert themselves, leading to a mini-riot. “Fuck the police,” the students shout when the cops arrive. But when Janelle speaks to the media, it is – meaningfully – the white voice and white authority of Noah that supplants her; literally, on screen, he invades her interview and is described in the report broadcast later as the school’s principal.
Later on, with the two smug-liberal teachers playing tonsil hockey behind them, Noah and Janelle speak more at a bar. She didn’t need his help earlier, she says; she too notes that if she was a good-looking white male doing her job, her disciplinarian bent would be hailed. Her ex-husband uses Marx and Malcolm X to get younger white women into bed, she adds.
Noah lies to her, or doesn’t correct her impression that it was Anton who instigated the walkout. Noah had, and Anton merely followed his verbal lead.
Then, in the glow of the red bar sign, because Noah is irresistible to everyone and despite all the talk of race and white authority, he kisses her, and she says – rather desperately – “I’m your boss.” The curse of Noah Solloway continues to spread.
In the second half of the episode, we find out what was behind Vik’s collapse of episode one, with his electronic toothbrush vibrating next to his prone body in the bathroom. The revelation was a long, delayed drop. First we see Helen and her phenomenally hot partner looking shocked and ashen in a car. They had just received the terrible diagnosis of what was ailing Vic. Helen's face – always a calibrated scream – was today misery as a screensaver.
We knew it was cancer pretty early, because Helen immediately wants to head back to New York City to get Vik a second opinion at Sloan Kettering. Vik, in apparent shock, doesn’t want to talk about practicals, and when they get home Stacey is excited to have just learned about the Holocaust and Trevor is finishing his human bio homework.
Noah arrives to pick up the kids, and realizes something is wrong.
But Vik wants to impose normality; that evening there is to be a gala to celebrate him and his work as chief of pediatrics.
At the worst moment, Sierra the flaky neighbor who cannot figure out her garbage bins its the next day, turns up to ask Helen to come to Joshua Tree, where there will be a moon circle – whatever that is – and crystals to cleanse.
Does Helen want to come, Sierra asks.
“I totally, totally don't,” Helen says, converting California sunniness into the best verbal eyeroll. “That was bitchy but needed to be done,” she says afterwards. Sienna seems so hippy-dippy the rudeness was lost on her.
Vik says he wants a baby. He doesn’t want to talk treatment plans.
Helen faces more Californian airy-fairyness at her therapist, who she still bafflingly employs as a therapist seeing as everything about searching inside herself that he recommends she scorns and rejects.
This week, she doesn’t want to focus on her breath or close her eyes, as he suggests; she wants to know if he knows any good oncologists at Stanford.
People in New York don't sit around and take deep breaths, they “fucking fight,” she says.
There’s a great exchange with Noah immediately afterwards. She goes to his to pick the kids up, rap music at full blast. She doesn’t tell Noah what is happening but instructs him to get “the fucking kids.”
“Sure, two fucking kids coming up,” he says.
Helen – the diva of sour – asks him to knock off the nice guy routine.
Maura Tierney delivers every line and every look with such emotional preciseness, we see her desperation at the gala, which Vik’s parents are also attending.
Helen feels excluded, and desperate that Vik isn’t confronting the reality of his prognosis and goes to the ladies’ room.
Inside, she sees Vik’s controlling mother Priya – the wonderful Zenobia Shroff; please let her play opposite Kathleen Chalfant as Helen's mom in a future episode. Helen reveals the truth to Priya, and asks for her help to get Vik engaged with the gravity of the situation.
Priya observes her impassively. Helen can’t figure out this family cone of silence. Vik’s mother simply tells her son that she knows he’ll figure it out.
Later, Vik angrily tells Helen that his parents sacrificed everything for him; he wanted this night to be special, just for them. His father had been a cardiologist in Beirut; they had come to America for a new life, he had to become a dry cleaner to earn. They have denied themselves everything for him. Helen grew up so entitled and privileged, he seethes.
Then we find out Vik has late-stage pancreatic cancer. He will die, he says.
No, please not hot Dr. Vik. Let him live!
Vik reiterates that he wants a baby, and so the end of this brilliant episode sees Helen at what seems to be a fertility clinic to oblige his wish, next to a woman way younger than her born under Bush (Jr., presumably). Death and life: The Affair has been, since its beginning, about the harshness of both.