Masters of Sex has made great strides since the season’s rough first third, when the writers suffered from a lack of focus, tossing in as many Great Cable Drama Tropes into each episode as humanly possible and hoping one or two of them would land. Unfortunately, “Fallout” was a step backward for the series, as it once again relied on storytelling techniques done before—and better—by another show.
This week’s episode felt a bit like a clunky attempt at ripping off Mad Men’s season two finale, “Meditations in an Emergency.” You remember that one—the show’s Cuban Missile Crisis episode, where the tensions and fears about a potential nuclear conflict serve as the backdrop for some other bombs: Peggy telling Pete she had his baby and gave it away. Betty finding out she’s pregnant and sleeping with a random guy in a hotel bar. The merger with Puttnam, Powell and Lowe being revealed. Masters of Sex’s attempt feels pretty similar—a slew of major plot developments come to a head while the hospital deals with a drill testing its ability to handle a nuclear crisis should an atomic bomb be dropped on St. Louis—but while “Meditations in an Emergency” uses the threat of nuclear war to set a tone, placing it in the background where it belongs while the other aspects of the story drive the episode, “Fallout” tosses subtlety out the window. Characters crouch under desks and stand in darkness as they confront each other over lies and affairs. Literal “casualties” from the drill fill the hallway as all of our main characters face the figurative casualties from their misdeeds. It’s heavy-handed, and the episode fails by one again cramming way too many disparate stories into one week.
Not convinced? Here’s a quick rundown of everything that went down in “Fallout”: Bill and Virginia spent the episode bickering, and after Virginia learned about Libby’s pregnancy, she confronted Bill about the money he gave her last week for her participation in the study, telling him it was about his guilt and his emotional attachment to her. “We were having an affair,” she told him. Then she quit and showed up with her box of belongings at Dr. DePaul’s desk. Earlier in the episode, Dr. DePaul made a fool of herself with the chancellor while trying to heed Virginia’s advice about “catching more flies with honey” to get funding for her pap test program. Ethan and Virginia were revealed to be dating now, and Ethan confronted Scully about his breakup with Vivian after learning he failed his performance review, only to find out Bill is the one who failed him. Bill revealed he knew Ethan capped Libby against his wishes to help her get pregnant, and he managed to land a pretty good punch under Ethan’s eye, drawing blood. A woman who participated in the study (Ashley Johnson, aka Growing Pains’ Chrissy Seaver) announced she’s pregnant, and soon enough we learned Dr. Langham is the father. He of course was thrown into an emotional tailspin by this, and by episode’s end he was floating in a pool and commiserating with Margaret, who finally figured out her husband is gay. Jane and Lester kissed, for some reason.
So yeah, it was a lot to deal with in one episode.
Masters of Sex is at its best when it focuses on one or two characters at a time. Bill’s fears about parenthood are always fascinating, and of course the Ethan-Virginia-Bill-Libby love square is something that needs to be explored further, but cramming a half a dozen different threads into a single episode—especially one that tries so hard to beat us over the head with a metaphor—is not the right move. And throwing a new potential romance between two minor characters into the mix with just two episodes left in the season? C’mon, Masters of Sex, focus!
Here’s hoping “Fallout” is a temporary setback in what has otherwise been an impressive turnaround in the second half of the season. Comparing recent episodes (besides this one, of course) to the show’s first few outings is like looking at night and day, and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the huge plot dump that was “Fallout,” there’s still a lot to tie up before Masters of Sex wraps for the year. If it can shift its attention back to the stories we care about and stop miming other period dramas, there’s still the possibility that Masters of Sex can end the season as this year’s Most Improved series.