Sunday, November 29, 2015

REVIEW: 'The Affair' - Noah, Alison, Helen and Cole Struggle to Connect While Braving Through a Hurricane in '209'

Showtime's The Affair - Episode 2.09 "209"

A storm gathers. Alison weathers a momentous journey alone. Helen receives unexpected attention from a sexy yet exasperating source. Noah faces a terrible reckoning. An array of challenges push Cole to the very edge.

The ninth episode of The Affair's second season is unlike anything the show has done before. Part of what made the show so distinctive when it first debuted was its narrative structure. It was compelling to watch things play out from different perspectives. That's a device the show has used both well and poorly over the two seasons. This episode effectively breaks down the need to split things evenly amongst the characters. Instead of focusing on two characters with the switch happening at the midway point, this episode tells stories about all four characters that are weaved in and out as necessary. The hour never feels the need to tell the audience which perspective the story is being told from. It's easy to figure out since all four main characters are largely kept apart. All four stories follow the same rhythmic beats. But this episode also has a chaotic grandiosity to it. It's different than anything the show has ever done before. It lives in the moment of these characters as they prepare for a hurricane. It never flashes forward to the future. It instead pushes all the stories to a climatic beat. Some times that is very effective. And sometimes the ambition becomes a little overwhelming to the overall storytelling. This is a complicated episode of The Affair to review. Even I'm not certain how to grade it. The grade to the right of this paragraph could easily change. Everyone is going to have a different reaction to this hour. It's going to be very divisive. And yet, that conversation is good too.

All four main stories in this episode focus on the characters struggling to connect with someone else and then being painfully alone in the end - Helen with Martin's doctor, Alison with the doctor delivering her baby, Noah with his publicist, and Cole with his season-long love interest. All four characters rely on these other people in order to deal with their ongoing challenges. This is a trying time for all of them. Just because the relationships between the four leads have gotten better doesn't mean they are better people on a personal level. This episode is very wise in keeping all four of them apart from each other. It allows for personal growth and realization through the isolation. None of them are able to maintain this connection with another person. They are all braving hardships in addition to this hurricane that is complicating their lives further. They are all at a loss for what is defining their lives right now and whether or not that is something they actually enjoy. It's a way to tie all of the stories together in a thematic way while also doing an effective job of making sure all the stories reach big emotional moments.

Helen's story is largely relegated to the beginning and it's a bit more calm and subtle than the rest of the hour's plots. That's because her story happens before this big storm hits. She's out on the town living her life. She knows that it is coming but she's not actively experiencing it right now. Nor is she making any kind of big preparations for the damage it might cause. She is simply out pursuing her own interests in the hopes of making a connection that will help her be a better and more confident person. Her first Tinder date doesn't go so well. She understands that dates are just interviews for sex. She would rather just get straight to the point. She ends up hooking up with Martin's doctor in the basement of the brownstone while three of her children are upstairs. It's a moment of pure desire. She has no trouble finding sex. And yet, she is still searching for understanding of who she has become and why. The doctor is very attractive and is able to help Martin with his ongoing health problems again. But when Helen listens to him, she doesn't see a person who she can connect with on an emotional and personal level. All she sees is a dick who doesn't understand her. She wants to know why she feels like she hates being a mother. He's not prepared to answer that for her. It's because she's in this horrible mindset that this connection doesn't lead to anything more substantial. But she also realizes that as well. Even though her kids are all fans of the doctor, she knows that things are more complicated than that.

Meanwhile, Noah is continuing down his descent of personal destruction. He peeled back a layer of darkness when he committed to the big death ending for his book. It released a part of him that he wanted to keep away. Since then, he has been very emotionally distant from Alison. In fact, he has been very selfish and even more of a dick than usual. He has fallen down this dark path. Even with all this success he has had, it has seemed as if nothing can truly please him. He finally has the girl but feels trapped by their relationship. He has the critical success with the book but feels down by the very minimal bad reviews. He has embraced horrible decisions as of late - including wanting to sleep with his publicist, Eden. She encourages such behavior as well because it helps connect him to the story of the book. And yet, all of this has been destructive to his life and his relationship with Alison. When the hurricane hits, he's partying it up at the house of a Hollywood producer who wants to produce the film version of his book. That's such a high for Noah but framed in a situation that sees him at his lowest point. When Max shows up and interrupts the big meeting, he notices that Noah has changed as well. He notes that he is suppose to be the asshole and Noah is the good guy. Max is still the same but Noah has become a selfish asshole as well. It's a painful trajectory that sends him spiraling throughout this party. He embraces drugs and sex in order to find personal happiness while Alison has gone into labor. And yet, the narrative makes sure Noah is never given gratification for his actions. He wants all of this - the party, the drugs, the sex. But he isn't about to have it because he has a very awkward run-in with Whitney at the party. That's enough to snap him out of this mindset for a moment. He learns of Alison and wants to escape to be with her. And yet, his recent actions keep him from being at the birth of his daughter.

Elsewhere, Cole is enjoying his final night in the house that he, Alison and Gabriel used to be a family in. He is there with Luisa. They connect as a couple much more than previously because they fuck for the first time without a condom. It's something they have gotten to the point of doing. And yet, that happiness doesn't last long. He is resentful for everything that Alison has done as of late. She is selling the house but not bothering to come collect her remaining things. He still wants to hold onto the memory of Gabriel and share that with Luisa. That's when she breaks the terrible news that she cannot get pregnant. It's devastating to Cole. That's enough for him to believe that his mother was telling the truth. His family really is cursed. That's foolish to Luisa though. To her, it's simply the latest instance of Cole not taking responsibility for himself and his actions. He would rather drown in his own sorrows and blame everyone else for his problems. She confronts him about it. She's speaking the truth but he doesn't really want to hear it. In fact, he's much more comfortable being alone in this house and drinking every bottle of alcohol he can find. In that moment, he can see Gabriel again. That's a moment of happiness he hasn't felt in a long time. But it's also a painful reminder of the past and what happened. It's because of that that Cole would rather just die along with the memories of this house. He sets the house on fire while this massive storm is happening. He doesn't even attempt to leave. He's just there in the middle of it all watching it burn around him. It's an incredibly bleak moment for Cole. It also shows just how poorly he is dealing with life right now. He really cannot move past this heartbreak. And yet, he will survive this action. So, it will need to be a major turning point for him in the immediate future for all of the anguish to have much purpose.

And lastly, Alison is in the hospital delivering her baby five weeks early. She has been through this experience before. She even used to be a nurse. In the moment though, it feels like a pain she has never experienced before. She is there all alone. Her story has the least amount of screen time across this hour but it's also one of the most visceral stories of the episode. She doesn't want to believe that this is labor. It's too early for that. Plus, she is desperately holding onto the hope that Noah will show up and help her through this difficult experience. She recommitted to that relationship because she was pregnant. And yet, their dynamic hasn't been the same since she first read his book. That created tension that was always apparent afterwards. They haven't been able to communicate. That means that Noah misses the birth of his child. Alison is in this hospital during this storm giving birth. For a moment, she's not even sure if she wants this baby. For someone who lost a child, that's a huge thing to say. She says it because she is no longer sure about her relationship with Noah. He is not there for this life-changing moment. That says a lot to her. She has to power through on her own. She eventually does but it's a very trying experience. And then, when Noah finally shows up at the hospital, she wants to keep him away for as long as possible. She just wants to live in that perfect moment with her daughter. She doesn't want Noah there to corrupt the happiness she is feeling. That will mean she needs to address all the chaos that led to their relationship not working. That's a conversation she wants to delay for a little while longer. But the events of this episode show that such a delay and isolation isn't healthy for anyone. In fact, it only leads to more pain and chaos.

Some more thoughts:
  • "209" was written by David Henry Hwang & Alena Smith and directed by Jeffrey Reiner.
  • The big Hollywood producer that Noah meets with for the movie of his book is a bit one-dimensional and stereotypical. But I also think that's the point. This is a man who wants to prop up all the narcissistic and destructive tendencies of Noah when he's at his absolute lowest. He's not the person Noah should get into business but it also feels like an inevitability in order to make a movie.
  • It's a tad strange that Helen isn't worried even a little bit about not knowing where Whitney is when a hurricane is coming. And yet, that perfectly sets up the big reveal later in Noah's part of the story.
  • Also, Noah getting into the pool where his daughter was is one of the creepiest moments the show has ever done. Whitney had a very appropriate reaction.
  • Alison's delivery doctor calling out for a nurse to help her while the music was swelling was a very manipulative moment. And yet, the pairing of that moment with Cole setting the house on fire was very effective.