There are shades of McNulty, the rebel-with-a-cause cop played by Dominic West on “The Wire,” in the smile Noah cracks when he sees his students making this kind of “good trouble.” But this dissolves quickly into panic when the police show up, and he witnesses firsthand just how quickly the thin blue line can wrap itself around the throats of not just the students, but also the school’s strict principal, Janelle Wilson (Sanaa Lathan), who gets manhandled by a hulking white cop until Noah, himself a large white guy, intervenes.
He winds up becoming a minor media sensation for his handling of the walkout, even getting mislabeled as the school’s principal in local news reports; the young, slumming do-gooders on the faculty, all of whom resent Janelle deeply, jokingly congratulate him for his promotion.
This being “The Affair,” there’s more to Janelle’s story — and to Anton’s — than meets the eye. After Noah expresses concerns in a faculty meeting about Anton’s home life, he soon discovers to his chagrin that Janelle is his mother — he has just insulted his boss directly to her face and in front of her colleagues. Yes, the school’s black sheep is the son of the principal; flunking him for plagiarism the preceding year was her call. In a heart-to-heart with Noah at a bar after the walkout, Janelle says that she was beloved by students and faculty at the public school she ran before, but she had been disgusted by its policy of expelling difficult students. Moving to a charter school, she says, was supposed to give her a chance to set her own agenda and to do some good for the kinds of students her previous school just kicked to the curb. But her in-house disciplinary policies had earned everyone’s enmity instead.
There’s a whole lot of what President George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations” in her words throughout the episode — rhetoric that might be better explained, frankly, as something Noah is projecting. Remember, this is his point-of-view, not hers. Perhaps that’s why they very suddenly and very passionately kiss in the parking lot outside the bar before Janelle cuts things off. Either way, two things seem clear to me: First, the chemistry between Noah and Janelle — and West and Lathan — is real, and really hot. Second, like his man-behind-bars, sins-of-the-past story line last season, Noah’s white-savior narrative is almost certainly not going to play out the way he envisions it.
That’s a lesson about life that his ex-wife Helen could teach him multiple times over. She has finally gotten past his affair, their divorce, and the long-running drama of the hit-and-run accident in which she was behind the wheel — and Alison partially responsible — but for which Noah took the rap. Relocating to Los Angeles with her two youngest children and her pediatric-surgeon boyfriend, Vic, was supposed to be, in the words of countless haunted-house movies, a fresh start. But Helen’s happiness with the surface perfection of her life, already fracturing, is shattered entirely by the news that Vic has pancreatic cancer, which he says is untreatable.