There aren’t too many shows on television where practically every character can compete for the Biggest Jerk title. House of Cards is an obvious contender, where the title keeps changing hands between Mr. and Mrs. Underwood, as is Game of Thrones, which is notorious for giving its heroes a mean streak and its villains a few redeeming qualities to balance the scales.

On The Affair, the lines keep getting blurred and everyone seems to be vying for their share in the overall douchiness, with Noah being the odds-on favorite so far. And I’ll admit, he’s done a lot to earn that title, but are things really that black and white? If there’s one thing that this show makes blatantly clear over the course of its two seasons, it’s that everyone is flawed and entitled to making (sometimes huge) mistakes and utterly selfish decisions.

So whose conduct throughout this episode was the douchiest of all?

As far as supporting characters go, Scotty is always a candidate, it seems; junkies tend to act like selfish jerks most of the time, anyway. Except there was something… moving, almost, about his elation at finding out Cole and Alison won the Lobster Roll at the auction and naïvely believing they had stepped up for him. (Also moving, his agreement – finally – to Cole’s proposal that he would be cut in whatever plans Cole and Alison have for the Roll if he goes to rehab). [What puzzles me is this obsession of his with buying the diner and turning it into a night club. Are we supposed to attribute his monomania to his addiction, or is there something more to it? And while I’m at it, who’s this ‘investor’ who’s going to front him over a million dollars for his nightclub business plan?]

Helen’s mother Margaret has always been a candidate as well: she was never the most likable person on the show, and not even being kicked out of her daughter’s house on the day when her husband divorced her seemed enough to endear her to us. This week, she decided to do someone else a good turn, by offering her estate as the location for the wedding of her faithful housekeeper’s daughter, who happens to be none other than Luisa. Margaret’s reaction to the realization that the groom-to-be was Cole Lockhart was a missed opportunity; I kept expecting her to follow up her “You’re the one who threatened to kill Noah Solloway” comment with a snotty “I wish you had finished the job” or something along those lines. Surely a horrible thing to say, but it would have at least made her look like a loving, protective (albeit misguided) mother.

Speaking of Cole and Lucia: it’s been two episodes (and several months) since the arson incident and everyone acts like Cole’s breakdown and hallucinations never even happened. You’d think such a dramatic plot point would actually move the story forward somehow, but nope, the two lovebirds seem to be cruising along just fine, Cole is behaving perfectly normally, Lucia has miraculously lost most of her accent since we first came to meet her, and despite a couple of blunder, there don’t seem to be any problems with mama Lockhart either.

Which brings me to Max. Definitely a strong contender for the Biggest Jerk title since the beginning, Max briefly showed us his sweeter side during his short relationship with Helen and then simply reverted back to his former douchey self, notably in the hurricane episode. This week, he and Noah finally have a proper conversation. Max pretty much sums up exactly what I’ve been thinking about their friendship since the beginning: Noah, being the selfish dick that he is, only seeks him out to unload on him or ask for his help. Whether it’s to moan about Alison, as is the case in this episode, or to ask for a loan, these two have only been friends in the most loosely accepted definition of the word: they meet up occasionally, don’t actually talk about anything real and then just go about their lives.

Noah’s much overdue apology for the events at the hurricane party was probably the only nice moment in their entire conversation. Max calls him out for only running to him when he wants to discuss whatever’s bothering him, without even a cursory ‘how’ve you been‘ to show some semblance of interest in his old friend’s life, and he’s absolutely entitled to feel ignored and neglected. If not for – oh yeah – his affair with Helen, Max would have definitely come on top in this little let’s-see-who’s-been-the-biggest-asshole competition. I don’t know if his feeling like the third wheel is warranted or just Max’s own jealousy-driven perception of his relationship with the former couple, but I can at least sympathize with the guy. His outburst felt so sincere, it was hard not to feel for him, even if his position was terribly weakened by his admission of the affair. I wonder how things might have gone down had he been honest with Noah from the start; would he have gotten the okay to court his friend’s ex wife if he’d gone to Noah first? Highly doubtful. He was absolutely right about one thing though: his friend is never content with what he has because he always wants more.

And what about Noah? Surely he’s the front runner for the Biggest Jerk title, but is he completely in the wrong here? For once, his reactions throughout this episode weren’t driven only by his own selfish need to look out for number one. He is overworked and sleep deprived; I don’t get why he couldn’t just work at the dining table after the kids went to sleep and had to write on the freaking toilet, but okay. He’s making concessions to accommodate his family and Alison, who’s been so busy and stressed out with motherhood and the MCATs. He is being pressured by his publisher to go in a different direction with his next book, much like he was with the ending of Descent. A book that his heart-to-heart with the the therapist clearly showed means a lot to him, and still he chose to be a decent family man instead of dropping everything to pursue his research.

Out of all his character’s qualities, the one that’s predominant in this episode is his insecurity, not only on a professional level but – even more so – on a personal one. His jump to the conclusion that Alison has left him wasn’t the reaction of a man confident and secure in his relationship. One picture of Alison at the auction and a few missed phonecalls and his brain immediately goes to “She’s gone“? Even if she had, what are the odds she’s just leave Joanie with the babysitter? He actually drives all the way out to his isolated friend’s house, and he doesn’t even use his time on the ride over to cool down and think things over rationally: the first words of his mouth when he sees Mac are “I’ve lost her“.

With Noah anxious that his relationship might be falling apart, Max sure picked a lousy time to break the news about the affair, earning himself an incredibly harsh response “without your money, you’re nothing“. Granted, when your friend confesses not just his envy but his overall feeling of inadequacy and loneliness, it’s very cruel to kick him when he’s down – but then, Noah wasn’t feeling particularly chipper at that moment, either: given his predicament and the shocker of Helen and Max’s affair, I’d probably have a few choice words for him too if I were in Noah’s shoes. In my mind, these two are pretty much tied for the Biggest Douche gold medal this time.

Or are they?

This whole time I haven’t really felt too bad for Alison. Yes, the loss of her little boy was undoubtedly a huge tragedy, but she hasn’t exactly been the most lovable person since we met her. Her co-dependency and weakness make her almost intolerable at times and really hard to root for; unlike the classic template of ‘here’s this character: this is what she wants‘, invariably utilized to push the story forward in television as well as film, Alison is more of a case of ‘meet Alison; this is what she doesn’t want‘. Since the beginning, a few things have been perfectly clear. She didn’t want to be with Cole any more. She didn’t want to be a pediatrics nurse but didn’t really want to be a waitress either. She didn’t want to be a homewrecker, but became one anyway. She didn’t want to play second fiddle to Noah’s career but she didn’t want to be alone, either. She didn’t want to live in a city where she felt she didn’t fit it, but she didn’t have anything keeping her in Montauk, either. She didn’t even want her baby, right up until she actually had it. If selfish desire is what drives Noah, then Alison’s driving force is avoidance and denial. She doesn’t want anything because she doesn’t know who she is, but she also doesn’t really want to make any effort to figure it out.

So when she finally went after what she thought she wanted wanted and showed a bit of backbone by deciding to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, she actually gave us something to root for. Even though she stayed with the guy who constantly put his career ahead of her and didn’t even show up for the birth of their daughter. Alison with a purpose was a pleasant change from the meek, miserable woman we’d come to know in the show’s two seasons.

And then she just quit, because that’s what Alison does when things get tough. That’s how she let her marriage crumble after Gabriel’s death, despite Cole’s efforts; that’s how she reacted to Noah’s book when she ran off to the yoga retreat with her mother. Her cowardly actions make it even harder to root for her combined with the fact that, on occasion, she does scrape up the courage to claim the few things she does want. So while we’re trashing Noah as the selfish dick that he is, how would Alison really fare in a side-by-side comparison?

Noah had no problem breaking up an already failing marriage when the affair started, but Alison was the other woman in a much ‘healthier’, at least on the surface, relationship, with four children on the line. Noah tried to remain a caring father, while Alison was quick to sever all ties with her former in-laws. Noah has at least one person he can call a friend, Alison makes no effort to maintain her personal relationships with anyone but the guy she’s with. Noah is hard on himself not just for cheating but also for wanting to cheat; Alison cheated with Cole and, from the looks of it, actually had his baby. (And by the way, who’s to say which of them is more prone to cheating? It’s not only about desire, it’s also about opportunity: Noah is constantly surrounded by attractive female fans, not to mention his vixen of a publicist; Alison is always moping at home. You’d think she’d actually use all this alone time to figure a few things out, but nope.) At the end of the day, Noah uprooted his perfectly normal, carefully constructed life to be with Alison; all she did was escape a relationship and location that only held painful memories in order to be with Noah.

Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two presented itself this week, with Noah painting himself as the loving father and considerate boyfriend who – for once – places his professional life second to his relationship, and Alison being deceitful and making all the decisions without even consulting him first. Not only does she invest in the Lobster Roll with her ex husband, who also happens to be her baby daddy; not only did she drop out of school 6 weeks before and didn’t bother telling the person who actually paid for school to begin with, and used her time away from home to wander around the city, but she also hastily makes plans to either move or at least split her time between Montauk and the city, with no consideration for Noah (or his role as a father to four children). As far as selfish acts go on this show, this one probably takes the cake.

Maybe it was about time she stood up and did something for herself; or maybe it’s just the first time she actually went after what she wanted because she never really wanted anything before. As tempting as it is to get behind Alison’s new project and her newly-found (at last!) self awareness, let’s not forget that becoming a doctor was her life-long dream, which she had no trouble giving up on as soon as things she realized it wasn’t going to be a cakewalk. If a nurse with medical training had a hard time preparing for a biochem exam, how long before a former waitress with no business experience will figure out she’s not entrepreneur material and quit that newly-formed dream of hers as well? Or is not doing it alone – as she would have to if she went through with med school – the draw here?

Noah’s douchiness has made itself clear right from the get-go, as loudly and obnoxiously as possible; Alison’s simply appeared dormant, or just hidden under her subdued exterior and meekish behavior. Given the chance to express it, Noah at least appears regretful, while Alison acts as if this is compensation for everything she’s been through in the past. Had she been honest about her recent activities, let alone the big secret about the baby’s paternity, I would have been all for it. As things stand, she’s just as much of a lying, selfish asshole as Noah is, except she also acts as if she’s earned the right to be so.

Which, in my book, makes her the biggest jerk of them all. 

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