Sunday, November 20, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Affair' - After Three Years in Prison, Noah Struggles to Reconnect with the World in '301'

Showtime's The Affair - Episode 3.01 "301"

Haunted by recent hardship, Noah struggles to navigate the challenges of his old life while attempting to adapt to a new one. A new love interest isn't enough to overcome a sense of dread. Someone is watching him.

The Affair forges a new path for itself in its third season. The first two seasons were their own confined mystery. They charted the path from Noah and Alison's affair to the murder of Scott Lockhart and the subsequent trial. It was a narrative that loved playing around in time and perspective. The most distinctive quality of the entire show is its framing device. It plays with memory and how characters view the same events differently. The third season premiere is the first episode of the series to only have one perspective. The entire hour is about Noah as he attempts to pick up the pieces of his life after going to jail. He spent three years in prison for the murder of Scott. He took the blame in order to protect Helen, who was the true killer. That was a finite ending for the show. It answered the questions of what happened that made Noah and Alison having an affair turn so toxic and deadly for these characters. And now, the show is in completely new territory. A time jump helps it start anew. It's clear these are the same characters who have been forever changed by their actions of the first two seasons. But there's a new mystery to them as well. They almost feel like strangers walking about in a new world unsure of how to react. The audience should feel the same way. This premiere is very expositional but it's very immersive in Noah's world as well. It's a fascinating journey that shows that time hasn't been too kind to Noah since last we saw him.

Noah is the most unlikable character of the four leads. That's not an inherently bad things. Main characters don't need to be liked. They can be awful human beings but still be fascinating and compelling characters. Noah doesn't see himself as a bad guy. He believes he is misunderstood and is surprised that anyone can see the world differently than him. He made countless bad decisions that ruined the lives of so many people. Yes, he took the blame for Scott's death as a way of serving justice for his crimes. But he is still filled with hope as he heads into prison. This premiere only briefly shows his time on the inside. He was sentenced for three years. That's easy compared to what it could have been for murder. He believes he won't have to serve the full term. He sees it as a new and unique writing experience. He even thinks that Helen will wait for him until he gets out. After learning that his daughter with Alison may not even be his, he had a newfound appreciation for Helen. He believes she still wants their marriage again. He sees her as desperate to make things work and have their family whole again. It's not that simple. The Noah who went into prison is not the Noah who came out. He's a new person. One forever changed by trauma. It's just unclear if that makes him a better person.

The show does go a little overboard with all the trauma Noah experiences throughout this hour. He's adrift in his life. No one wants to be around him. This world has changed. His family is gone. They've been pushed away by his actions. His youngest kids with Helen may still greet him but they are scared of him. Martin doesn't want to interact with his dad while Whitney is no where to be seen. Helen may still want things to work with Noah because she waited for him. But he pushes her away because he no longer knows how to communicate with the world. That's an easy story decision to make after sending someone to prison. That's a life-changing experience. One that changes people and makes it difficult for them to survive and connect on the outside. Things can't just go back to normal. Noah is divisive no matter where he goes. He's not an effective man, father or teacher. He's just walking around his life with no clear direction. He's finding his own place and teaching at a university because he needs to do those things. He's not connecting or engaging with the world. In fact, he spends most of his time afraid for his life. He believes he's in danger because of something that happened to him in prison. He is literally being haunted by a ghost of the past.

And yet, how much of this haunting is actually real? At his father's funeral, Noah is distracted by a man outside. It's clear that it's something solely in his head. The rest of the world fades away as he becomes fixated on this man just walking around smoking a cigarette. It's an image that pops up multiple times throughout the premiere. Noah is incapable of moving forward in his life because of this lingering trauma that the audience knows nothing about. It has changed him as a character. He is no longer the confident man he once was. He was never a great teacher. But now, he's lashing out at a student, Audrey, for not writing beyond her own experiences. Noah's novels don't travel beyond the scope of his life. And yet, he still makes that criticism of a student's work. Noah is in a weird place right now because he feels he's being watched at all times. He doesn't connect with this world because he believes it can all be taken away in an instant. That's a significant change for him. One that is quite compelling throughout the premiere. But again, it seems unlikely that he is actually being stalked by this prison guard. Noah is afraid. The premiere even ends on a concerning note. He's in his new apartment washing dishes. Someone sneaks up behind him and cuts his neck. He falls to the guard while the assailant just walks out the door. It appears like Noah dies on the floor. If that's truly what happens, that would be a startling way to start the season. It could be true. Noah forced all of these characters together and apart. It would be interesting to see what happens to their lives when he's no longer around. Or it could just be the show depicting how deep this trauma and fear actually go for Noah. He truly believes he's on the ground dying even though there may be no wound or intruder at all. It's once again the show tricking the audience with its intense focus on perspective. This trick is startling but it should be interesting to see what the ramifications are moving forward.

Plus, the show wouldn't waste so much time in Noah's world and setting up a new connection if it was going to kill him off so suddenly. He only becomes engaged with his new environment once he meets Juliette Le Gail, a French professor at the university. His father's death doesn't pull him out of his slump. Seeing his family again does nothing. Instead, it's this new woman who isn't afraid to talk with him. They feel connected in a nice and genuine way. At times, the show is a little too forceful with their dynamic. It's really propping her up as a new love interest for Noah. They are kindred spirits who don't believe that students should feel secure at all times in the classroom. Juliette actually liked Noah's book. She's not outraged by it like some of the students are. The show has such a fascinating conversation about rape and consent in the middle of this episode. It's interesting because it's the younger characters fueling the conversation. It's women against men like it always is. But that doesn't take away from the complexity of the situation. The shows never informs the audience about the details of the rape on the campus. But it still works because of the unique approach the show has always taken with complex subjects like this. Plus, it even challenges Noah's own perspective on the subject. Last season left things murky when Noah and Alison had sex against a tree. It was told from Noah's perspective but it clearly felt like rape which would be weird for him to see things like that. It made its way into his book which only fuels this conversation around the dinner table further. Juliette doesn't see a world as clear cut as her students want to. Every situation is complicated and different.

Noah wants to believe that as well. He doesn't view the action as rape. He sees the woman as not consenting to it but enjoying it. That's a blanket statement that Audrey takes offense to. And yet, it's the kind of murky grey area that only attracts Juliette further to Noah. Their connection is something that Noah would have had no problem acting on in the past. A beautiful woman is seemingly throwing herself at him despite his troubled past. She's the one who essentially seduces him because she sees a familiar soul within him. She sees someone who approaches the world the same way she does. But Noah has changed. He no longer sees himself as the man who had an affair and wrote a book about it. Of course, it's a tragedy in both reality and fiction. The protagonist in the book killed his mistress while Noah went to jail for murder. Now, that's past him but it's still shaping his life. He doesn't know how to be this person who connects with people again. This new bond with Juliette could be good for him. But instead, he ends the hour on the floor dying over a new mystery that the show sets up in the premiere.

Some more thoughts:
  • "301" was written by Sarah Treem and directed by Jeffrey Reiner.
  • It's still important that after experiencing all of this trauma Noah still wants to call Alison and talk with her again. He's been told not to reach out to her or their daughter. And yet, he still calls and their voices bring him some comfort.
  • Noah telling his students that writers need to accept that people are going to hate their work does feel like a meta commentary on the show's part. Critics have always been very divisive of the series. Criticism is good and has helped the show grow. It's just weird whenever the show actually comments on it.
  • Noah's father leaves his house to Noah in his will. That's not something that he wants. Plus, it creates drama between his sister and her husband. Noah's presence in their lives has clearly put a lot of stress on them as of late.
  • Noah and Juliette agree that students shouldn't be secure in the classroom. It's not what ultimately creates the best work. And yet, Noah still reaches out to Audrey to make sure that she does feel safe. Her response about women never feeling safe is a really great monologue for Sarah Ramos.
  • Iréne Jacob, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Omar Metwally are all new series regulars for the season. Jacob makes her debut in this premiere as Juliette. She seems like an interesting new addition for the season. Moreno and Metwally recurred last year as Luisa and Vic, respectively. It should be fun to see how more important they become this year.