“Masters of Sex” has wrapped up another season. I spoke with showrunner Michelle Ashford about various decisions that went into this year's stories, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I have all the gravitas of a toothpaste commercial…
“God, what if you just let go of everything you thought your life would be? What if we both did? What then?” -Libby
Season 1 of “Masters of Sex” built to a very public display of Bill and Virginia's work that got an ugly reception, followed by Bill being open about his feelings to Virginia. For a while, season 2 seemed like it was building to a parallel of that with the taping of the CBS News segment, but instead “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is the opposite of last year's finale. Bill conspires to kill the CBS feature before it can air because he's paranoid of repeating history, while he inadvertently screws over Virginia (sort of, and we'll get to that) because he's gone back to being the secretive puppeteer who tells no one what he's feeling or planning – not even the woman he walked through the rain to declare her non-professional importance to him.
It's an uneven episode featuring several dramatic highs – most of them involving Virginia's reaction to losing custody of her kids (and the kids rightfully not seeming all that bothered by the change) – mixed in with a bunch of weird and at times unnecessary digressions. In other words, it's a perfect microcosm for this frustrating but at times incredibly rewarding second season.
Ashford acknowledges that she had to fictionalize the Masters and Johnson story much more of this season than in season 1 – including Bill's time at both Memorial and Buell Green, the return of Frank, Libby's relationship with Robert, and even Bill's impotence – because she wanted to return not long after the events of last year's finale, but which landed her in a relatively dull part of their career. In some cases, she extrapolated from history (Frank was, in fact, a plastic surgeon in Kansas City who had little to do with Bill as an adult), while others were invented out of whole cloth (Ashford understandably wanted to give Libby something to do, but there's very little recorded history of what she was doing or feeling during this time).
I don't believe that Ashford has an obligation to maintain 100% fidelity to the facts (nor is it possible to do so), but I also don't know that it's a coincidence that this season was much bumpier than season 1, which also deviated from history but in less central ways – and which tended to tie those deviations more directly to Bill and Virginia's work. Barton Scully is an invention, for instance, but one crafted out of pieces of people Bill knew in his career, and his story reflected both what Bill was trying to do with the study in the '50s and what he would do in the more controversial later phase of his career. Some of season 2's inventions were along those lines – Bill's stint at Buell Green, while shorter than it probably should have been (since it was a better way to integrate the civil rights movement into a show about human sexuality than Libby's time with CORE), helped dramatize his decision to give up a life as an obstetrician with hospital privileges to focus primarily on the study, while Frank's visit helped address Bill's abused childhood – but many more seemed there entirely to give characters like Libby, Betty and Langham things to do when they otherwise weren't all that integral to the main story.
Again, I respect the idea that Libby has to be more than just the dutiful wife who's cheated on by Bill, and the finale takes the interesting step of revealing that she does, in fact, know about the affair, even if she's tried to ignore its existence. (This explains, for instance, how she's able to be so friendly with Virginia.) Caitlin FitzGerald is a good actress who does some excellent work in the finale, but the affair with Robert takes on a melodramatic tone that the show generally avoids in the more complicated (and more research-driven) Masters and Johnson relationship.
Still, it's a step up from watching Langham's dismay at being treated like dumb blonde eye candy by Flo, whose family turns out to be connected to the incoming Kennedy administration. Ashford says the writers like to use Langham as a marker of social change, but this year he was just unconnected comic relief, and not nearly funny enough to justify the diversion. Betty's marriage imploding was really its own self-contained world, but it had some great performances and at least was and designed to put Betty back in Bill and Virginia's orbit. This was just… filler. Strange, strange filler.
And yet the finale was still capable of greatness when the focus returned to the area where the show has always been at its best: Bill and Virginia.
Treating impotence would become one of their calling cards, and we get to see that play out in a sequence that flows effortlessly from day to day, encounter to encounter, often with only Virginia's changing underwear to visually mark the passage of time. It seems like basic stuff now – ease the psychological pressure on Bill by taking sex out of the equation for a while (even if their week of “non-sexual touching” looked an awful lot like extended foreplay) – but was revolutionary for the time, and you can understand why Bill might imagine himself as JFK(*) and Gini as Jackie after such a major – and pleasurable – achievement in the field. We'll see next season if it worked for Lester and Barbara – who have her own condition to deal with, on top of his – but it's a very promising start.
(*) Of course, it's Martin Sheen who's made a secondary career out of playing John and other members of the Kennedy family, but I could see Michael getting the look right, if not the Diamond Joe Quimby voice.
The bigger issue in the finale is the matter of Gini's kids, whom the show wisely ignored as much as she did for much of the season. George isn't wrong when he says that he and Virginia weren't really built to be parents, but the crushing thing is that human beings are complicated and capable of holding in multiple emotions at once. For all that Virginia thrills to the work, and to the strange affair with Bill, and to the thought of celebrity to come, she does love Henry and Tess, and you can see her being ripped to the core to realize how utterly unconcerned they are about the change in custody. I would call Gini fighting back sobs as she answers the phone Lizzy Caplan's best moment on the show to date, but this episode then featured her response to the CBS segment being canceled, and all her dreams of getting the kids back canceled right with them. In that moment, Virginia is just dissolving in front of Bill, blaming herself for her sloppiness with the divorce agreement, and for spurning Ethan so that he would help turn Dr. Joseph Kaufman's study into a worthy rival to their own, and for the entire mess her life has turned into in the space of a few weeks.
Now, she doesn't know that Bill went behind her back to kill the segment, believing – rightly, as we know from history – that their work would ultimately win out over Kaufman's, even if it's not yet ready for the public (or vice versa). And Bill's high-handed manipulations have been a problem in their relationship from the beginning. But at the same time, her belief that the CBS segment would be a magic bullet that would undo the new custody agreement is insane, because she knows George's lawyer is already investigating their “work” at the Park Plaza, which is at least as much of a problem as the study. But I imagine the truth will come out at some point, which will need to another schism in this bumpy but fascinating relationship.
Ultimately, this was a season with one fantastic episode (“Fight”), a handful of very good ones, and then a mix of stories that worked incredibly well (Lillian's death, which feels almost as long ago for us as it is for Virginia), some that didn't at all (Cal-o-Metric), some the show raced through (Buell Green) and some that felt largely detached (Betty and Gene). Ashford says that time jumps will be even more a part of the series going forward, in an effort to get us not only to the publication of Bill and Virginia's first book, but all the major things that happened later in their career. I'm hopeful that this year was just a learning experience in making that kind of fractured storytelling work, and that things move smoother in season 3. (Which will also, in theory, not be rushed through production the way this year was.)
“Masters of Sex” in its first season was one of the very best shows on television. Season 2 was much rockier, even if at times it reached, or even exceeded, the levels it attained last fall.
Some other thoughts:
* The screener I watched didn't have guest credits (and I'm told the final version put their names at the end), so I got to be completely and pleasantly surprised by the returns of both Ethan and Barton – the latter a reminder of just how great Beau Bridges is in this role, while also giving us some indications of how the Scully marriage has gone for the last three years. (Margaret is still with him, but free to pursue sexual gratification elsewhere; it's not clear if Barton has tried to curb his own desires, or if it's a mutually adulterous pact.)
* We don't learn what it was that Hugh Hefner was calling Bill about, but Playboy unsurprisingly would play a huge role in the popularization of Masters and Johnson's work later in their career. I'm guessing we'll meet a fictionalized Hef sometime soon-ish. Hopefully, it won't just remind us of “The Playboy Club.”
* The episode takes place in January of 1961, leading up to the JFK inauguration, yet Lester takes Barbara to see “Pillow Talk,” which was released in 1959. I know movies hung around theaters a lot longer back in the day, but that one was mainly chosen because it deals with impotence as a source of comedy. “L'Avventura,” the Antonioni film they see later in the episode, was released in 1960; though IMDb suggests it wasn't released in the States until March of '61.
* As Ashford discusses with me, there really was a Dr. Joseph Kaufman, and he did publish a book called “Man and Sex.”
So go read the Ashford interview and then tell me, what did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org