A Good Man or a Great Man
The Affair Season 2, Episode 10 recap.
Have you ever been in therapy? If not, you just were.
For the uninitiated, the session between Noah and his therapist was a direct homage to In Treatment, another adaptation of an Israeli show, which boasted several of the writers from The Affair on its staff. If you found the session with Noah in any way intriguing, I strongly encourage you to check it out.
Because when else can you take the time to discuss these things? One of the great things about being a television writer (and, by extension, someone who writes about television) is that you get to debate all these things, these themes. That’s what we do. But you rarely get to see it on television, see a character actually decide how they feel about the people they’re becoming.
Noah is uniquely positioned to do so. He’s a writer, he’s interested in the choices people make to become who they are. Not surprisingly at all, given the ‘literary’ ascendancy we saw him have a year ago (based on how old Alison says Joanie is), he’s focused on ‘great’, and whether he can ever be great, whether the comparisons that were made about him, in relation to the great writers he lists are going to be predictive, or embarrassing.
It doesn’t mean his whining about wanting to cheat is any less disgusting. It’s infuriating, actually, because he’s complaining about a situation he put himself in. That he wants to cheat, wishes he could, but won’t because of the…what, societal constraints? “What if the only difference between me and Hemingway is that he never had to choose?” “Would General Bradley have conquered Normandy if he’d been at home changing diapers?”
What’s interesting about what Noah says here has to do with the title of the show. Even though he could not be in a relationship with Alison (baby aside), he’s there. What he wants is permission not to be single, to f*ck all the other women in his path, but to have an affair. That’s his point about Hemingway (who, as his therapist points out, was miserable), that he got to have the image of family while screwing around on the side.
Noah still wants the family. He loves the look of the domesticity. But, judging by his home life as a kid, he thought ‘is this all there is?’ It’s not just having a parade of beautiful women. He could stay divorced (clearly something he’s contemplating), sleep with everyone, and be a ‘great’ writer. Except for that niggling feeling that there’s something he’d be leaving at home that he wants.
“It never occurred to me that you could judge someone by their family.” I would pay money for Helen to hear that, especially because she and Noah had what anyone would call ‘a beautiful family’. (Also: note the therapist saying that Helen ‘ran off with’ her boyfriend the doctor. You really think that’s what she actually said?)
Let’s point out that those ‘beautiful families’ don’t just grow that way. It takes work and effort. So did Noah just never feel that his family was any work and effort, and therefore not a judgment of him as a man? Or was Helen doing all the work of raising the family, so he didn’t feel it was work?
As much as I’d like to be furious with Noah, that’s not what we saw. He was and is involved with his kids, and he shows real regret about being distant from Whitney. But he pouted when the baby wouldn’t say ‘Dada’. So then, he wants the family not because he wants to be a part of one, but because he likes the way it looks to have them adore him?
‘Beautiful families’ have been built on just that. Ask Cole Lockhart.
I didn’t realize before now that Cole and Alison were kids together. I knew they were young, yes, but the fact that they knew each other when they were teenagers adds another layer on top of who they were. Naivete. Idealism. The belief that the person you know when you’re young is never going to change.
But unlike Noah, Alison and Cole were always overtly about family. About her folding into his, about creating their own. Unlike Noah, they knew family was the only way to judge a person – since what Cole used to do for a living wasn’t laudable and what Alison used to do was a footnote. It was about being a family, and when they weren’t one anymore, because Gabriel died – that’s when their lives were judged. How can you be good people if you aren’t raising good people? What are you doing?
It’s surprising, then, that Cole, family-oriented Cole, is the one who’s been able to shrug that off. His own disappointing family broke the mold for him – they were ‘beautiful’ once too. But now that that dream has died, other ones can follow suit. Cole can live in New York, he can get married to a woman who can’t have his baby. All the rules are off. And he’s charming and light again.
Of course, that’s all before he knows that Alison’s daughter is his too. We assume. Through the whole therapy session, Noah talks about men who cheated, who had many wives, who got to ‘have both’. Nothing is ever said about women who do the same. As Alison tries to redefine herself (despite her lip-biting anxiety in her class, I bought her as a pre-med student), is she a good person if she doesn’t check into the gnawing anxiety that Joanie is Cole’s? If she’s concerned for Scotty (and seems like the only one)? If she’s trying to be something other than Noah’s baby-mother? How do we judge Alison, when we’re reminded that Noah’s the one on trial?