We’re two weeks into Masters of Sex now, and maybe I need to put the show in terms its main characters would understand: so far, it’s like a virgin who has watched a lot of porn.
The writers on Masters of Sex think they know all the elements that go into a successful TV drama, and it’s obvious they’re trying to mimic some of what they’ve seen on beloved period shows like Mad Men, but they’re too new to realize reality is a little different—you can’t just throw together a bunch of character tropes and storylines all at once and hope for a lasting experience. You’ve gotta know what to do and when, or else you’ll reach your show’s climax prematurely.
So, when “Race to Space” opens with Virginia trying to figure out how she’ll respond to Bill’s proposal that they sleep together for the study, it feels like way too much too soon. Obviously our two main characters aren’t going to sleep together in the second episode of the series, so when—after running a few possible answers in her mind on her way to work—Virginia enters Bill’s office for the big reveal, it’s not the least bit surprising when he interrupts her before she can get her answer out and tells her the study has been thrown out of the hospital. Turns out someone found out it had progressed to couples and told Scully; Bill suspects it was Ethan and blames Virginia for dating him against his wishes and (presumably) telling him about the study, so he fires her.
The problem with this storyline is the same one facing the Bill/Virginia will-they-won’t-they-yes-they-will-but-when-will-they romance: Because this show is based on real events, we already know that Masters and Johnson go on to fall in love and become some of the most highly regarded human sexuality researchers of all time. We know that Virginia will obviously be hired back, and we know the study won’t be permanently shut down, and as a result, the stakes feel extremely low here.
The writers must sort of be aware of this, because in episode two they set up a whole bunch of new minor character arcs, but because they’re not properly fleshed out or given room to breathe, they fall flat. Bill moves the study to a brothel and agrees to provide healthcare to all its inhabitants in exchange for their participation, and Betty (the prostitute Bill hired in the pilot to be a part of the study) demands a respectable job in the hospital and a procedure where he unties her tubes because she’s met a man and wants to have kids. “I thought you loved with Helen,” Virginia remarks later. Betty admits—in her gratingly over-the-top Midwestern accent, which makes this Midwestern reviewer cringe every time the woman opens her mouth—that yes, she loves Helen, but Helen understands why she’s doing it and wants what’s best for her. This whole thing is hard to care about when we haven’t yet met Helen or this new man Betty’s seeing. So far she’s an entirely one-dimensional character we’ve only seen interact with the docs and her johns, so throwing a love-triangle her way seems ill-advised.
Kids play a big part in this episode, as we finally meet Virginia’s children, and she struggles to balance her home life and her work life. Her son Henry is suspended from school for spitting on a teacher who took away his comic books, but she’s preoccupied with getting her job back. She absent-mindedly promises they’ll read the comic—the titular “Race to Space”—together, but later it’s the new babysitter (a replacement for the previous one, who scolded Virginia with “You know what I do for my children? I shift my schedule to be with them.”) who winds up bonding with Henry and reading him the comic. Later Virginia tells Betty that she had kids because she knew they would be the only thing she could truly love, but so far it seems like she loves the study just a smidge more.
Meanwhile, the other male doctors continue to be cartoonishly terrible. Dr. Langham, who participated in the couples session with a hospital employee last week, is now infatuated with her. They’re both disappointed the study has been booted from the hospital—she because it felt great to be furthering science, he because it was great to get laid—and so he not-so-subtly proposes that they “continue the study just the two of us.” She sees through him, shuts him down and reads him an excerpt from The Second Sex. Ethan spends the entire episode generally being the absolute worst—I actually wrote “Ethan is being a whiny baby” in my notes. He’s full-on obsessed with Virginia, who isn’t speaking to him after he hit her last episode, and he’s on a quest to get an equally satisfying blowjob. The first secretary he seduces isn’t up for it, so he asks Langham who the sluttiest girl in the hospital is and settles for her, but it’s not the same. He fantasizes that it’s Virginia doing the fellating again in both of these sequences, and later in the episode he’s seen parked outside her house. All because she rocked his world in bed. Sigh.
So yeah, there was a lot going on in “Race to Space.” But the only storyline that’s compelling so far is (of course) the one given the least amount of screen time: Bill continues to put his wife through painful fertility treatments despite knowing that he’s actually the sterile one. He pulls Ethan off his wife’s case and tries to convince her that he can treat her at home, but ultimately she draws a line, insisting that Ethan remain her doctor so they can keep their home life and her fertility treatments separate. Add to this the scene where she asks Bill if he “likes to watch” after learning the details of his study and he stops her in the middle of attempting to give him something to watch, grabbing her hand and insisting “I love you too much,” and we’ve got one big can of worms of a messed-up marriage just waiting to be opened up. Masters of Sex isn’t completely shooting blanks, but it doesn’t know what to do with what it’s got.
-”Is this about your sperm count? Because I have said nothing to your wife.” The revelation that Bill knows that Ethan knows about his infertility and expects him to keep up the charade of treating her—and that Ethan does—is pretty fascinating.
-”Isn’t the normal way to just, you know, put it in me?”
-”You put on a suit of armor to attack a plate of whipped cream.”
-”Why would you want to have kids? You’re a lesbian and a prostitute.”
-This episode closed with James Blake’s “Retrograde” playing in the background. Why not, I guess?