Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘The Story of My Life’

Senior Television Writer
09.07.14 13 Comments

Showtime

A review of tonight's “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as I make this coin disappear…

“I knew it, because it's my story, Francis!” -Bill

“The Story of My Life” is an episode packed with autobiographical anecdotes, sometimes with the storyteller recognizing that their story isn't what they thought it was, sometimes with the listener having that epiphany. But it's an episode that would probably be even better described if it used the title of last week's “Mirror, Mirror,” because so much of the hour involves characters recognizing how much their situation is exactly like that of the person facing them.
 
So it takes Bill going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with Frank to realize that he wasn't the only Masters boy to suffer so horribly at the hands of Francis Sr., just as it takes him listening to Lester's plea to get out of the study to admit to Virginia that he, too, suffers from impotence. (And Lester literally looks through a two-way mirror to watch the crying Barbara, whose vaginismus was discussed last week as the female parallel to impotence.) Virginia's ill-conceived plan(*) to impersonate Barbara winds up forcing her to look inward and recognize what an awful thing she and Bill have been doing all these years. Libby listens to Frank's wife Pauline describe all the signs that clued her into his alcoholism, and they sound an awful lot like the lies Bill constantly tells her(**) while he's slipping off to be with Virginia.

(*) Does anyone want to place a wager on which, if any, of our remaining episodes this season involves Dr. Madden crossing paths with Bill and Virginia at some social function?

(**) At this point, it's pretty clear that whatever I read in “Asterion” suggesting Libby had figured things out over the past three years wasn't intended to be there. And given what a huge moment Libby's discovery of the affair (whether on her own or through one of the guilty parties telling her) will be for the series, it makes sense for it to happen entirely on-camera.

There were times when all the mirroring got to be a bit much – “Masters of Sex,” like “Mad Men,” occasionally likes to hit us over the head with its big themes and parallels – but on the whole this was a much stronger, more on point hour than last week's. Libby's story continues to belong on a different show – even as I understand the value of keeping her prominent and giving her more to do besides being Bill's oblivious wife, her newfound interest in civil rights doesn't fit with any of the key themes of the series(***) – but the rest of it felt on point, tackled key questions about both Bill and Virginia's relationship and the study, and provided an excellent showcase for both the regular actors and the guest stars.

(***) Had the show stayed at Buell Green, at least Dr. Hendricks' reluctance to have black participants in the study would have organically weaved race relations into the show's larger questions about human sexuality.

Though the series has brought in a lot of impressive actors this season, it hasn't always given them a lot to do – certainly not on the level of Janney and Bridges a year ago. But Christian Borle had that excellent (if very theatrical, from a Tony winner) monologue at the AA meeting, Betsy Brandt is shining as Virginia keeps accidentally forcing Barbara to recover one horrific memory after another, and John Billingsley's been excellent as the very perceptive Dr. Madden. (For that matter, Jocko Sims has been quite good as Robert; I just wish it was in service to a more germane story arc.)

And, of course, we always have Caplan and Sheen to do their wonderful thing as Virginia and Bill, as our two leads keep finding new ways to justify their affair as anything but. Bill's confession of impotence stems as much from fear that Virginia may shut down their hotel sessions as it does from talking to poor Lester: if he can find a way to reframe these encounters as part of the study, then she'll go along with it, just like she did way back in the day. There have been times where one of them or the other has wanted this to simply be an affair, but they've never felt that way at the same time (or, at least, not for very long). After going several years without Virginia as a sexual partner, Bill's not ready to let her go. He's as addicted to Virginia as his brother is to alcohol, and she may be nearly as much in his grip, despite the epiphanies Dr. Madden is forcing on her.

It remains a wildly unhealthy relationship, but “Masters of Sex” is at its healthiest when it keeps the two of them in focus.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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