Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Catherine’

Senior Television Writer
10.27.13 43 Comments


A review of tonight’s “Masters of Sex” – which Showtime recently renewed for a second season – coming up just as soon as I send you a dozen yellow roses…

“I guess there’s enough sorrow to go around for us all.” -Provost Scully

Early in “Catherine,” Bill meets with a naive, religious young couple who know so little about sex that they’ve taken the phrase “sleeping together” quite literally, and are baffled about why they haven’t gotten pregnant yet. They’re an extreme example of the kind of people Bill is hoping to educate with the study, but certainly one of his goals is to move beyond the idea of sex as an activity designed only for procreation.

And it’s not just a random scene inserted for some laughs and a sign of just how ignorant some people could be back in the day. It’s there near the start of an hour dealing directly and frequently with parenthood, whether the tragic end of Libby’s pregnancy, Bill’s ongoing reluctance to become a father based on memories of his own,  Scully taking a shine to Dr. Haas after Haas begins dating his daughter, or Virginia struggling to balance the demands of the children she loves and the job she’s come to love, too. Some people don’t want to have kids, but have spouses who feel otherwise. Some want kids, but don’t want to be defined only by having them. And every day and every decision made complicates your life and theirs.

Libby’s miscarriage is the episode’s major event, and I’m impressed with how Sam Shaw and Michelle Ashford’s script plays once again with our sympathies for Bill. He is devastated by this, for the sake of his wife, for the sake of the unborn daughter he was beginning to warm to the idea of (and whom he can imagine having raised when he looks at Virginia’s daughter Tessa), and Michael Sheen – in the early frontrunner for his Emmy submission episode (assuming this show can crack a bunch of tough categories) – masterfully plays every bit of that heartbreak. But Bill Masters – perhaps because of the brutal upbringing his mother refuses to talk about – is also very much the control freak with the God complex. He has to decide how each stage of this is going to go, though Libby understands this and is even able to get him into the operating room to do the procedure himself, but he has to explain the procedure to her in the most clinical of terms just so he can get the words out. And he pre-emptively shuts down even the thought of trying to get pregnant again, not so much as allowing Libby to have a say in the discussion. Even at the very end, when he finally and completely breaks down in front of Virginia, it has to be on his terms, with her holding his hand but keeping her eyes closed, so she won’t actually see the great Bill Masters being such a wreck.

The loss of the baby is so powerful that Virginia’s story takes something of a back seat to it, but Lizzy Caplan gets to break down in tears as well at the thought of letting down her kids and how Henry feels about her now. Like so many things about Virginia, it’s a conflict that feels very modern, other than the context; women in 2013 (and many men) struggle to balance work and family, but in the ’50s, the expectation was that women like Virginia and Libby would put their children above everything else. We know that Virginia cares about her kids – as Ethan notes to Henry, she’s not that good at pretending – but this work, and the respect Bill gives her, thrills her, too. It’s hard, but it’s encouraging to see Ethan (for now happily involved with someone else) offering to step up and play father figure to Henry in a way his actual father doesn’t much want to.

Just a powerful episode, the strongest so far.

A few other thoughts:

* An otherwise dark hour gets leavened a bit by the subplot about Dr. Langham’s failure to launch once he’s assigned a different sex partner (and even after he’s placed back with Jane), as Teddy Sears’ bellow of “WHY WON’T MY DICK WORK?” is demanding of GIFs, auto-tuned remixes, and whatever else the internet has to offer. And as we move further into the baseball World Series, I enjoyed reimagining Bill and Virginia’s debates about chemistry versus things that can be quantified as the scouts vs. stats argument that’s become a part of baseball discourse at least since the publication of “Moneyball.” (In this metaphor, I suppose Bill is the sabremetrician, and Virginia the crusty old scout who wants someone who looks good in jeans.)

* Allison Janney joins the recurring cast as Scully’s wife, bringing our total of new CBS sitcom actors to three, counting Beau Bridges and Margo Martindale. Happy to have Janney here (and she is fantastic in next week’s episode), but now I’m waiting to see who else will appear from CBS’ lineup. Perhaps a Tony Shalhoub cameo filmed back when the idea was to cross-promote “We Are Men”?

* I like that the supporting characters aren’t being confined to one corner of the show. Jane is mostly there to be part of the study with Langham, but she’s also the person Ethan goes to for romantic advice – here with her wondering with exasperation why it’s scientifically impossible for a man to put himself in a woman’s shoes for one second.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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