To look at what’s wrong with Masters of Sex, let’s use the human sexual response cycle identified by its central characters as a bit of a metaphor. Excitement, plateau, orgasm, resolution. It’s a lot like the beginning, middle, climax and end of a story. And—to put it in terms Masters and Johnson would understand—you can’t just have an episode full of orgasms.
Okay, so that’s probably not the best metaphor to use for a show that frequently does have episodes full of literal orgasms. But the point is, from day one Masters of Sex has been carried by its incredibly strong cast—including Lizzy Caplan, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, who were all recently nominated for Emmys for their work in season one—and hindered by mediocre writing that flings too many disparate storylines at us week after week in the hopes that something will stick. If the show would just cool it and give the good plots room to breathe, we could have a great drama on our hands.
Because all the pieces are there, waiting to be used properly—particularly Michael Sheen, who continues to be excellent as Bill Masters. If True Detective had submitted Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in the Miniseries category instead of Drama, Sheen would probably be celebrating an Emmy nod of his own this year. We open season two with him staring gloomily at a test pattern on his TV before flashing back to what happened immediately after he showed up on Virginia’s doorstep and declared his feelings for her at the end of last year’s finale. As you might’ve guessed, they had sex, and the show does a good job of revealing non-linearly what happened afterwards and where Virginia and Bill now stand, through each character’s perspective, culminating with a heartbreaking scene in a hotel lobby (more on that later).
But before we get there, a whole bunch of other stuff happens. Virginia starts hawking diet pills in the hospital because she’s broke and eventually gets asked to join another doctor’s esophageal study. Libby (who gave birth to the baby Bill never wanted at the end of last year) is networking like crazy, trying to repair the social damage done by her husband’s controversial study. Lillian has a black eye for a reason that’s never really explained. Austin apparently slept with his sister-in-law, and his wife shows up and announces it over the hospital PA system. Betty the prostitute is back (UGH, WHY?) and her husband the pretzel guy for some reason is able to get Bill hired at Memorial Hospital and get his study back up and running—don’t underestimate that Pretzel Clout, I guess. Jane and Lester are moving to California (good, they were boring) and apparently becoming buddy-buddy with Ethan. Bill refuses to engage with his new child, playing records to drown out the baby’s crying instead of picking the kid up, which eventually leads to a confrontation with his mother about his mess of a childhood (remember, she used to play music to drown out his crying while his father beat him) and the revelation that she’s going home to Ohio for good.
But the most powerful storyline this week belonged to Barton and Margaret. First we watch as Barton undergoes electroshock therapy in an attempt to “cure” himself of his homosexuality, and the camera doesn’t look away from him as he writhes on the table with an awful look of pain and fear on his face, or as he vomits on Bill and struggles to remember where he is following the treatment, or as he lies in bed and weeps after the fact. Later, he makes a pathetic attempt at sleeping with Margaret; in order to do it, he preps by looking at his stash of homoerotic magazines and then asks Margaret to turn around so he can pretend she’s a man. She’s obviously not having it, and the storyline finally comes to an awful head with Barton attempting to hang himself. Even though it was easy to see it coming, the image was somehow more jarring than the discovery of Lane Pryce’s corpse on Mad Men. We watch as Beau Bridges (proving why he’s worthy of that Emmy nomination) flails about, his face contorted and desperate for air, as his wife and daughter desperately cling to him, cut him down and give him CPR. When a concerned Bill shows up on the Scully doorstep later on, he’s politely shooed away by a stoic Margaret.
Speaking of stoicism, we’re treated to plenty of it when we finally catch up with Virginia and Bill in that hotel lobby. Bill starts off shyly, having listened to Virginia reject Ethan’s proposal the night they slept together, and it’s clear he’s trying to initiate some sort of romantic affair (as Virginia points out, he asked to meet her in a hotel half an hour outside of town, across state lines). But then Virginia makes a comment about how it’s so rare for a man to understand that a woman would want to choose work over love, and the door it took Bill an entire season to open immediately slams shut again. The pain of the realization that Virginia saw their tryst in her apartment as “work” registers on his face, but only for an instant, and to compensate for what he perceives as a rejection, he explains to Virginia that he’s a happily married man and that what they’re about to do in this hotel is purely scientific, that he wouldn’t want to lead her on. She does the same “plaster on a smile and pretend like we’re both on the same page” routine, and we’ll have to wait until next week to see how long the charade will last.
These are the threads we care about—Virginia and Bill, Barton and Margaret—and they could have easily carried the entire episode this week. All the tertiary characters and extraneous storylines only served to clutter what was otherwise an excellent season premiere. If only the show would learn to embrace that plateau stage with the knowledge that that’s a necessary step towards the big O.
—There’s no way Virginia genuinely thought what she did in her apartment with Bill was “work.” That’s the way she can justify it to herself because she feels guilty for leaving Ethan and for sleeping with the husband of a friend (Libby, whose chummy scene with Virginia in the hospital this week was no accident). She’s also already dealing with the reputation she’s developed in the hospital from her participation in the study, so she probably wants to avoid more scandal at the moment.
—Was that Artemis from It’s Always Sunny as Virginia’s diet pill boss?
—I thought it was interesting that Bill kicked things off at Virginia’s apartment not by kissing her, but by going for the hug first. They’ve slept together dozens of times before, but somehow a simple hug felt far more intimate. Then, afterwards, when he touched her wrist to take her pulse, it looked like he was initially reaching over to hold her hand but lost his nerve at the last second (and thus, the pulse-checking save).
— “He’s not Jesus, mother.”
—Margaret reading Lolita in bed was a nice touch.
—I wonder whose copy of “Bye Bye Love” that was that Bill put on to drown out his baby’s crying. Probably Libby’s. Bill always struck me as more of a “classical music or silence” kind of guy.
—The “Bill as a reluctant father” storyline is also fascinating, but it deserves its own episode where it can be highlighted as an A-plot and developed instead of just tossed into an already-crowded episode as an aside.
— “Family’s what you make of it.”