Fans of The Affair are used to difficult questions, made even more impossible by varied interpretations of the same events.
Do they support relentlessly ill-fated adulterers Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) being together? Who is telling the truth, if anyone at all is? Who killed the drug-dealing weasel Scotty Lockhart (Colin Donnell), and why did they kill him? Is Noah as asshole, or impossibly compromised?
Actually, that last one's easy: asshole.
And last night: who would you rather have as a mother—or, maybe, how soon would it be before you disowned her, were she yours?
In Helen's half of Sunday night's episode, Margaret (Kathleen Chalfant), Helen's (Maura Tierney) shrewish mother, wants Noah pounded into economic and emotional dust for destroying his marriage to her daughter, while Athena (Deirdre O'Connell), Alison's forceful hippie mom, believes in the power of reiki to release demons, and would therefore have a full-time chakra-correcting job with this loonily self-destructive group.
In Sunday night's first half, Margaret was in Helen's face, hectoring her on why it was a terrible idea that Noah was taking Martin (Jake Siciliano) to a Yankees game.
"The man is incapable of facing his own culpability," thundered Margaret, whose all-consuming anger and bitterness also has a teensy bit to do with her own husband Bruce (John Doman), skidaddling out of their own marriage for another woman.
"Is it any wonder our daughter is married to such a scumbucket? Look at who her father is," said Margaret at a legal session intended to help their daughter, which instead devolved into a rancorous standoff between them both.
Still, Margaret and Bruce were paying all of Helen's divorce bills, and determined to get their vindictive money's-worth: they wanted evidence changed, judges chosen according to their own desires, and Noah crushed.
Of course, Helen had not made her case for sole custody a slam-dunk by being high and off her head and getting the kids mixed up in a traffic accident—but hey, Margaret said they can figure out a way to blame Max (Josh Stamberg) for supplying her with pot lozenges. She's the granny Terminator.
For Margaret, Martin's aching innards were a manifestation of all the hurt Noah had visited on his family.
In fact, as a subsequent emergency dash to the hospital proved, it was a perforated bowel, and a sign that Martin had Crohn's disease.
At the hospital, an extremely handsome doctor tried to calm down the still verbally sparring Noah and Helen, by getting them to focus on Martin. Can there be more emergency room dashes in The Affair, and therefore more doctor?
His glances stayed on the major characters a beat too long, and he should have a much bigger part. For a few vital seconds he was a very hot moral fulcrum. The best kind, right?
This hospital visit did not, as sappy expectation might usually dictate, bring warring mum and dad back together, but it did lead to a cessation of hostilities, and a very funny joke from Martin. On where he would like to go on holiday next, he replied: "Not Montauk"—which his parents, and the audience at home, having seen the destructive consequences of the affair which began there, resoundingly echoed.
When Alison called Noah, he ignored the call (would that have been the call from last week, just after she had read his dehumanizing, sexed-up description of her?)
"You can call her back," said Helen, moving forward from just hating her husband and Alison together. Helen told Noah she didn't want to fight any more, and that he could share custody of the children and Alison could be present as he did so. Or as Helen put it: "You can have her, too."
It was an amazingly open-hearted speech, and all Noah—asshole-in-extremis—could give her was a 'Thank you' in return.
When her mother angrily denounced Helen for giving in, as she saw it, Helen had had enough of the voice she said had embedded itself in her head.
Furious that Martin had almost died (and that she had believed Margaret's assertion it was a pain borne of psychological trauma), she also had own theories for Margaret's own viciousness. "You wanted my marriage to fail because yours was a sham, and you were jealous."
Helen banished Margaret, but not before Margaret told her that Bruce was divorcing her. Margaret would never apologize for her toxic words and stoking of anger, but there was a fleeting and very moving connection between the two women as Margaret left the house: both wronged, both exiting marriages they thought they were forever, both worn out.
A lesser show would have just had you cheering Margaret getting her just desserts, but The Affair allows you that cheer, with a side order of allowing us to feel sorry for Margaret too.
Hell really was freezing over, as Helen closed the door on this intense moment—of a mother's broken relationship with her daughter—by showing The Affair's brattiest child, Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles), being a very nice, mature, supportive teenager—how briefly? let's place bets—ready to hug her mom as she wept.
Far into the future, with Noah charged for Scotty Lockhart's murder, Helen told her lawyer it was fine to pay $100,000 to a witness with crucial evidence—Oscar, the creepy restaurant owner, it turns out.
In Noah's section of the story, it was the day of Martin's return from hospital, and the spirit of a reconstituted broken family again asserted itself, with he and Helen and the kids happy together and united in joy having Martin safe and well—and teasing him as only siblings can.
It's maybe telling that for once there was no diversity of viewpoints in this key moment—both Noah and Helen recalled the effects of Martin's accident and her desire for as healthy-a-divorce-as-possible similarly.
When Noah left them, he looked longingly back at the family house he has left, and somehow still contains his family.
Problems however, awaited, at the Sousanna Institute, where Athena and Alison were. "It's a wonderful opportunity for us to share energy," Athena told him, before asking after "Martin's humors."
It was a neat twinning to have the materialistic Margaret and hippy-dippy Athena share a new-agey interpretation of what was an intensely physical illness suffered by Martin.
Noah finds a lot to hate about the Sousanna Institute. There is free-range nudity, and a very different, cold Alison, who is not as overjoyed as he expected to discover no impediment to their relationship.
Six weeks without sex, she said, had left her incredibly clear-headed. She had come to realize her son Gabriel's death had made her withdraw from people; sex had become a way of feeling something without talking to anybody.
Alison told Noah she had read the book—or selective shards of it at least. He told her she is more than the sexist, sex-streaked impression she read; if she read the whole book, he said, she'll discover he's the asshole (yes, you are, replied the audience as one).
Alison had a new friend called Sebastian who had illuminated why she might be cutting herself and behaving sexually recklessly.
Noah wanted them both to get the hell out of there; she still wanted to stay for the 'yoga teaching training class.'
Noah, frustrated, went off to write, but in a witty interlude, found that at a new-age retreat there was nowhere quiet to write. There's always some yoga class or crawling insect, or wind-chime, or people chunnering away about their growth.
Athena, as irritating as she is, advanced to Noah a theory as to why he's really so angry and blocked as a writer. He fell in love with Alison as a damaged person; as she "steps into the light," he—no longer with a hold over her—was experiencing a "primal fear of abandonment."
'Sebastian' turned out to be—TV cameo of the week—the author Sebastian Junger, whom Alison (read: any of us) would have surely left Noah for in a new-age heartbeat.
Sebastian told Noah that reiki had been the key for his own 'growth,' so Noah gave himself over to Athena's therapeutic hands. As she gets to work on his chakras, she told him to access his basest desires—which suddenly switched Noah's wandering mind to driving along a road at night (the vision we have seen him having many times before) right up to a figure standing in the car's path.
We had thought this figure was a premonition of Scotty Lockhart, but this time the figure turned around and revealed itself to be Alison.
Next, Noah went off to find Alison, told her it was really time to go (fair point: her mother’s reiki-liberating vision was him killing her daughter).
The two started fucking against a tree—of course they did! why not! very Affair—and Noah again went into dream-vision mode, this time imagining knocking Alison down dead.
As helping conjure base desires go, Athena had certainly done her perverse best: her daughter’s adulterous lover was imagining himself as her future killer.
Alison suddenly went from being a bracing adult, not dancing to Noah’s tune, straight back to her sulky, pouty, childlike self. She had been briefly liberated for about 22 minutes. We had that.
Soon we also had to take in Alison’s revelation that she was pregnant (but is it Noah’s baby—what about her hot-and-heavy with ex Cole?).
The Affair often hovers on the knife edge of making piercing emotional sense and high-brow absurdist soap, and so it was seeing the pithy, heartwarming moments of Noah and Helen’s family gluing itself back together after its painful break, and then—cue the craziness—Noah and Alison’s relationship journeying to the kind of dark, sexual-pathological shores that would have had Freud begging for a gin and tonic.
Seeing Alison mown down is now, presumably, Noah’s new imagined end for his book. It was supposed to be a happy one. But this is much more in keeping with the dark contours of their relationship, and the show. And given the two-way bleed between fiction and reality it does not bode well--even if we know it is Scotty who is eventually killed in the hit-and-run that earns Noah his murder charge. Oh Affair, you drive us crazy.
This episode at least opened up the option of Helen ending up with Sebastian Junger. Or maybe—sigh—that doctor.