California I’m Coming Home – The Affair: Season 4 Episode 1

Our coverage of Showtime’s The Affair begins with the Season 4 premiere! Tune in weekly for episode recaps and analysis. 

I freely admit that the return of The Affair to Showtime for a fourth season left me with a bit of trepidation. Season 3 was much maligned for its unevenness, both thematically and structurally, and it ended in a weird place that honestly felt…good. Which is not something that this show allows you to feel for very long. So I should have guessed that Season 4 would follow closely. Which it did.

The Season 4 opener definitely brings the goods, however. That happy feeling we all had, watching Noah watch his family in their Brooklyn brownstone on Christmas Eve after flying all day from Paris to bring Whitney home? When we saw Helen wave to him from the window? Or when Martin invited his Dad to go sledding in Central Park on Christmas Day? Totally gone, replaced with all the angst and drama that we’ve come to love about these stories. This is a fine return to form for a show that seemed to lose its way last year, and this is a very strong episode, focusing on Helen and Noah and their separate remembrances of one day in Los Angeles.

(But before we even get into the episode proper, we’re treated to a scene in a desert somewhere. Noah is at a payphone; Cole is beside a truck. They’re looking for Alison, who hasn’t been seen in 72 hours and is officially a missing person. Clearly this will be the new mystery for this season, and I’m 100% here for it because anything that gets Noah and Cole in a truck together is a good thing to me as long as we all get to see it. The tension! The animosity! The shared pain of loving and losing Alison! Quelle amusement!)

We flash back to six weeks earlier, where we get to the meat of this episode: a day in the life of the transplanted and now-blended Solloway clan, who have picked up and moved clear across the country because Helen married Vik and Vik got a great job in Los Angeles. Noah, refusing to be apart from his younger two children (Whitney and Martin are off at college, allowing us to focus on Stacy and Trevor, a move that I wholeheartedly welcome), has moved to be closer to them.

Part 1 is from his perspective.

Noah feels he is being unfairly treated by Helen, whom he believes is trying to keep his kids from him. He commutes in horrendous traffic from his home in Topanga Canyon to work at a school that looks like a cross between a prep school and the school from Dangerous Minds, filled with people that check all the right boxes on the Inner City Classroom Checklist™ — flirtatious Latinas hitting on Noah in class; a tougher-than-she-might-need-to-be principal (Sanaa Latham) raining awkwardly on Noah’s parade; a pathetic co-teacher with a manuscript (like, 500+ pages long and amusingly-titled — East of Pasadena) and a dream of being published, making Noah is new best friend. The focus of Noah’s attention is, of course, the rebellious Anton, the stereotypical black kid in a hoodie who can’t possibly be a writing prodigy except that he actually is; he proves his worth to Noah and simultaneously tells him where to stick his White Saviour Complex, and of course we see what Noah’s passion project is going to be this season.

I’m not usually a fan of this kind of storyline, at all, for all the obvious reasons. But The Affair has a way sometimes of forcing us to question obvious assumptions in order to arrive at some greater truth about the characters. Is Anton really behaving this way? Are any of these stereotypes true to life? We only see them from Noah’s perspective. This is what he believes is true; he is, after all, the hero of his own tale. We all are. And we’re going to see the world around us in ways that flatter our egos. In this case, Noah needs someone to save, especially now that Alison is gone and is family has entirely moved on without him. That Noah sees Anton as needing his protection, or feels he is the only one who can reach him (a tired storytelling trope, to be sure), illuminates so much more about him than any attempt at getting to objective truth would do, and this is where The Affair has always shone brightest. It gets away with being racist, or sexist, or openly hostile and prejudicial, because it’s not a show that is even remotely interested in telling objective truths. Rather, it allows its characters to narrate their own tales, to cast themselves as protagonists, even as they paint themselves unflatteringly in the process. And in that way it’s far more true to life than almost any show on TV these days.

I digress.

Noah’s job is only half of the story; the other is his fight to see his kids. Parent-teacher conferences at Trevor’s school go awry when Noah can’t get onto the school grounds because Helen hasn’t added him to the guest list; he misses out, through what he believes is no fault of his own (though he could have registered himself online). At dinner with Helen and Vik and the kids afterward, Noah tries to wedge himself into the conversation but that’s all he manages to do: wedge. It’s painfully obvious that he is very out of the loop here on everything, including Trevor’s sexuality.

It doesn’t help matters much that Helen has scared the kids into believing that Noah lives in a bad neighbourhood because Charles Manson used to live nearby; but again, this is Noah’s characterisation, so who knows what to believe?

At the end of the night, pathetic Noah goes to his pathetic house lit by pathetic fluorescent lights and pathetically makes two phone calls — both unanswered, one to Alison and the other his long-estranged friend Max — before crashing on the new trampoline he set up for his kids to mark a class set of papers. And suddenly I wish had a trampoline on which to mark class sets of papers. Ugh, Californians just know how to live…

In Helen’s version of the same events, we see a portrait of a woman who is stronger and happier and has her life far more “together” than she has ever since the halcyon days of Season 1, but who is still struggling. She misses New York; she doesn’t understand the appeal of Los Angeles; she has a horrific mother-in-law (played with brilliantly simmering passive-aggressiveness by Zenobia Shroff) and has nothing but contempt for “West Coast therapy” as she calls it. Even being 3000 miles away from her own overbearing parents isn’t truly enough to make her happy.

Of course Helen sees the parent-teacher conference outing and the restaurant scenes differently than Noah — in his version he was calm; in hers, he was vicious; in his, the restaurant was on par with Chilis, complete with mariachi band; in hers, it was classy and quiet; in his, Helen nearly forces Trevor to out himself before he’s ready; in hers, Noah’s very presence stops Trevor from coming out altogether — but like I said earlier, this is where The Affair does its best work. I’m not even remotely interested in what objectively happened anymore; half the fun of these episodes is in trying to guess how the other character’s viewpoint will change and how that might shed light on the events in question. Some people really don’t like this conceit; I think it’s fantastic.

The real crux of Helen’s story is that she’s actually terrified of earthquakes. When she stops to realize that Noah is the earthquake she’s been fearing, it’s a big moment that doesn’t quite feel earned yet — I expected this to be drawn out over a few episodes, at least — though might foreshadow more to come. (Perhaps an actual earthquake?) What bothered me most was that Helen doesn’t come off as fair even in her own retelling, and the show made me side with Noah for a moment, and I hate that. Noah has done his time — quite literally — for the crimes he’s committed (or hasn’t committed, as the case may be). Helen, who seemed ready to forgive him at the end of Season 3, is back to holding his past mistakes over his head with unceasing glee/somewhat manufactured contempt.

But that’s the thing: even when Helen is happy she’s unhappy. That’s the basic plot here. I haven’t figured out if this is a comment on something or not, but I hope that — with the mystery of Scotty Lockhart’s death and Noah’s trial and his time in prison and the mental anguish that followed his release all behind them — this season allows Helen a chance to grow. I see great potential in her friendship with Sierra, their bohemian neighbour who shows up bearing a ridiculously large number of avocados and exhortations about the benefits of goat yoga before telling Helen that her “being” is…slightly off. Is this something yoga and detoxifying face masks can fix? I don’t know but I kind of hope so.

The end of the episode leaves us on a cliffhanger — Vik’s collapse in the bathroom, recalling a hint from earlier in the episode about his unexplained weight loss. This is the kind of crisis that could force Helen and Noah together again, and I’m really hoping that’s not where this season goes yet again. I like Vik entirely too much to see him sidelined again in favour of all the old self-destruct sequences Helen and Noah go through. I want new self-destruct sequences, damn it!

But Vik’s collapse could also be the impetus needed for Helen to give up control of the kids and let Noah into their lives. I’m really hoping that’s where this season goes. Not just because Helen needs to grow, but because it’s painfully obvious that Noah and Helen are not good together, and they need to learn how to co-parent the way I hope Alison and Cole have done. (Also, because I like Vik entirely too much to see him sidelined.)

Either way, it’s set us up for a pretty interesting season of TV, and we haven’t even seen Cole’s or Alison’s or Luisa’s or Juliette’s (is she even returning?) point of view.

I was wrong to feel nervous; I’m legitimately so excited for this season. With a new setting and new characters coming into play, the potential for explosive conflict and angst feels so off-the-charts high you just know it’s gonna take centre stage, utterly consuming us all with just the right amount of over-the-top drama. We simply can’t take our eyes off the still-rattling aftershocks of the affair that started this whole thing, on a beach in Montauk forever ago.

Even with an attention-whore of an ocean in the backyard.

Post Script:

  • I love the new opening credits sequence showcasing the new setting — that contrast between the cool washed out hues of the east coast and the warm tones of California is striking, especially for a show that traded almost exclusively in washed-out tones for so long…
  • Sanaa Latham, everyone. That is all.
  • How can Noah make even a California bachelor pad look so depressing?
  • Helen misgendering Trevor’s love interest, Brooklyn, as well as her insistence that Noah will blame himself for Trevor’s homosexuality is so telling that she — for all her apparent “woke-ness” — is the one with the issues here.
  • Did you guys catch that Helen’s therapist is Michael Gross from Family Ties?!
  • If they kill off Vik, I might riot; Omar Metwally is sublime, hilarious, and ridiculously good-looking. I really hope we haven’t seen the last of him.

Written by Lindsay Stamhuis

Lindsay Stamhuis is a writer and English teacher. In addition to editing and writing about TV and Film, she is the co-host of The Bicks Pod, a podcast currently deep-diving into the collected works of William Shakespeare. She lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her partner Aidan, their three cats, and a potted pothos that refuses to grow more than one vine.

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