‘The Affair’ Season 5, Episode 5 Recap: Boundaries

Season 5, Episode 5

It’s a big week for Sierra. Played by Emily Browning, this new-agey daughter of Hollywood royalty — and the mother of a son with Helen’s dead partner, Vik — joined the slim ranks of non-core characters who have gotten their own point-of-view segments. In that segment, she lands the title role in a hot director’s adaptation of “Madame Bovary.” (She lands the director, too.) She receives a visit from her movie star mom. And she nearly kills herself and her infant son in a coked-up car crash.

As one might expect, these events are not unrelated.

Jennifer Jason Leigh guest stars as Adeline, Sierra’s mostly neglectful, very famous mother. Fresh from a jaunt to Nepal, she shows up expecting to easily reinsert herself back into Sierra’s life, whether by babysitting her new grandson (whose age she doesn’t know) or by “helping” Sierra rehearse a scene.

As hard as it is for Sierra to endure Adeline’s narcissism, it’s even harder to fight against it. Faced with the slightest pushback — Sierra very mildly shades her mom for dragging her from set to set as a child until her father stepped in and made sure she attended school — Adeline withdraws completely and pointedly, reneging on her babysitting commitment as a passive-aggressive punishment.

It’s rare for “The Affair” to dump a full-fledged heel like Adeline on its audience, and for good reason. The show’s characters have always thrived on nuance, contrast, even contradiction — characteristics that render clear-cut heroes and villains obsolete. That’s what makes Adeline a misfire, even in the hands of an actor as gifted as Leigh. Debuting as she does in Sierra’s first P.O.V. segment, before we’ve had a chance to see much of the world through her daughter’s eyes, she comes across as a grinning, oblivious monster. She’s a one-note character, and that one note nearly drowns out this entire section of the episode.

Fortunately, Sierra’s catastrophic late-night escapades right the ship. After leaving her baby in the care of Stacey, the Solloways’ 12-year-old daughter — hey, it’s better than just locking him in her car alone, as she did during her audition — Sierra nearly blows her new gig until she runs the scene the way she wanted to before her mother butted in. Out dancing with the cast and crew later that night, she gets an earful from her director about the crush he used to have on her mom. But Sierra, he promises, is much prettier and more talented.

A few lines of cocaine later and they’re having sex in a bathroom stall, the same kind of impulsive decision that bound her life to Vik’s and Helen’s forever.

Sierra returns home to get chewed out by Helen, who scolds her for letting the 12-year-old Stacey (Abigail Dylan Harrison) take care of her baby. Desperate, Sierra takes her crying son out for an intoxicated ride around the neighborhood to soothe him … and ends up plowing into a dumpster at a high speed. She is briefly knocked out, and when she comes to, the silence of her baby is deafening.

It takes an endless minute for her extricate herself from the damaged vehicle to check on him, and the tension until we discover he is perfectly fine is stomach-churning. Add this wildly self-destructive behavior to her self-injurious habits of banging her head against the wall and calling herself names when she screws up and … well, this is unpleasant, powerful stuff that speaks to the hopeless, trapped feeling that can torment new parents, particularly new single mothers.

Helen has an easier go of things, but only because the bar is so low. The through line for her segment is need, and the question of whether or when it is appropriate to ask people for things they may not want to give.

Noah, in his characteristically oblivious way, tells her he wants her back. Vik’s mother, Priya (Zenobia Shroff), wants her to play the grieving widow and pretend to be the mother of Vik and Sierra’s baby in order to avoid offending her traditionalist brother, who is unexpectedly in town.

Sasha coaches her in the art of saying no, but as the episode progresses it seems he may be too masterful a practitioner. He cuts the daughter of his late fiancée an extortion check rather than let her back into his life, although to be fair it seems the check is what she’s really after. He blows off a commitment to a struggling, veteran director in order to take on another blockbuster sequel. Afterward, he tells Helen she only got a gig decorating the director’s home as a favor to him.

Other than the car accident, the episode’s most grueling moment comes when Helen stands and watches as the director’s wife, Carolina (the marvelous Jessica Hecht), all but begs Sasha to stay with her husband’s movie, the success of which stands to pull him out of a yearslong depression. The giving, caring man Helen thought she knew vanishes in a nauseating haze of I’m-terribly-sorrys and it’s-simply-not-possibles, and the experience of watching the man she loves unfeelingly preside over her new friend’s humiliation is mortifying.

Perhaps that’s why the parting shot fired by Priya after Helen returns home from the director’s party finds its mark. Priya has never been friendly to Helen, but in hearing the older woman’s story — how her brother and parents cut her off decades ago because she married a Muslim, and how her brother’s fluke arrival in Los Angeles and desire to see his nephew’s widow and their baby offered a chance for reconciliation — Helen realizes that Priya, too, has her own hurts, her own needs.

It’s true that Helen can’t reasonably be held accountable for Vik’s infidelity, or for not knowing Priya’s life story without having been told. But Sierra’s and Priya’s pain is just as real as Helen’s, and their needs just as pressing. Can’t wielding the power to say no be as hurtful as it is healing?

The Odds and Ends

No Joanie segment this episode. No opening title sequence either. I’m starting to wonder how much the show will play with its format before it reaches its finale.

Maura Tierney is such an M.V.P. as Helen it almost goes without saying, but occasionally she delivers line readings that are so thoughtful and piercing they deserve special mention. Her response to Noah’s attempt to get back together is one of those: “I don’t love you anymore. I don’t want your love. It terrifies me, and it’s caused me nothing but pain, so I’m done.” You can feel the last vestiges of her feelings for this man exit her body as if she were spitting them out.

Browning turns in series-best work here as well. Because we’ve previously seen Sierra only as a rich hippie flibbertigibbet or an extremely pregnant mom-to-be, her anguish as a terrified young mother is a revelation.

The scene from “Bovary” that Sierra knocks out of the park? Rejecting her child as too exhausting and ugly to deal with. I suspect some of her conduct later that night was self-medication to help forget how easily this came to her.

Note how taken aback Helen is when she hears Noah’s former publicist (Brooke Lyons) bad-mouth him at the director’s party: It’s less because she feels protective and more because she thought they’d been sleeping together. (She’s wrong: They almost did, but then Noah accidentally almost hit on his own daughter in a hot tub and ran off. Ah, “The Affair.”)

Is there any sound more punishing to the soul than hearing a baby cry and not being able to do anything about it?

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