Well, well, well… I might just have to eat my words, because I actually loved this episode of The Affair. Even though Noah was nowhere to be seen, and even if they gave us a Helen appearance that didn’t really add much to the plot, this week’s installment was everything the other episodes of this season weren’t. I wasn’t annoyed or bored, there was no unnecessary action or over the top scenes, and yet it contained zero filler.

Even more significantly, it was emotional without being sappy, the performances were understated without turning bland, and it actually advanced character development that had been stagnant (or even nowhere to be seen) throughout most of the season.

Let’s get the murder-attempt-mystery out of the way first: I have been vocal about my disinterest in this season’s whodunnit story arc, because a) I don’t think we need another one (and it doesn’t measure up to the Scotty plot line anyway), and b) it involves a conundrum that’s pretty much a lose-lose situation:

  • If Gunther really is out to get Noah, all we have on our hands is an incredibly antipathetic, minor character as our antagonist, so the stakes aren’t as high as in previous seasons;
  • If all the stalking incidents are nothing more than Noah’s drug-induced hallucinations, then all we see is someone still haunted by his time in prison, which would be a given even without the stabbing;
  • And finally, if the culprit turns out to be someone else, the show has two more episodes to explore that possibility or end with the “big reveal”, which seems like it would be stealing valuable screen time away from the plot line we actually care about, i.e. the interconnecting relationships (or they’ll just stretch it out until next season with a stupid cliffhanger).
  • I still can’t exclude the possibility that Helen went all Fatal Attraction on Noah and did the stabbing herself, as a way to make him vulnerable and insecure so he would seek out the comfort and safety of their old life together, which would just be a ridiculous solution to the mystery, and I sincerely hope that’s not the way they choose to go with it.

The one other suspect the show explored, who had motive to hurt Noah, was Cole, and I was glad to see that the red herring they introduced a couple of episodes ago paid off this week: not only did they choose to reveal his alibi without turning it into a big subplot, but they also used it as an important plot point to jump-start one of the few sincere, heart-felt conversations we’ve had on this show since Noah’s recounting of his family history to Alison.

What’s more, Alison and Cole’s earnest admission of their true feelings for eachother wasn’t forced; it didn’t come out during an outburst after the rising tension between the two at different points in the episode; it wasn’t some grandiose revelation, conveyed with the pomposity its importance may have actually justified. Instead, it was declared pretty much matter-of-factly, in a way that underlined how obvious it should have been to both of them – and to us. It came as a surprise exactly because it was stated as a given, and I thought the entire dialogue was brilliant.

This is what the show has been about since the beginning: whether it’s the original marriages that were ruined by the affair, or the ones that followed and their impact on the main characters’ lives and relationships, The Affair‘s heart and soul has always been the emotional connections and how real they feel to the viewer. In this regard, episode 8 delivered in spades.

Completely different in tone but equally powerful was Cole’s conversation with Oscar. What started out as smalltalk quickly turned into a heart-to-heart between two unlikely participants who just wanted to unload. Again, the transition from bro-talk to honest confession was effortless and poignant. It was nice to see Oscar’s mature, warm side, but more than that, it was great insight into Cole’s state of mind before the big reveal at the end of the episode.

Perhaps the most important take-away from this episode, however, was how it established the current evolution of Cole and Alison’s characters, harkening back to what we’ve known about them since the beginning, and delineating their journey up to this point.

Cole is conflicted; he finally admits his true feelings, but he’s torn between doing the right thing and following his heart. His marriage is at a turning point, where he and Luisa are considering starting their own family, despite the recent tension and malcontent. At the same time, he acknowledges his feelings for Alison, with whom he already has a child, and it would be so easy to just pick up where they left off. But he can’t trust her – or, indeed, himself to make that decision – and he’s committed to Luisa (a wife so desperate to hang on to her husband that she was willing to grant Alison joint custody just to keep her at a distance). In the end, he chooses integrity over his emotions. He’d rather be less than happy in his marriage than risk everything to be with the love of his life.

We already knew Cole was a good guy, so this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. His own character arc hasn’t had as many ups and downs as Alison’s, but the episode’s conclusion is still a powerful moment. However, Cole’s return to his marital home, both figuratively and literally, doesn’t feel like it has the finality of, say, Alison and Noah’s divorce a few episodes back. He second-guesses himself even as he hugs his wife, and whether he’ll stick to his commitment remains to be seen.

Alison’s journey, in contrast, has been a roller-coaster since we first saw her bump into Noah at the Lobster Roll. I haven’t been her biggest fan, but I have to admit, she turned things around this week. Throughout her story arc, she’s gone from an insecure mess to a woman who knows what she wants, but more importantly, has done enough soul searching to know who she is. Did we need her awkward talk with Helen at the bar to come to that conclusion? No, but it was actually nice to see how the girl fresh out of the loony bin actually has it together much more than the usually composed, upper-class New Yorker we thought we knew in previous seasons.

In the Alison-centric scenes we got this week, several things became clear. For one thing, she appears more stable than we’ve ever seen her. She’s more mature, more confident, more in touch with her feelings. (If only she’d gone to therapy after Gabriel’s death, she’d probably still be happily married to Cole – but then again, we wouldn’t have had the brilliant first and slightly less so second season of the show.)

She may not have gotten everything she wanted this week, but she came as close as we’ve ever seen her: on the family front, she finally got joint custody of her daughter, which in an of itself was an unexpected, happy turn of events. Not only did she put her experience to good use by counseling a grieving young mother on suicide watch, but she also made such an impression that she got offered a job that, should she actually take it, will be even more fulfilling than her previous work as a nurse in terms of helping people. And in her personal life, she may not have Cole back, but just telling each other how they felt was a big step forward – to either acknowledge the situation and move on, or to hold her over in anticipation of new developments (after all, this is The Affair).

Every introspective thing Alison says in this episode shows exactly how much she’s grown over the past few months. She recognizes that her affair with Noah was her way of dealing with her grief; she admits that she only saw what she wanted to see in Noah, same as Helen (still an unnecessary scene, but it worked in the context of showing the contrast between the two women). More importantly, she owns up to her mistakes and seems to have finally come to terms with who she is: impulsive, depressed, difficult and with mood swings – but also much stronger in a lot of ways.

Now if only they stopped dressing her like a 50 year old spinster…  She’s way overdue for a makeover!