The Affair always seemed to be a show about sad, sexy white people being sad, sexy white people, often near bodies of water. After all, this is a show where, if you went down its IMDb cast list, you would have to go through literally 10 performers to find a single actor of colour (hello, Catalina Sandino Moreno). Yet, the addition of Sanaa Lathan, of the iconic Black love story Love & Basketball, was an exciting one, adding some much-needed melanin to the premium cable proceedings.
Thankfully Lathan’s entrance as Janelle Wilson, Noah Solloway’s (Dominic West) new principal, in all her natural hair glory, isn’t simple lip service to the need for “diversity” on our airways. She isn’t living in a white-washed world, as is the tendency for so many characters of colour right now. Instead, as Sunday night’s episode “403” proves, Janelle’s obstacles and triumphs as a Black woman couldn’t seem more true-to-life. The Affair needed Janelle Wilson.
While the high school administrator spends much of the season 4’s introductory episodes in the background, she comes fully into the action with “403.” It’s when viewers get their first real look at what Janelle is up against at her supposedly liberal, progressive charter school in Compton, which is full of students of colour and white teachers. Janelle’s employees “hate” her for being tough as nails and unapologetic about it.
All of this in-school drama stems from the principal's new no-tolerance policy, where students can be quickly suspended for any egregious behaviour. Set a rubbish bin on fire? Suspended. Curse a teacher out in the middle of class? Suspended. Plagiarise a paper? Congratulations, you’re not graduating. While these kinds of punishments would seem run-of-the-mill for any wealthy suburban high school — or their even wealthier private counterparts — Janelle’s teachers do not approve of these tactics.
There are multiple levels of misogyny, racism, and misogynoir at work here. Algebra teacher Megan (Chelsea Maidhof) tries to claim one of her now-suspended students, Alexis the fire-starter, is being punished for where he comes from since his parents are both addicts. Janelle counters that isn’t the case. Rather, she is simply trying to enforce the kind of accountability and consequences other students, with far more privilege than the ones at Compton Academy, automatically receive. While Janelle doesn’t explicitly say this, her message boils down to the fact that her students will never be able to compete with their wealthier, whiter competition if they’re never held to the same standards as them. Without that kind of structure they could very easily be looking at a future as second-class citizens who don’t “know how to act.” Most of the teachers are blind to that kind of truth.
This conversation also suggests teachers like Stanford grad Megan and Joel (Adam Shapiro), who is also white, simply expect people from places like Compton to never succeed in the way others do. When Megan brings up the idea of “restorative justice” policies, Janelle explains the tactic is a “spectacular failure” in their area. She has solid evidence behind her, but this explanation isn’t enough. Joel claims the school district in question simply may not have had the kind of “committed” teachers necessary to make restorative justice work — teachers like him and Megan. “Because they’re not as white as you are?” a Black teacher asks. Joel declines interrogating his own possible bias in favour of telling the woman that’s “enough.”
Janelle is forced to watch all of this sniping back and forth while everyone ignores that she has already shut down the quibbling with facts.
All of this nonsense points to the heart of the problem, which is that Janelle’s employees simply do not respect her authority. Joel doesn’t suggest a one-on-one meeting with his boss to discuss where he believes the school should go. No, he says, in front of the entire faculty that “it’s time to try something else,” after they gave Janelle’s “agenda” a “fair shake.” None of this is treated as a suggestion or a question. It’s a proclamation. Bizarrely, it seems like Joel thinks Janelle is an advisor for the school rather than his boss and the final say on all educating matters. It’s no one’s job to decide when Janelle's agenda has run its course other than Janelle’s.
She explains as much during a boozy chat with Noah, pointing out that the kids — kids who have been expelled from public schools for behavioural issues — need the discipline. “If I were a white guy,” Janelle begins, “Nobody would give a shit about my disciplinary practices. They would congratulate me for having balls.” Janelle isn’t allowed to have those balls. Because she is her, as the principal puts it, she is “expected to be collaborative.” Here, “collaborative” is a euphemism for “afraid to fully claim your power and use it.”
God forbid she actually acts like a leader rather than a human recommendations box.
While Noah at least has the sense to speak with Janelle about her outlook on educating, he isn’t perfect either. A school-wide walkout over Janelle's policies nearly turns dangerous when police officers pin down a young brown student and swarm the rest. When the news vans arrive they ask Janelle baiting questions, like if the protest is a “referendum” of her as a principal, and whether she is “thankful” for the police, who are actually the ones who nearly made the protest fatal. Noah, a brand new Compton teacher, steps in and cuts Janelle off to give his take on things. When the news runs that evening, Janelle has been erased from the narrative, and Noah is described as the principal of the school.
With just a few sentences, Noah manages to completely rip an important platform, and title, away from a Black woman.
At least we can all take solace knowing she made him feel quite guilty for doing as much, ran up his bar tab, and probably left him with blue balls. Maybe Noah will think twice about speaking over a woman of colour again.