Because “The Affair” is not a show that takes a delicate approach to discussing or depicting sex, the simplest way to approach Season 3 of Showtime’s complex relationship drama is like this: Do you want to fuck Noah Soloway? Because if the answer is no, you might struggle with the new season.
The series has always functioned largely as an ensemble drama, led by Dominic West and Ruth Wilson as Noah and Alison, two people who imploded their respective marriages for newfound passion. But while the first season very formally balanced the show’s switchoffs in points-of-view between Noah and Alison (occasionally switching the order in which we saw them), in many ways the show has always felt oddly driven by Noah in particular.
And that leads us to the central question of the episodes made available to critics prior to Season 3’s premiere. With three episodes to evaluate, theoretically “The Affair” should present us with a large assortment of perspectives… And yet, it all comes back to Noah.
Part of the reason for this is that in Season 3, we are officially clear of the flashback structure that was a major facet of Seasons 1 and 2. No longer is the show haunted by the question of who killed Scotty Lockhart, Alison’s brother-in-law and keeper of many secrets. (Well, the audience at least knows who killed him; only three characters in the show are in the loop.) Instead, we’re a few years beyond the death of Scotty and Noah’s conviction for his death; Noah is awkwardly reintegrating himself into society, while Helen, Alison and Cole deal with the ramifications of what his incarceration has done to their lives.
That’s right, it’s an awful lot of Noah, especially when you add in Juliette (Irene Jacob), a libertine French professor who almost immediately forms a connection with him. In total, Noah gets the focus of an episode and a half (of the first three episodes), and we learn an awful lot about what he’s suffered after falsely confessing to murder at the end of Season 2. Prison, it turns out, isn’t a fun “writer’s retreat” (as Noah tries to paint it at one point) especially thanks to Gunther the guard (Brendan Fraser, just recognizable enough from his 1990s movie star self to be startling).
Gunther’s impact on the third season remains as yet an unquantifiable element, but it does seem to indicate that “The Affair” feels it needs a clear-cut villain in order to function as a narrative. This is consistent with past seasons — the show has always existed largely as a relationship drama, but it’s also heavily relied on the surface-level murder mystery element to move the plot forward. And a big moment in the first episode of Season 3 seems to indicate that showrunner Sarah Treem and her staff are more than aware of this; the premiere pushes us toward a new mystery that keeps the stakes of the show in the life-or-death realm.
But what if that weren’t the case? What if the show was only driven by the relationships at the core of its premise? Would it still be sustainable?
The answer to that question is not encouraged by the show’s emphasis on Noah in these early episodes, because to be honest, Noah is probably the least likable character of the show’s core quartet. Not only does he exemplify all the worst biases and attitudes of the privileged straight white male, but the show often tends to showcase him in those moments. As just one example, the fact that “The Affair” is interested in exploring the consent issues it’s raised in previous episodes is admirable, except for the part where (so far, anyway) that never really seems to go anywhere. We spend a lot of time being told why we should care about Noah, but seasons of bad behavior have left us unconvinced.
On an acting level, the cast remains consistently mind-blowing, though only West gets any real showy moments in the first three episodes. (Wilson’s fragility, however, is on display in some unexpected ways.) And for those on the fence about the show’s occasionally deliberate efforts to confuse us with differing versions of the same scene, know that it’s relatively subdued so far — for the most part, we’re simply getting caught up on the major events that have occurred during the time jump.
“The Affair” continues to keep us intrigued, which is always an accomplishment worth noting; we’ll definitely be watching as Season 3 proceeds. If only because the show has built up a rich tapestry beyond its most problematic character. And we look forward to seeing more of it. Dominic West is great, but Noah can go fuck himself.
“The Affair’ premieres Sunday, November 20 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Episode 1 is streaming now on YouTube and various online platforms.