This far into Season 2 of Showtime’s The Affair, I have to admit, I’m a little done with episodes that attempt to pass off wildly different versions of the same events as the mysterious workings of two separate minds. While this episode was intriguing — bringing Noah and Helen together for the most substantial amount of time since he bolted for the writers cabin — I gave up on figuring out how to meld the two versions into a probable truth.
We learned some not-so-surprising stuff about Whitney in the front end of Helen’s parcel. After that: There was a book signing. Helen was there. Noah was there. Eden was there. The ex-spouses went out afterward for a bit of beer and nostalgia. They did not spend the night together. Outside of that, what was really said and how it was said and what happened next — as is frequently the case with this series — is the version you decide you like best. We’re all de facto writers on The Affair because there isn’t a single interpretation to be had. It goes the way we say so.
In this case, we get a fractured hour that looks at how former spouses communicate when the end is firmly established. The relief when the anger subsides and something resembling friendship takes root, lending hope that all the bad stuff might finally fade away. The inevitable moment when that comes crashing down. How you opt to proceed afterward, especially if there are kids involved. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I have an ex-spouse. My current spouse does, too. We are well schooled in the way communication ebbs and flows, hardens and softens, and sometimes disappears all together with our kids’ other parents.
Here’s how it goes this week for Helen and Noah.
We start in Gottlief’s office where he and his pink-cheeked assistant are dealing with the fallout of Oscar’s revelations, paired with the security tape from last week’s episode. The men pore over Scotty’s phone records. Sporadic phone calls to Alison through the spring, then 14 phone calls alone in the month leading up to Scotty’s death. Calls Alison never answered.
They try to piece together a viable story from what they have. Maybe Noah’s baby. Maybe Scott’s. Either way, Alison wants to keep the good thing she has going with Noah. So what if it went like this? One fractious conversation happened at the wedding. Maybe another. Throw in a bit of alcohol (but she’s pregnant?), an opportunity and boom. Scott Lockhart is dead.
Neither looks too convinced of the tale. The door opens. It’s Helen, looking nervous, but girlish in the thick bangs that tell us we’re in the now. She’s there for an update.
She and a clearly uninterested Whitney are taking a college tour — at the same school Helen, Max and Noah attended. Whit fiddles with her phone and encourages Helen to flirt with the handsome dad who eyes her up. What she doesn’t do: Give ten craps about the proceedings. “It’s like Hogwarts without the Magic,” she snips, and she does not plan to spend the night.
Helen attempts to change her mind with a mini-lecture, and Whitney captures every syllable with a cellphone camera. Oof. It’s for the Tinder profile she just created for her mother. “It’s not like you have all the time in the world to get over him,” she informs her mother.
God, this kid is a pill. I want to staple her mouth shut. Despite Helen’s attempt to convince her daughter that the cards are stacked in favor of her admission, Whitney drops some truth: She doesn’t want to go to college anyway. She never has. She wants to live in New York and be a model. There’s a legit photographer, some old guy, who told her she has promise.
Helen is upended by the news. That is not what an 18-year-old does. They go to college …because … that’s what they do. She’s a double legacy at the school after all. Whitney’s mouth is a weapon: “Well, guess what, Mom? I’m not you! I’m not you! Unlike you, I’m not going to live off my parents for the rest of my fucking life.”
The not so tender mother-daughter moment is broken up when Whitney spots Noah on the street. He’s there on his book tour. Eden is there, too. Whitney makes a beeline for her dad and Helen trails behind. Helen tries to explain that Whitney is not warming to a night in the dorms and Noah offers to let her stay in his suite. Whitney is about it; she has no intention of heading off to meet her 24-hour-roommate Chrissy.
Here’s Chrissy. Actually, she looks like Whitney’s kind of girl. To Helen’s amazement, they wander off together. Noah invites Helen to his reading and she declines.
Back in the now, Helen wants to know what she should tell her kids about their father’s prospects. Gottlief looks uncomfortable. Helen looks intent.
Back at the college, Helen has a lonely drink, then grabs her coat and says “Fuck it.” She shows up at the reading after all, and spots Noah at the top of the bookstore stairs. He smiles down at her and grins sheepishly at the milling crowd.
As Noah reads, Helen hears tender words about herself. Then searching ones. About him, too. A question and answer follows, the last of which is, “Do you really believe love can last?”
Noah is good with words. He says these: “I believe love is a kind of faith. And when two people both believe, something powerful happens. … It’s not about the sex, kids.”
Someone calls out an extra question: Does God exist? Noah grins. More lovely words.
“I think of God the same way as I think of love. If you think God exists, then he does, because your faith and your actions bring his presence into the world. And the same is true of love. If you believe in its power and you conduct your life in way that respects its sanctity, then it will aways be there to serve you. But if you don’t, well … then my book happens.”
Afterward, Noah and Helen stroll through the night. She shivers. He gives her his hat and tells her she looks cute in it. They head for a place they liked as students. They talk about Margaret. They talk about Helen’s 21st birthday party. Helen compliments the turnout at Noah’s reading and tells him not to sell himself short.
Then she tells Noah about Whitney’s plan to be a model instead of a coed. They disagree about their girl’s reasoning and the ramifications of her not going to college. Noah says he thinks everyone should take some time off before college to figure who they are and what they really want out of life. It’s telling. Helen says he just can’t admit that they fucked her up and he justs wants to be done with her. He reminds her of what she herself was like at Whitney’s age and gives her some pointed examples.
Point made. She realizes just how much her parents have held her back from who she really is. Helen bangs her head on the table and swears. Then she looks at him with a mixture of sadness and clarity.
“I’m sorry,” she tells him. “For making you leave Harlem. This is not to excuse anything you’ve done — I want to be really clear about that. But when your first book failed, I was relieved. I was heartbroken for you, but part of me hoped you would give up on writing and just be content with me. And our kids. And I guess I just couldn’t see what you really wanted. … Now you’re here. And I’m very proud of you.”
He invites her to stay in his suite. She declines. He offers to have Eden call her a cab. It arrives, but she decides to walk instead. Her eyes glisten with tears as she walks away.
In the now (we can tell by the bangs) Helen and Noah — his baby in a stroller beside them — cheer Martin at his wrestling match. She wants him to promise it will all be OK. When Noah gets up to hug his son, the baby flings her pacifier. Helen spots it, picks it up, wraps it carefully and puts it into her purse. Yow. Looks like a DNA test will be in the offing. Did Gottlief put her up to this, or does Helen know more than we think?
As he runs on the treadmill, Eden texts a host of good reviews. A pretty woman steps onto the treadmill next to him and places a book on the monitor. Descent. Noah smiles.
Later he reads the reviews to Alison via Skype. She has good news, too. While he has been gone, she finished the nursery. She shows him the room. He fidgets. Looks at his phone. Wonders where his desk went.
Alison looks pained. Noah’s fiery love is now a stay-at-home mom, while his world gets bigger and broader.
Before the reading, Noah reads the student paper and bristles at the scathing review, penned by a guy named Ernest Schifbaum. Eden tells him to chill out: “Even Vladmir Putin settles for 98-percent of the vote.” She nods toward the large turnout.
In Noah’s recollection, he begins by reading Eden’s suggestion — a steamier passage that lends some credibility to Schifbaum’s disparaging words. Then he spots Helen in the audience. He stops. Apologizes. Then reads the more tender, pointed words instead.
This time, the first question comes from an audience member who admires how he writes women. “I write the voices of the women I most admire,” he tells her.
The next questioner is none other than Ernest Schifbaum. Despite Noah’s attempt to make light of Ernest’s earnestness, the younger man asks where Noah feels Descent falls between fiction and memoir. Would he consider it literary fiction? Why would anyone read it five years from now? And is he aware that while he was reading, another author won the PEN/Faulkner award he was up for?
Noah swallows hard. Recovers. Says his best reward is his fans. A comely one named Daisy passes him her number at the signing afterward, right before Helen steps up. “Hi,” she says with amusement.
They head off to the campus hotspot — far more raucous in Noah’s memory — where Helen promptly gets drunk and Noah tries to illicit some sympathy for losing the PEN/Falkner. Because he’s white. And male. And it’s hard to be a man in 2015. Pfffft. Maura Tierney is awesome in this scene. If she’s not really drunk, you couldn’t prove it by me.
Helen listens for a very brief while, then has a spectacularly theatrical epiphany. Wait a minute she says, making the most of the moment. “I just realized something. This is not my job anymore. It’s her job. And I’m free!” Noah takes it like a man. He snags her remaining shot and downs it. “Revenge!” he cries.
As they drink, Noah’s phone keeps pinging. It’s Eden, worrying she’s missing out on the after party. Helen makes him do a shot every time Eden calls. She gets him to turn off his phone. “I’m proud of you,” she says.
They reminisce — about what sounds like an orgy that didn’t happen, to me, but I’m not sure. Silence. He puts his hand on her hand. She says she’s sorry he didn’t get the prize. The peaceful moment is short-lived.
Noah spots the local newspaper critic. He bolts up to give the kid a piece of his mind. Helen tells him to sit down and stop being That Guy. That guy like her father. She studies him carefully and then warns him that he has wanted this kind of attention all of his life and now that he has it, she’s worried he’s getting drunk on the power. He is a decent person — truly — and she doesn’t want to see success change that.
Noah informs her that “Bruce Butthole” is no Noah Solloway.
Not yet anyway.
Cut to Helen make a brisk exit from the bar. Noah follows her. “Helen?” he calls to her as she staggers toward her cab. “Do you like it? Do you like the book? Is it a good book?”
“I can’t read it without crying,” she says. No doubt, now that we know what happens in the middle. “Go home, Noah. Sleep it off. Alone.”
“Get home safely, Helly Belly,” he says. “Good seeing you again.”
Then, despite Helen’s warning, Noah makes a poor decision. He heads back into the bar and confronts Ernest Schifbaum, raging about his dubious right to tear down artists. It’s a sobering moment: “Shitbomb” may be a mere grad student, but he’s already penned two novels and a memoir (For real? About what?). One will be published in the fall. Now go home, drunk old man.
Noah swings. Noah misses. A dozen phone cameras pop up as he sails into the bar and down to the floor while Schifbaum calmly watches, unscathed.
In his hotel room, Noah pours himself another drink. There’s a knock at the door. Eden, holding up her cell phone. Thanks to the scene at the bar, he is now “the bad boy of the literary world.” Surprisingly, just like Alison’s goof with the Page Sixer, that’s a good thing.
You know what Eden says: align yourself with the story, Noah.
He moves closer. Eden doesn’t stop him. He pulls her into his room, kissing her and leading her to the bed. He makes it to what I believe the kids call second base before Eden stands up, puts her shirt back on and heads for the door, saying she doesn’t mix business with this kind of pleasure. Especially on a tour this long. Noah looks flummoxed.
He’s left alone with his whiskey, his clinking glass and a stack of books that need signing.
So that’s that. Whose version of the bookstore and the bar do you think comes closer to the truth? Can Noah ever be faithful or is he really more like Bruce Butthole than he’ll ever care to admit? Does that leave Alison a Margaret in the making? How soon will that pacifier come back to haunt — or help — Noah? What else caught your attention about this episode? Share it in the comments section below.
New episodes of The Affair Season 2 premiere Sundays at 10/9CT on Showtime.