A review of tonight’s “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as they open a new Woolworth’s at Pompeii…
On a character level, “Fallout” was another incredibly strong hour. Virginia finally says out loud what’s been clear to us pretty much since she walked into Bill’s office: though she’s been helpful with this research, at its core their relationship has been about his attraction to her, and their sex wasn’t for the sake of science, but a much less noble extramarital affair. And we get another tough example of the collateral damage the study can cause when single woman Flora turns up pregnant, as a result of her diaphragm failing while serving as Dr. Langham’s partner in the study one night. Bill tries to frame this in abstract, scientific terms, but these are people’s lives being affected, sometimes significantly.(*) Margaret Scully finally figures out what it is that’s been driving her husband to sleep around, and she and Langham get to bond over their respective worlds feeling like they’re falling apart.
(*) Note that Virginia is only troubled by the idea of the study being used for affairs when she realizes she’s the one doing it – and hurting a woman she likes in the process – when she had no trouble recruiting the cheerfully adulterous Dr. Langham to be Jane’s first partner.
All of that was good, and so was Dr. DePaul’s attempt to emulate Virginia and charm her way into the necessary research money. But I had issues with “Fallout” in a couple of areas.
The first is something that the creative team may or may not be able to help: we’re only in the first season, and it already feels a bit rote to have Gini either being fired by Bill or quitting. Admittedly, it’s only happened twice so far – we’re not at the level of “The Americans” season 1, where it seems the main characters took turns deciding to end the marriage or recommit to it – but I think Virginia quitting (and going to work, for now, with DePaul) would have been much more effective if Bill hadn’t already canned her near the start of the season. I haven’t read Thomas Maier’s book yet, and for all I know, this was a regular thing in the partnership, with the two of them constantly pushing each other away, or running away, before being drawn back together. If so, we’ll see how that plays out going forward, but in this particular case, it didn’t feel like as much of an A-bomb moment as I think it was meant to.
And speaking of the bomb, the duck-and-cover drill was the one part of the episode I found shakiest. For the most part, “Masters” has – smartly, I think – avoided dwelling on the period in which it’s set. The clothes, cars and furnishings are all as they should be, and the show obviously takes place in a more sexually repressed/ignorant era (in part because it takes place before Masters and Johnson published their study), but it doesn’t try to play the “Mad Men” game of frequently referencing then-current events, and/or having people say and do things that would be shocking in the present but were just a matter of course back in the day. I’m not saying that approach can’t work – “Mad Men,” more often than not, does it beautifully – but “Masters” has been more focused on the human condition and relationships between men and women (or men and men, or women and women) than it has on being a story of the ’50s, and that’s worked to its benefit. Spending so much time on a disaster preparedness drill, and turning that into a very clear metaphor for what the main characters were all going through, felt clunky, and like something that didn’t belong in this series. When it was just a running background gag (with Jane taking it very seriously and Bill trying to ignore it altogether), it was at least amusing, if unnecessary, but when you have a shell-shocked Langham wandering through the halls as people pretend to be dying all around him, it’s too much – way more sledgehammer-y than the series has been at its best.
Still, the Bill and Virginia confrontation at the end was terrific, and so were most of the character interactions leading up to it. My hope is that as the series continues – and as we transition from the late ’50s to the far more famous (and already “Mad Men”-covered) ’60s – the writers resist the urge to go for the topical rather than the universal.
What did everybody else think?