The Affair's use of dual perspectives to depict the emotional fallout from the devolution of two marriages and the beginning of another was a risky but inventive experiment in storytelling that initially allowed the show to captivate and enrapture its audience. But as the season progressed and the show became a more conventional drama beneath a shiny exterior, the effectiveness of the design was up for debate. The show's momentum was stymied halfway through the season as the frayed threads of Noah (Dominic West) and Allison's (Ruth Wilson) storylines became more entwined, which in turn made it more difficult to sustain or support the argument for its dual framework. The continued discrepancies in the events depicted eventually confused viewers and the elevated melodrama of the season finale frustrated even more. As the show begins its second season, with Noah and Allison embarking on their own relationship in the past and Noah's ongoing issues as he faces charges for Scotty's murder in the present, the writers' are attempting to rebalance the narrative and prove to the show's critics that there is still an intriguing and addicting story to be told here, one that covers love and happiness, dreams and expectations, wealth and class.
The way in which they're doing that is to add the perspectives of Noah and Allison's respective spouses. In the first season, Helen (Maura Tierney) and Cole (Joshua Jackson) were just vague ideas and emotions molded into the shape of people. They played their roles dutifully, but because they were only seen through the eyes of other people, they didn't have the depth they might have had on another series. The writers never needed to give them real personalities and feelings beyond what was necessary to color Noah and Allison's impressions of them, and because of this, it was difficult to tell what was real and what was just projection on Noah or Allison's part. By giving Helen and Cole distinct, clear voices in Season 2, the show has found another way to support its intricate framework now that Noah and Allison are together, as well as a way for the audience to connect with their characters in ways they never could before.
The Season 2 premiere followed Noah and Helen as they embarked on the first chapter of their lives as a former couple going through a divorce. Noah had moved upstate and finished his second novel that he claimed was a work of fiction but was clearly inspired by the events of the previous summer in Montauk (this particular draft ended with a couple sitting down to dinner, much like Noah did with Allison toward the end of his chapter, but we know will later end with the woman's murder). Noah was in the city to pack up his belongings at the house, and for meetings with his agent and the man mediating his and Helen's divorce.
Meanwhile, Helen had started sleeping with Noah's best friend Max, who was the type of man her parents had always wanted her to marry, and was struggling to keep her family together in the wake of everything that had happened. Noah can paint it however he wanted in his own story, but from Helen's point of view, he essentially abandoned their family by escaping to a quiet retreat upstate with Allison—though he denied she lived there in both his and Helen's perspectives—while she dealt with the fallout their divorce had on their children in the city. And this is where the additional perspectives really act as an asset for the series; they allow us to see the ramifications of Noah and Allison's infidelities by seeing them through the eyes of an outsider.
Affairs are hot and steamy by nature, the risk of getting caught and the knowledge that what is happening is wrong fuels that particular fire. But once an affair makes the transition from taboo fling to full-on relationship, the intoxicating draw is gone and the heat is turned down to a mere simmer. In his story, Noah literally just ate dinner, had a nice conversation, and then sat out on his dock as an ominous, heavy-handed metaphor of a storm cloud came his way. He may have been happy, and it may even sound nice on paper, but holy hell does it make for a boring television series. It's not very sustainable or even all that interesting, even with the knowledge that he'll later be arrested for allegedly murdering Scotty Lockhart. It wasn't until the show started to inspect the damage done by Noah's affair that we started to see the same meaty storytelling potential that made the earliest episodes of Season 1 so addicting. Because when a couple has an affair, it doesn't just affect the people who've stepped out on their marriages, it also affects the people around them, most obviously their spouses and their children.
In this case, Whitney wasn't speaking to Noah and Trevor punched him in the face before breaking down. Meanwhile, Martin's psychological health was taking a toll on his physical health as a result of his fractured home life. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, Stacey was too young to comprehend what had happened between her parents, but the mothers of the other ballerinas in her class were not, and Helen overheard them gossiping about Noah's affair and their divorce. One even asked Helen if there were signs of Noah's wandering eye that she'd missed, as if his philandering ways were somehow her fault.
We know that Helen chose Noah 25 years ago because he was safe and because he was not from the same world she grew up in, the one in which her parents still lived. But aside from these easy-to-make observations, we don't know much about her. We never had the opportunity to get to know her or how she really felt about their marriage or her life. We could make guesses based on what Noah said about her last season, but we couldn't know for sure. Based on her story this week, we know that Max is the opposite of Noah—something we caught a glimpse of last season—and as charming as he may have been at the benefit and as much as her mother fawned over him, Helen never looked like she felt comfortable in their interactions and the reasons she chose Noah suddenly became clearer. But when she returned home, she was forced to confront the empty space on her bedroom wall where the painting that Noah had removed earlier in the day once hung. It was a symbol of the fact her life with Noah—the life she spent a quarter of a century building—was no more and all that was left was a blank space.
It doesn't take much work to see that Helen's story was the better, more engaging of the two halves of the episode. It had more raw emotional depth than Noah's, who's never been that deep of a character despite what he might like to think he projects to the world. And it's getting harder and harder to care about him as a person—and even more to see him as a sympathetic character in the present day, when he's waiting to be arraigned for Scotty's murder—knowing that he left Helen to care for their children while he dined and danced with Allison. It's necessary we continue to see Noah and Allison's perspectives moving forward, but they're no longer the most interesting characters in their own story. And it's possible they never were, it's just that we only ever saw what they wanted us to see.
The Affair may not be a great show, and it may not even be a necessary show in this increasingly crowded landscape, but it is an interesting study in storytelling and memory and the nature of reality. The show posits the idea that there is no universal truth, that our backgrounds, emotions, and opinions color and taint our experiences and memories in unique ways, even in the most mundane of situations. But it also wants to showcase the emotional and psychological issues that occur when a family is torn apart by one person's careless actions, and that was really what drove the story here, not whether Noah murdered Scotty or whether Noah loves Allison.
Whether the show's use of its particular storytelling device will continue to be an asset as the new season progresses or whether it will eventually devolve into yet another complicated mess is a question for another day, but I currently find it fascinating, especially now that the series has expanded to allow viewers to see the ramifications of Noah and Allison's affair from perspectives other than their own, because everyone looks better through the lens of their own thoughts. It's interesting to see how Helen's perspective of her soon to be ex-husband differed from how he saw himself and how Allison saw him, and it'll be interesting to see how and if Cole's perspective next week changes our opinions of his character and his relationship with Allison. Right now, it's hard to argue that these new perspectives could be anything but good news for The Affair. Let's hope that doesn't change.
The Affair airs Sundays at 10pm on Showtime.