When season 4 of The Affair closed out, I thought we might be at the end of things. That moment on the roof with Helen (Maura Tierney), where she let go of the past, felt like a moment of closure. So did the death of Alison (Ruth Wilson) and the drive into the sunset by Cole (Joshua Jackson) and Joanie (then played by Reagan and Savannah Grella). But, here we are at season 5 — with a little more to explore, including flash-forwards to a grown-up Joanie (Anna Paquin).
We rejoin with one of my favorite things: Noah (Dominic West) being served a piece of humble pie. He's at the famous 101 Diner in Los Angeles, meeting with the actor who is playing him in the movie adaptation of his book, Descent. The fact that the actor is taller, more glamorous, and more recognizable than him is only the whipped cream on this slice of pie. The real twist of the knife is how he keeps asking Noah, who adapted the book for the screen, to explain his "character's" motivations — and pointing out that it makes no sense for him to have left his wife. Hilariously, the actor harps on and on about the end of the film not making sense. I see that tip of the cap from you, showrunner Sarah Treem. Ending The Affair with season 4 would have been a dramatic stopping point, but not unsatisfying. It simply would have left Noah and Helen's personal growth at a stop. So, in this season, I'm now expecting them to finally start seeing themselves — for Helen to get over Noah leaving her and for Noah to get over himself and grow up.
Obviously, the episode started with Noah's point of view, and he gets picked up from that meeting by Janelle (Sanaa Lathan), who he calls his girlfriend (!!!), to go to Vik's (Omar Metwally) funeral. Noah's kids still treat him with disdain, though Helen's parents have thawed, and Helen has done a complete 180. Things are tense between them, with Noah inserting himself into Helen's fight with Vik's parents over what to do with his body. That ends with Helen telling him to fuck off. But afterward, back at her stunning house on the coast, she comes in with a different attitude completely. She compliments Janelle and asks Noah not to go, while standing about a foot shorter than everyone around her. (We're also treated to the casual racism of his "angry back woman" perception of Janelle, as well as him noticing that Helen's father seems to have dementia — I'm guessing that will be a plot point that blows up within a few episodes.)
Noah gets a surprise when he finds out in Vik's video message from beyond that his oldest daughter, Whitney (Julia Goldani Telles), is getting married. Is Noah still an outsider in his own family, or just grappling with taking responsibility for leaving his family? And then, just like a man of his generation, Noah announces when he wakes Helen (oh yeah, he remembers her being topless, which is undoubtedly not at all how she remembers things) that he cleaned the house. Here's your medal, bro. In a turn so quick it will give any thinking person emotional whiplash, Helen yells Noah down in the street, ending with a below-the-belt shot about how she wishes Noah would have died of cancer instead of Vik. Noah makes that "I was just trying to help by taking out your garbage face," but there's something missing here that Noah doesn't see. No surprise there.
Next up is grown-up Joanie, who's at home with her husband and two adopted daughters in some future dystopia, living among new technology and climate change horrors. We learn that Joanie has a birthday coming up and she's about to turn the age that Alison was when she died. Joanie is not dealing with it well, and has been diagnosed with anxiety. She's unable to connect to her husband during sex and seems to hold herself at a distance from her family. They say trauma travels through generations, and Joanie seems to be a prime example.
Then we switch to Helen's point of view, going back in time to the day Vik died — and the day his baby with Sierra (Emily Browning) was born. Helen has little patience for Sierra, her "Coachella as a lifestyle" friends, and her natural birthing plan. She's at least a little impatient because she wants Vik to be able to meet his son and the natural birth plan is taking forever. The baby comes just in time, as Vik takes his final breaths and jumps off this mortal coil. He hasn't been conscious for some time and has no idea what's happening, but his nurse kindly reassures them all, telling them he knew. By "all," I mean yes, Noah was there, remembered by Helen as constantly inserting himself into places he wasn't wanted (and ranting about the Irish kid Whitney is marrying, implying he did know). His funeral is one time when Helen doesn't remember herself looking worse than she does. There's less grey at her temples, no imperfect flyaways. She is lost in grief. There's some impression of his mother's anger about his burial plan, but it's all a blur of sadness, as people wind around her and life goes on. The bedroom that Noah remembers as a seductive scene that night? She remembers it as the place Vik's hospital bed was still placed — and that's where she finds a flash drive from Vik, asking to be played. She tucks it in a drawer, unable to cope, and takes a pill to sleep.
And so we leave Helen, afloat in her grief, and Noah, being forced to self-actualize. As always, The Affair does a great job changing details between what characters remember and how events are perceived. We only got a taste of Joanie, but her discontent is so palpable it's hard to imagine it doing anything less than exploding before the season ends. She is very much Alison's anxious daughter.