A review of tonight's “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as we pass Stalin's gift shop…
“It's hard to tell where you stop and I begin.” -Ginny
Last week, I wondered if starting the story of season 2 so soon after the events of season 1 was a mistake, given how much ground the show had to cover in Masters and Johnson's career and how little of consequence happened in the immediate aftermath of him being fired. I wonder if an episode like “Asterion” – which over the course of an hour pushes the narrative ahead by three years – was planned from the beginning, which made the season's first half a really long prologue to the next phase of the series, or if Michelle Ashford realized at some point that there wasn't enough material in the late '50s and abruptly shut down various subplots in order to set up this big time jump. (Assuming I have an opportunity to interview her at the end of the season – which will take place on September 28, at the end of the busiest week of the TV year – that'll be one of the first topics discussed.)
Either way, the leap forward is welcome. I wish the season's first episodes had been condensed a little (maybe giving us “Fight” and 2 or 3 episodes surrounding it, mainly to give us as much of Dr. DePaul as possible before her death), but I like the position we're in now – and I loved “Asterion,” which managed to tell an effective character story in the midst of all the exposition and changing fashions and shops in the office building. We get to see Betty return to the fold and develop genuine business skills, we get to see Langham enjoy the bachelor life until he doesn't, and other characters drift in and out of the world, but the episode manages to keep the focus on Bill Masters – and on the very frosty state of his relationships with the three most important women in his life – even in the midst of all the chaos around him.
Racing through three years in an hour is probably the best way to deal with what's going on between Bill and his partner, Bill and his wife, and Bill and his mother. Michael Sheen could easily spend episode after episode playing Masters as cruel, remote and hypocritically vindictive towards these women whose sins against him are largely imaginary, and it would have been believable, but it might have gotten unpleasant had it dragged on for very long. Instead, we get a very strong sense of how removed he feels from all of them – how he and Virginia are focusing on the work and barely tolerating each other's company beyond that, how Libby suffers his emotional absence and demands the payment of another child as a result, and how Essie learns to stay away for years on end in the hopes he will finally forgive her for sins of inaction – before we can convincingly move on to the next, more dynamic phase of these relationships.
As we moved further in time away from the unfortunate business with Coral and her brother, I was relieved to see the Libby I remembered well from season 1. She's still suffering, because she's still married to a man who doesn't love her – and who seems to feel no connection whatsoever to their sons – but she stands up to him when necessary, and she even appears to have gotten wiser about Bill and Virginia's relationship. (Though if she really has figured out the bulk of it, then that's something that probably shouldn't have been dealt with in an episode this busy; at minimum, you ditch the Langham scenes and give us more of Libby slowly figuring it out.)
The Essie material is a study in how well Sheen works in silence, since it almost doesn't matter what his mother is saying (though Ann Dowd is great, as she so often is) – just that it's reminding him of all he suffered when they lived under one roof with his old man, and how much he hates the idea of Libby finding out about it(*). He's furious with both Essie and Libby for going behind his back – despite all that he and Virginia have done in secret over the years – but time, crushing loneliness and the fact that Essie, Libby and Betty have found a discreet way to funnel the money into the clinic's books, so that Bill can pretend he doesn't know about it (just like Elliott at the Park Plaza pretended for so long that Bill was Dr. Holden) finally motivates him to make peace with her.
(*) Though Bill's paranoia about Libby finding out – especially after he told Virginia (whom he genuinely cares about) about his past in “Fight” – suggests that he still has feelings for his wife on a level that is really not on display through the rest of this episode. Or maybe Bill just fears losing his power position in the relationship if she finds out what a victimized little boy he used to be (and still often feels like).
The most compelling material, unsurprisingly, involves Bill and Virginia, and the long cold war between them in the aftermath of Bill finding Shelley Decklin at Virginia's house. He's relentlessly awful to her for a very long time – accusing her of being a bad mother, telling Kenny about Virginia's active participation in the study, toying with her mind and body at once when he starts touching her while delivering the apology he still expects her to give to him – and the episode doesn't flinch from that. But nor does it flinch from the fact that for all that, Ginny connects to him in a way she doesn't to Shelley, Kenny or any other man she dates and then forgets during this period. We talk sometimes about how the show's sympathies are unbalanced between its two main characters, but the very fact of Virginia's ongoing feelings for Bill prevents her from appearing too saintly. That she would cast aside Ethan and these other suitors for a bad situation with this controlling trainwreck of a man is not shown to raise Bill closer to Virginia's emotional level, but to lower her closer to his. She wants this man – for him as much as for the notoriety and sense of accomplishment she hopes the study will give her – and she forgives every nasty thing he does, just as she barely remembers the nice guys she dates in the interim. On many a series where the heroine dates a reforming villain (your Veronica Mars/Logan Echolls, or your Buffy/Spike), the heroine's interest is meant to conceal her romantic partner's abundant flaws from the audience – here, it's meant to remind you of her own flaws.
I'm glad that with all the changes the episode brings, we've managed to hang onto that hotel as a location, since it's featured so many of this season's best material, “Asterion” included. Bill announcing his intention to reacquaint himself with Virginia's body – and the way Sheen and Lizzy Caplan played the moment – was dynamite.
And that's the thing: there have been some narrative bumps this season (and even within this episode), no question, but the core of Virginia and Bill, Caplan and Sheen is so powerful that it carries the show over many of those bumps.
We're now entering a period with many more bumps for the Masters and Johnson partnership, and for the country around them (even if “Mad Men” has recently covered some of the latter), but the ground also seems smoother for the kinds of stories “Masters of Sex” tells at its best. I look forward to seeing what's coming next.
Some other thoughts:
* Because the plot descriptions on Showtime's press screener site are much too detailed, I knew before I began watching that the episode would cover three years' time. After the “five months later” chyron at the start, I assumed we would get more of those as we went along, but the transitions were done more organically than that, with Lester's film slates, changes in clothing and hair styles, and the expansion of the Masters family all doing an effective job of conveying the passage of time. Excellent work by director Michael Dinner, and by Ashford and David Flebotte on the script.
* Lester returns from Hollywood, a failure and without Jane, but at least he gets to enjoy fellow seeing Jane-lover Langham humiliated when his girlfriend turns up in a bachelor party stag film. And for those curious about “Windjammer,” the sailing documentary Lester raves about to Ginny, here's the trailer.
* I often enjoy Langham as comic relief, but he seems to have primarily survived this long into season 2 simply because Teddy Sears was available when a lot of the other supporting actors weren't. Trying to squeeze a three-year character arc for him into a single episode – or, rather, having him go through an entire character arc in the space of that one night with the stag film and the visit to his ex – didn't work nearly as well as doing the same for Bill, Virginia, Libby and Essie, even if that last scene with his ex was strong. (And her line about how some things can't be undone also spoke to what Bill and Virginia have been going through.)
* Conversely, because Elliott the bellboy-turned-night-manager is such a minor character, the episode doesn't need to do all that much to give him a satisfying evolution, as he turns out to be less gullible about Dr. Holden's true identity than Bill assumed all those years earlier.
* I'm assuming the show isn't quite done with the racial turmoil of the era, given that we see TV news footage of the violence in Little Rock, and that one of the many organizations that briefly take up residence in the office building is the local chapter of CORE.
* Barbara returns, and I'm hoping Betsy Brandt gets more to do in this go-around than she did during Bill's brief stint at Memorial. That said, her interview with Ginny played out very much like Margaret Scully being rejected from the study back in season 1 (in the scene that likely won Allison Janney her Emmy).
* I'm conditioned by decades of film and television to assume that whenever anyone leaves the iron on to answer the phone, an item of clothing will be ruined as a result. But the scene where Libby pauses her ironing to take a call from Essie ends abruptly before that happens. Trope averted!
* I doubt this was actually coordinated between “The Leftovers” and “Masters” (especially since “Masters” was in production more recently), but it feels as if Ann Dowd's appearances on both were arranged so she could vanish from one show just in time to appear on the other, and then vice versa.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org