The Circle Game – The Affair: Season 4 Episode 2

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

That seems to be the motto for Cole Lockhart, perennially lovelorn in the wake of his divorce from Alison. Even though he has Luisa, and a successful business, and the McMansion on the beach, he can’t seem to shake it. The past lingers in Montauk, and he can’t tear himself away. And neither can Alison, it seems, who struggles with single motherhood while holding down a full-time job as a peer-to-peer counsellor for parents who have lost children, something that Cole can’t understand.

“I would hardly call what you’re doing ‘moving on,'” he tells her. “If you were truly trying to move on, you wouldn’t be spending all your time with people who reminded you of Gabriel.”

Fair point. But neither Cole nor Alison is prepared to close the door fully on the past they’ve walked through.

Or maybe that’s the point — maybe it’s not even possible to.

Before the episode begins, we see Cole and Noah, once again at the roadside gas station where we left them at the beginning of the first episode last week. A third man has joined their apparent search party. Is he part of their journey to find Alison? Is he a hitcher they picked up on the way? We don’t get answers. It’s a thirty-second glimpse into a world we don’t know enough about yet, but the withering glances between Noah and Cole are intriguing, even if they are exactly the same withering glances they’ve always shared. I can’t be the only person excited to see where this story goes.

But let’s move on to the episode.

Part 1 is from Cole’s perspective:

Montauk beaches are crowded and Cole is unhappy. Not only is his preferred break under assault by the throngs of tourists that have descended on Montauk as they do every summer, but he’s now over the hill; younger surfers with longer hair hit him with their boards and call him “Grandpa” on their way out into the water. It’s hard not to read this as a bit of a projection on Cole’s part. He knows he’s not the young stud he once was, the guy who used to own the beach back when he and Alison were young. His insecurities about this (and everything else) plague him.


The thrust of the plot here is Cole and Alison’s joint ownership of the Lobster Roll. They have the opportunity to franchise, and in spite of an attractive offer from a group of investors, Cole is saddled with guilt over his decision. Does he sell and become a millionaire? Or does he keep it as the Montauk institution he fought so hard to protect?

It doesn’t help that Alison is basically a no-show for both meetings with these investors — first at the Lobster Roll itself, where she shows up 45 minutes late and unkempt, and later at a fancy dinner, where she doesn’t show up at all. He resents her carefree manner, the way she shirks her responsibility here, leaving him with the decision. But even though he’s mad as hell at her, and in spite of the presence of his charming wife — who learned Mandarin to impress the investors and has even managed to woo them into offering her a FOH hospitality job at a swank Miami hotel which would be part of the package if Cole accepts their $2.1 million dollar buyout of his restaurant — he’s still looking for Alison. He’s always going to be looking for Alison.

This is the central tension between them: Cole believes himself to be a sympathetic hero to his wife, but he’s also tremendously selfish. Sure, he has his moments to shine in this episode, but he’s also…kind of a dick. After Luisa is pulled over for driving Cole’s Jeep (which, incidentally, had just suffered a broken taillight after being backed into on the beach) and her undocumented status rises from the depths, Cole steps up to comfort her. Luisa’s fear is palpable and even though she is eventually let off the hook — the cop who pulled them over gets called away and lets her go with a warning — her own insecurities pile on to Cole’s in a way that so clearly mirrors how Noah and Helen’s marriage dissolved in Season 1; he acts like an inconsiderate prat. I never thought I would say this about Luisa (because I didn’t like the way her character developed over the course of Season 3) but she deserves better than to be yelled at while she’s crying in their kitchen that night after dinner — over her immigration status, the way her life has stalled, how dependent she is on Cole for everything, and how worried she is that Cole is going to leave her for Alison at the drop of a hat. And with the way Cole has been lingering on the edge of Alison’s life all these years (and don’t forget, he already slept with Alison once since marrying Luisa) I can’t say that her fears are unfounded.

When Cole leaves in a huff to go for a walk on the beach and encounters the surfers at the bonfire, I thought I knew where this was going. Just like Noah, he was going to flirt with the pretty young blonde perched on the driftwood with the beer in her hand; the guy with insecurities over his fading youth was going to get the jolt he needed from a late night rendezvous on the beaches of coastal New York. That doesn’t happen, and I think the show is better for it. His impotent rage upon waking up to find his wallet stolen and dicks drawn on his face is tempered only by the realization that he’s become what he hates.

“Did it ever occur to you that I don’t want to sell the Lobster Roll? That I don’t want to become part of the establishment?” Cole asks Alison as he jumpstarts her car the next morning.

Alison chuckles. “You drive a Jeep, you built a mansion on the water, you tip like a fucking banker. You are the establishment.”

Check. Mate.

It’s funny to consider Cole morphing into Noah, but I’m also intrigued by the idea that all the self-righteous anger that he’s been walking around with for the last 8 years or so is going to lead to this inevitability. Cole has always been the most sympathetic character of the original four, but here the sheen is tarnished. I really like where this is going.

Alison’s version of the same events shows us one of two things: either Cole’s imagining of his ex-wife as a careless and immature woman is way off base, or Alison views herself as a saint. And like most of the characterization changes in the plot over the last three seasons, I suspect the truth (if it matters at all) is somewhere in between. But we learn a few things about Alison and what she’s been up to in the last two years. She’s still counselling grieving parents at the facility that she checked herself into between Season 2 and Season 3; she’s studying to become a therapist. It seems she’s pretty good at her job but her situational awareness is lacking — after counselling a young mother to consider leaving her children’s father because he’s become abusive and dangerous, she continues a flirtation with Ben (Ramon Rodriguez) in her office and doesn’t clue in that the woman’s clearly unstable husband is pretending to be her next client. When he assaults her in her office, it’s Ben who leaps to the rescue.

Such is the case for Alison, who has always been one of my faves — I truly think she and Cole were beset by tragedy and bad luck and that they didn’t deserve what happened to them — but who has always managed to find herself stumbling into danger and miraculously getting pulled out at the last minute. Whether it’s Noah deflecting suspicion of her involvement in Scotty’s death in Season 1/2, or Cole intervening to help her get Joanie back in Season 3, Alison hasn’t had a moment to really shine and take the reins of these situations herself. She’s a passive player in her own life.

But perhaps this is also the point of her retelling: it was clear that in the moment that she was being attacked, her senses failed her. We don’t hear anything until Ben is on top of Tony, and Alison doesn’t move or seem to react until long after the danger has passed. As Ben explains his past as a Marine and his experiences with PTSD, Alison understands; she’s been there. Maybe a part of her is still there. Maybe she’ll always be there.

I feel for Alison. She’s presented as complex and simple at once. She wants to be better, and in her retelling she is trying so hard to do that, for herself as well as for her daughter, to make their lives better too. But you can’t help but wonder if she’s also doing it to prove (to whom? everyone? herself?) that she’s not the colossal screw-up Cole and Noah and everyone else thinks she is. Season 3 spent a lot of time rehabilitating Alison for the apparently cardinal sin of leaving Joanie with Cole, her actual biological father, in order to seek help for her mental illness. We should all be so lucky to be mothered by people who care as much about their own health as they do about ours. Yet she was pilloried by Cole and Luisa for most of the season for this choice.

And it’s not like no one knew she was unwell; her self-harm dates back to Season 1, where she told Noah outright about it (and Cole must have known, too.) But Alison is never truly let off the hook the way Luisa is. She might have people swooping in to save her from her life, but she’s never truly been saved by any of them in the end. And that’s because she’s bought into her own characterization. She’s not a dingbat college co-ed the way Cole sees her (it’s a role he seems oh-so-willing to cast her in, too, which likely speaks to his desires as much as her actual impression on him); she’s not a flighty basket case the way she thinks Noah sees her (because that’s what Cole told her last season — wow, Cole is kind of a jerk, isn’t he?); and she’s not simply a heartless homewrecker the way Helen and the Solloway kids likely see her, either. But to Alison she is absolutely all of those things, and no matter what she does, she’ll never be better. How demoralizing.

Now I’m wondering just how Ben is going to project himself onto her, and what scars she’s going to be left with at the end of this season because of him. No wonder she freezes like a deer in the headlights when his offer of help comes along. I’m waiting for the moment when Alison does manage to rise to the occasion and save herself for once. I don’t know where she is or why Cole and Noah are looking for her, but a part of me hopes she’s okay and that they never find her, that she’s finally managed to get off the merry-go-round that continually takes her (and everyone else on this show) past the same things, the same places, over and over again until they’re right back where they started.

Post Script:

  • Luisa’s immigration issue is so timely, considering everything that’s happening in the news these days.
  • Okay but…seriously? The Lobster Roll rebranding strategy was a joke and Alison had every right to laugh at it, so Cole can take a long hike off a short pier for getting mad at her over that.
  • Cole’s portrayal of Alison is so unfair and that has to be purposeful. Is he so angry with her still that he can’t see that she’s trying to better herself? Or is he just that cosmically obsessed with her that he can’t help but paint her as looming large over his life? (Interesting to note that while Cole is unable to forget Alison, he hardly plays a role in her life; his rejoinder about her inability to move on begins to sound a little like the gentlemen protesting too much…)
  • “The Mayor of Montauk”. This is where Cole has been headed ever since he objected to then-owner Oscar Hodges’ plan to turn the Lobster Roll into an entertainment venue, complete with bowling alley. Remember his impassioned plea at the town council meeting early in Season 1? This is Cole’s destiny, and he’s only just realized it.
  • The biggest issue in The Affair has always been the way that two people can misremember the same event. It’s come up before, and it seems to happen a lot with Cole — he doesn’t remember that he dropped Joanie off at school with Alison, and instead recalls accosting one of the surfers from the beach the night before outside the Lobster Roll. My biggest fear is that this is a subtle plant for a later storyline in which Cole has a brain tumour that affects his memory and then he dies, because I’ve clearly watched One Week a little too often…#GordDownie #NotOverIt #TooSoon
  • Did Alison and Ben meet in the same restaurant where Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) and Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) have supper, and where Tommy convinces Greg to perform his monologue, in The Disaster Artist?
  • Is it possible that Joanie actually is Noah’s daughter and not Cole’s? She looks nothing like Gabriel in the side-by-side photos of the two of them on Alison’s desk, despite both children having the same parents…
  • Since when is Joshua Jackson old enough to be called Grandpa?!!

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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  1. LINDSAY STAMHUIS You are wonderful, thanks for helping me through the “Fog” of life here. I love Allison and her courage and beauty. The others…not so much. I have never watched a show where I felt I was there, before. War movies, yes, I am a Viet Nam Vet. Fear, confusion and dieing are real for me. As is PTSD. We are victims of war, not guilty of suicides.Those are overwhelming and they fear none. When you return without patches, they are inside. And they cannot be removed. I expect none but my brothers to understand.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Jeff — thank you for your comment and for your service. I’m curious about your view on this episode and the experiences of both Alison and Ben. Did you feel it was true to life? Is that was a PTSD experience is like? It must be so hard to watch TV shows and films that attempt to depict PTSD but that get it wrong. What TV show or movie has come closest to that, in your opinion?

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