I’ll admit, this week’s episode of Showtime’s The Affair — told from the perspectives of imploding marrieds Noah and Helen — was a head-scratcher for me. Would Helen really unravel in such borderline slapstick fashion after 45 years of being the very model of enviable cool? Would Noah — no matter how much of a lovestruck egomaniac he may be — really watch his son writhing in agony on the bathroom floor of a cheap hotel room and not make a beeline for the hospital? But maybe that is the point. The depths to which this situation is dragging everyone involved seems bottomless. And not just because there is a murder in the middle of it.
We begin in the courtroom, where Noah’s and Helen’s divorce proceedings are underway, Helen represented by the inimitable Gottlief (Richard Schiff). She fidgets, picks at her pale blue nail polish and casts miserable glances at her about-to-be ex as Gottlief ticks through Noah’s marital and parental offenses — driving home the word “paramour” as often as he can fit it into a sentence.
Then Gottlief mentions that the judge should in no way consider letting Noah haul the four Solloway children off to his little love shack in the woods when they are so comfortable in their stunning brownstone right here in the city. Yes, a whole brownstone. Yes, in Park Slope. Yes, they go to private school.
Out in the hallway afterward, Helen and Gottlief discuss the judge’s attitude toward rich folks and what it means to their case, then enjoy a spirited exchange about how to spare Helen the agony of hearing “paramour” time and time again. Gottlief suggests “f–k buddy” and Helen counters with “c—t.”
“I hate him so much,” Helen sighs. I’m not sure she means it.
Whitney hates her grandma — who is now sporting a freshly dyed and fluffed red hairdo and a youthful blush dress — but she still accepts a bribe to be Margaret’s date to her 50th class reunion. Helen tells her mother that Noah is going for half of everything, but for once her mother doesn’t have time to discuss what a money-sucking leech the guy is. Maybe they could just buy his cooperation, says Helen, who has long been accustomed to this solution to life’s pinchies. Can’t Bruce and Margaret intervene?
Margaret tries to dismiss the discussion, but when Helen pushes, she looks stricken and says she can’t secure Bruce’s cooperation … because she doesn’t know where he is. Maybe Tulsa. Probably with Ina, his former student. He says he’s in love. Aw! Margaret! You’re human after all!
Speaking of love, here’s Max with flowers and a gift in a bright pink unicorn bag. How about a tumble first? Or not. The gift turns out to be tickets to Buenos Aries for a week, but Helen says that with everything that’s going on, a lover’s getaway is the last thing on her mind (paramour, paramour, paramour).
Max says that it might be good for her to get away when this is over and that he even gave Noah $50,000 to move the process along. Helen is dumbstruck. She ends their romance on the spot, which causes Max to launch into some self-pitying theater about how no one is good enough for her. And he never was.
Helen watches him calmly. “Noah left me, Max,” she tells him when he’s done.
What follows next is perhaps my favorite scene since the series launched — honest as hell and one that every grown woman who ever got her heart broke will toast in recognition.
Stripping out of her court clothes with a bottle of white for company and Lucinda Williams’ smoldering self-empowerment anthem “Changed the Locks” as a soundtrack, Helen lets herself come undone — gulping her wine, singing with abandon, punting her laundry and, finally, lamenting her “good-for-your-age” body and pesky grays.
Maybe the wine is not enough. She fishes out the emergency pot lozenge Max gave her at the benefit. And — unfortunately — tries to go about the rest of her day.
What follows next is easily my least favorite scene since the series began.
Helen turns up at her store, loose of limb and lip, and has an eye-roller of an exchange involving a customer and a glass decanter (the same kind Alison broke in Helen’s home) that rivals the stoned-bride scene in Sixteen Candles. Then she heads for the hair salon where she makes her poor hairdresser, Dee Dee, an unwitting guest at her nobody-loves-me pity party and her audience for a crude announcement about the noise she just made and where it came from. Yes, people, we’ve got the c-word and the quee-word in one handy episode. How edgy.
Dee Dee takes a breather and while she’s gone, Helen sees her mother in her own reflection. Gawd. Then her phone rings. Turns out it’s actually Wednesday, not Thursday, and her turn to fetch the kids from camp, not Noah’s. She goes sailing out the door in her salon robe, her foils and her mania. Careening into a handicapped parking spot, she throws the kids in the car, tells the elderly gent who really needs that spot that she’s leaving now and backs into another car as she does so, causing an unbuckled Stacey to bonk her head. It’s the least of Helen’s problems.
As the cops try to figure out what transpired, Helen and Trevor play tug of war with her purse, causing Helen — who’s hiding more cannabis — to inadvertently fling her arm into the cop, who flinches far more than the tap warranted. You’re in big trouble now, missy, hollers his female partner — assaulting an officer! Gawd!
Since we don’t ever get to see Trevor or Stacy’s perspective, I suspect — I profoundly hope — that this whole thing is so fifty-pounds-of-cornball because we’re looking it at through Helen’s eyes and she is completely trashed. We’re PUI-ing. Perspective-ing under the influence.
Noah shows up, comforts the kids and scowls at the cuffed Helen as she waits in the cop car. “Why are you doing this to us?” she says to him plaintively.
And later, in the holding cell, with another prisoner ranting about her lover’s love child, Helen unwinds a foil to reveal a fried and bleached white streak of hair.
We’re back in the courtroom, where the judge is giving him the third degree about where he will be living and with whom. Noah says there will be an apartment and the plan is for Alison to be there only when the kids are not. Guess again, says the judge. Since the kids’ needs haven’t exactly been at the forefront of Noah’s mind, perhaps a no-contact order for them and Alison will amend that. They’ll revisit it in another 8 weeks. In the meantime, he hopes these two grownups can come up with a duly grownup arrangement and spare the need for that hearing.
“There is nothing worse for children than litigating custody,” he warns them.
Noah goes to lunch with Alison, who has been blithely apartment shopping. When she shows him photos of her favorite, he breaks the news about the no-contact order. It will blow over, he says, but right now, the children need him. I need you, she protests. They’ve already waited too long to be together round the clock. So what say they give Helen what she wants and the kids can visit on weekends? Before Noah can process her self-interest, his phone rings. Helen, reporting her crash.
In Noah’s version, Helen is not just looped, but unrepentant and obnoxious to boot, rolling around the back seat of the cop car and making smartass remarks.
When he calls her on it, she eyes him with amusement and offers a different assessment: “Why do you get to fuck up and I don’t?”
Noah shuttles the kids off to the brownstone, telling them no, they don’t have to go to camp tomorrow, and yes, they can watch two movies if they want. Then he looks around and sees the fallout from Helen’s visit with Max and her drunken clothes change and mistakes it for a good time instead of a meltdown. He packs them up and heads for his sister’s house in the ’burbs.
There, he looks nostalgically at the kid-centric surroundings and nervously at his disapproving dad who has dropped by, too. When Martin leaves the room, Papa Solloway tells his boy a story about how, on his 50th birthday, Noah’s ailing mother wanted to gift him with a tryst with a willing young woman. “I told her no,” the senior Solloway says. “I told her no, because I loved her.”
Noah makes a break for the kitchen, hoping for some sympathy from sister Nina (Jennifer Esposito). She reminds him of the first time Helen came there and turned up her nose at the wine. They talk about Helen’s crash and her condition and Noah celebrates how it might change his fortunes in the custody hearing. He might even go for full custody, he crows. It doesn’t exactly earn him the reaction he was hoping for.
Calmly but firmly, Nina tells him that the last thing his kids need in the midst of everything that has happened — and happened because of his actions — is to be taken away from their mom. “So Helen screwed up — for once,” she adds. Neither Helen nor her kids deserve to be punished for that. Not by family, anyway.
And one more thing: “Look me in the eyes and tell me you really want these kids with you full-time.”
Instead of a firm and instantaneous yes, Noah answers the question with a question:
“Are you saying I don’t?!”
Well, yes. She is. And she doesn’t look the least bit sorry. Because she shouldn’t be.
Noah grabs the kids — literally in Trevor’s case — and storms out, ending up at the Comfort Castle hotel, where Martin’s maybe-too-many-cashews belly ache intensifies into a gut-clutching crisis. Finding his oldest boy writhing pitiably on the bathroom floor, Noah reaches for his phone and
dials 911 takes a call from Alison. She walks him through a couple of diagnostic tests that Martin won’t let him perform, and Noah then gathers his son up and shuttles him off to the hospital gives him one more chance to poop away the problem.
Now I’m not saying this couldn’t happen. It could. In fact, my own husband — who is indisputably a dear and loving man — once questioned my need for emergency intervention for a violent bout of food poisoning right up until I staggered out the door in plaid fuzzy jammies and one sock, my puke pail and the car keys in hand. But I’m an adult. And it was 3 a.m. And he came around pretty quick, believe you me.
So did Martin, which is good because prison and the ER in a single day is a pretty tough hand for any family. Plus, it allowed Alison to show up, all romantical and sympathetic, in the parking lot with some beers and a question: “What’s going to happen to us?”
In the present day, Schiff — now Noah’s knight in shining rancor — argues that, thanks to the runaway hit that is Descent, Solloway is too locally famous to get a fair trial. The judge does not agree. Plus, the prosecution reminds all involved. the offer of criminally negligent homicide — a mere 1-3 years in the slammer — still stands. Gottlief declines. The trial is four months away.
So what say you? Were you as irked by this episode as I was? Was Helen’s experience such a trip because it was a trip? Can she handle life without her mother there as a safety net? Did Noah’s family do right by him, even though he didn’t want to hear it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
New episodes of The Affair premiere Sundays at 10/9CT on Showtime.