But these encounters between the show’s original wife and the original “other woman” are always momentous and charged. So much is said and left unsaid. Perhaps they should end up together at the end of all this. On Sunday night, there was “an encounter,” and—as ever—I wish it had been an hour long rather than a few minutes.
Three women helmed this episode (writers Lydia Diamond, Sarah Sutherland; director Stacie Passon), and it finally filled in the blanks of all those opening scenes of recent episodes, featuring the search for a newly screwed-up Alison. We found out, or think we have found out, what had shattered her so profoundly to make her disappear from view.
First, before Alison’s life unraveled—and how much more unraveling can it take?—we were back with Noah in Los Angeles, and the continued fallout of the student revolt he oversaw at Compton Academy
Head teacher Janelle is being hauled over the coals by the education authorities, but when Noah intercedes on the phone on Janelle’s behalf, while it is helpful to her—that old literary stardom of his is a trump card for the authorities—her expression says it all. The white men’s club operates to exclude her and diminish her authority.
At least her son Anton seems newly engaged with work. He’s applying to Princeton but has written a letter saying he feels stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Noah wants to help, and he and Janelle, both divorced parents, are into each other but nervous about all the blurred lines that would throw up.
Noah goes to see his son to take him out to a concert, to which Trevor screams: “I don’t want to go. I don’t understand why you can’t leave us the fuck alone. I know you know how to leave.”
Ouch. And spot on.
Helen, Noah’s ex, had tried to shield father and son from this ugly moment.
Later, Janelle explained to Noah that her ex-husband, Carl, had left Harvard because the system had been “designed to degrade him” as a black man; the white establishment there had treated him like a “curiosity at a zoo.”
Janelle had come from an upper middle-class household, so she could could navigate the system more easily.
Anton’s reticence in applying to Princeton, his efforts to sabotage his future in his plagiarism, flowed from his father’s experience, she thought. “He’s afraid of doing well,” said Janelle. (And that old white privilege again: Noah knows someone there who might be able to help.)
Noah tells her he isn’t sure if Trevor is gay, as Helen thinks he is, and Janelle rightly says Trevor will come out when he’s ready.
Their mutual counseling and commiseration is broken up when Anton and his dad appear, both shocked to see Noah there. But then comes the real shock: Noah discovers Alison is in jail.
The second, longer-than-the-first part of the episode unfurls Alison’s journey from Montauk to L.A. slammer.
Obviously her hippie mother would be involved. It was good to see Athena again, bringing a golden statue deity into Alison’s apartment to help her find a man. Of course, Alison has found one, but she keeps that to herself.
A mysterious phone message leads her to a very nice, big house, where a man introduces himself as her real father. We also saw Alison back on her bike, looking like a haunted person not only riding against the wind but also the Fates. Alison, not unreasonably, always looks as if she is being stalked by demons on all sides.
“James” says he met Athena when she was his and his first wife’s nanny. Alison herself, the engine behind The Affair, is the product of an affair, he reveals. That dream that Alison had of being saved from drowning? Him, saving her from exactly that one day when she was a little girl, he reveals.
It was a love match between him and her mother, James tells Alison, but an impossible one.
Oh, and he wants Alison’s kidney, because his is duff, and he has a rare blood type. Maybe she’s the match.
Not the easiest set of revelations and demands, then. Then Alison goes home, where Athena laughs bitterly at James’ story. It’s true that he was Alison’s father, she concedes, but it was no grand love story. James raped her, and Alison is the product of that rape. She didn’t press charges: “He was as rich as shit, I was a teenage hippie.”
That day on the beach he saved Alison from drowning included, says Athena (aka Shelley from back then), a conversation in which James made it clear he was keen for her never to tell what had happened. No star-crossed lovers, they.
When Alison tells her mother that her newly discovered father wants a kidney, she laughs mirthlessly again. Of course he does. That sums up his cold transactionality and selfishness perfectly.
Emotional whiplash upon emotional whiplash, Alison calls new squeeze Ben, who we know is also married. (The Affair is really living up to its name this season.)
At the VA center where he works, she discovers a woman she assumes to be his secretary hanging children’s pictures on his office wall. Then, when the real secretary arrives, the terrible truth dawns. It’s his wife, and Alison, unwittingly, has been having an affair all over again.
Leaving Joanie with her dotty mother (really? REALLY?), Alison goes off to the airport, to avail herself of Noah’s offer of a free flight to Los Angeles. There’s a beautiful clutch of scenes where she tries to insulate herself with music, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer’s “The Color of a Cloudy Day,” with its mournful refrain, “I can never find you in my dreams.”
So, Alison’s life, so recently seeming settled, is now anything but, and then Jack, a sexist asshole with a thin veneer of Southern charm, makes a move on her on the plane, leading to thrown wine, chaos, misunderstandings, and accidental injury of an old lady. Poor Alison is blamed for it all and is thrown in the slammer. (This episode also showed why the middle seat is always the worst.)
Noah picks her up from the cop shop, and in the car she has another kind of meltdown, now fully back in the Alison zone of old—vulnerable, hunted, needing rescuing.
Noah takes her to Vik and Helen’s place, to get Vik’s medical advice and help. Of course, Noah and Alison don’t know that Vik is dying and that his and Helen’s relationship is struggling with his desire to have a child before he carks it, her desire not to have one, and his recent adultery with the flaky actress neighbor.
“This is weird,” Alison notes of being in a room with the guy she had an affair with and later married, and his ex-wife.
“It’s been weirder between the three of us,” Noah notes, with a smile. And we smile too. Oh yes, it has: sex, lies, death, breakdowns, jail. Happy times.
Helen eventually asks Noah to leave, sensing Alison may want to talk, or at least may be finding it too much having him there too.
The women talk about watching daughters grow. Helen thought Alison and Cole would eventually reunite, which is what Cole now wants too. Not that Alison knows how resolute he is about that.
Alison reveals the messed-up state of her and Ben, and then asks Helen why men look at her “and see someone they can fuck with.”
Helen reminds Alison she is an adult and asks her, doesn’t she think she has a choice in what she does? Alison knew Helen and Noah were married and made a choice to pursue her relationship with him.
Helen notes that, for all their hippie-dippiness, the Californians she’s been around believe in manifesting their reality, that if you think differently about something you want to change, you can change it.
If Alison wants to change the narrative about how men see her, Helen says, a first step would be to play a different character herself: not the victim. Go home and tell Ben what an asshole he’s been, Helen recommends.
Helen notes Alison’s relative youth. She has time for more kids. This is a nod to Helen’s own inner pain at being too old to give Vik what he wants and also her own feeling that that time is past for her anyway.
Alison can do whatever she wants, she concludes, “but if you want to change your life, you have to do it now.”
With those words of common sense, the screen goes black. But the mystery remains as to where Alison has disappeared to after they were spoken, and in what mood.