Wasn’t The Affair supposed to be about the seismic involvement of the narcissistic New York literary novelist Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and not-so-bright Long Island waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) in all its sexist, family-wrecking complexity?
At the start of Season 3, the annoyingly addictive potboiler had moved a long way from Montauk – it’s somewhere in the New Jersey hinterland, in fact. Where next, Atlantic City? Alison is nowhere to be seen, though she and her daughter, no longer a baby, reassuringly chirp a recorded phone greeting. Meanwhile, other women are being lined up to make Noah feel like a man again.
Noah is a few weeks out of prison after nobly serving three years for a crime he didn’t commit – the vehicular manslaughter of Scotty Lockhart, his daughter’s statutory rapist. He has found a job he hates teaching creative writing at a small college on the wrong side of the Hudson, and he is understandably bitter, determinedly grimy, and convincingly paranoid.
Barely listening to a student, Audrey (Sarah Ramos), as she reads her latest story to his class, Noah drifts over to a window to watch the man apparently stalking him, a former prison guard (played by a hefty Brendan Fraser). Called back to appraise Audrey’s writing, he shreds it as indulgent, not least because his spell inside has given him a spurious taste for social realism.
As delicately pretty and emotionally fragile as Alison, Audrey is clearly the kind of vulnerable, unstable young woman to whom Noah is drawn. When he sits next to her on a backdoor step at a party and apologizes for attacking her story earlier in the day, she grudgingly offers him a cigarette.
Audrey shows the same kind of tremulous fascination for Noah that Selma Blair’s masochistic student had for her sexually abusive black creative writer professor (Robert Wisdom) in Todd Solondz’s 2001 Storytelling.
Since Audrey is a rape activist, Noah is possibly setting himself up for more scandal and grief. This feels old – the post-Oleanna stuff of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace (1999) and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel (2000), novels in which the sexual harassers were professors in communications studies and creative writing respectively. The Affair’s showrunner Sarah Treem should be cautious about exploiting the current campus rape epidemic for entertainment.
The party in question is being thrown by a Frenchwoman, the worldly Juliette (Irène Jacob), a professor at the college, who takes one look at disaffected jailbird Noah and decides he has that “je ne sais quois” she seeks in a lover. She is accomplished at baring her shoulders at the dinner table and flipping up her skirt when sitting on a bed during the house tour she gives him.
Jacob is a good actress, but the character is absurdly Gallic (her last name is Le Gall) and too ostentatiously liberated – has Treem been reading Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catherine M.? Noah’s response to Juliette’s attempted seduction is unexpected, however, and there’s reason to believe he’s not going to turn into a Don Draper-like Don Juan.
Consumed by paranoia after his sentence, Noah sees danger in every shadow. The riveting second half of this episode ushered The Affair into film noir, the director Jeffrey Reiner vividly using eerie deep-focus shots to externalize Noah’s dread as he stands washing the dishes in his grungy apartment where – aside from the ants that symbolize his fall from grace – he may or may not be alone.
What’s certain is that Noah is not for the moment – because that would be the end of The Affair – planning to reunite with his still devoted ex-wife, Helen, who, thanks to Maura Tierney’s steady performances, continues to ground the show in something approximating reality. It is painful seeing him spurn her at his father’s funeral, which begins the episode.
And he is not so out of love with Alison that he doesn’t call her “to hear the sound of your voice” toward the end, despite her ban on him contacting her. The his-her format apparently abandoned, we can expect her neuroses to wash all over episode two.
The Affair, Season 3 Episode, airs on Showtime on November 27th.