Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Brave New World’

Senior Television Writer
11.03.13 37 Comments

A review of tonight’s “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as I turn you in for 12-year-old library fines…

“We’re scientists. Let’s see.” -Virginia

“Brave New World” was the last of the six episodes Showtime sent to critics before the season, which I’m glad about. I’m always pleased to see as much of a strong new show as possible before I have to write a review, and these last two episodes pushed “Masters of Sex” to another level, featuring amazing emotional moments (Bill’s crying last week, Margaret Scully’s humiliation tonight), bigger humor (Langham’s outburst about his malfunctioning member last week, Virginia and Jane’s plotting here), and a clear sense of where the series is going next, with Virginia finally taking Bill up on his idea that they should be a joint part of the study.

The “Brave New World” all the characters are contemplating in this hour is one where old expectations and rules may not apply, and where they have to face the idea of doing without.

Libby and Bill go to Florida to face a future without children, but in the short term, it’s not a future that involves each other: Bill is so distracted by thoughts of the study that Libby eventually orders him to go home, while she gets caught up spinning yarns about her non-existent kids(*) to the sexually active older couple next door.

(*) In case you haven’t been reading the comments each week, we’ve been fortunate to have “Masters of Sex” author Thomas Maier stopping by to offer some insight into how Michelle Ashford and company are adapting his book. In this thread from last week, Maier discusses the fact that in real life, Bill and Libby had two kids through his fertility technique, and that their son Howie was friends with Virginia’s. This is far from the first historical drama to play with certain biographical details for drama’s sake (case in point: much of Seth Bullock’s personal/family life on “Deadwood”), but it’s always interesting to look at which deviations are made, and in turn what the creative team needed a slight fiction in order to say.   

Left to her own devices at the hospital without Bill, Virginia recruits Jane to test whether women need penetration – or even clitoral stimulation – to achieve orgasm, providing some amusing worry in Bill when he hears of the idea of a world where men are unnecessary to satisfy women.

And based on what we’ve learned previously about Provost Scully, it’s not a surprise to learn that he’s either unable or unwilling to satisfy his poor wife Margaret, whose intake interview with Bill and Virginia was incredibly powerful. It’s like I said in my initial review of the show: it’s easy to generate big emotions when you’re dealing with life and death matters, whether the violence on a show like “Breaking Bad,” or the end of Libby’s pregnancy last week. Margaret making it so far in life without ever experiencing an orgasm – or any sexual pleasure at all – isn’t a tragedy of that magnitude, but the brutal specificity of her description of sex with Barton, and then her attempt to stay composed while leaving the office were just devastating, and superbly played by Allison Janney. It’s easy for the show to generate laughs out of the sexual ignorance of the era, like the young couple from the start of last week’s episode, but this is what Bill and Virginia are fighting for – even if, for political reasons, they don’t want to fight for this specific woman – in their attempt to quantify sex and educate the public about it.

And while it’s perhaps a bit too neat that Mrs. Scully and Dr. Langham wind up temporarily solving each other’s problems, I was just so pleased for Margaret at that point that I didn’t care. There was genuine heat between the two of them, and after a lifetime with no flame to speak of, Margaret sure as hell needed some in that moment.

Virginia’s work, meanwhile, leads to some friction from Dr. DePaul. Where you might assume a woman in a man’s profession might show solidarity to any other woman trying to get ahead, DePaul quite understandably resents Virginia’s attempt to achieve the status and respect of a doctor without going through the years of school and work DePaul did to get there. We know Virginia is smart and talented, but we also know that DePaul isn’t wrong when she suggests Bill has been led by an organ other than his brain when it’s come to decisions about his secretary. She deserves the job she has, even if she got it for less-deserving reasons.

All of which leads us to the climactic moment when Bill rewards Virginia with a promotion to research assistant, and she in turn rewards him by taking off her top and inviting him to touch her breasts. It is such a tricky, tricky scene, and one that doesn’t want to come across as Virginia thanking her boss for a promotion with a sexual favor – or, rather, come across as only that. The nature of the study, the nature of Bill and Virginia’s relationship to this point, and her very tenuous grasp on a much more secure, interesting life than the one she’s known, makes the decision more complicated. It was one thing for Bill to ask her to be his sexual partner in the study when they had just met, but now they know each other, and we also know that Virginia has the ability to separate sex from emotional attachment, even as we suspect that Bill (who’s far more fixated on her than she is on him) does not share that ability. This is a move Virginia makes because she’s come to know and respect her boss, and because she thinks it’s going to be good for the study, but this will lead to much messiness ahead, I imagine.

We’re at the halfway point of this first season, and I couldn’t be more excited by what I’ve seen, and by what I expect is to come in the second half.

Some other thoughts:

* While I don’t often find myself comparing “Masters” to “Mad Men,” Teddy Sears very much had a Don Draper vibe during Langham’s encounter with Mrs. Scully outside the movie theater, beyond the fact that we’ve seen Don dressed that way when off-duty.

* I think Caitlin FitzGerald has been good when given strong material to play, like last week, but for the most part the “Masters” writers haven’t figured out how to make Libby a compelling character in and of herself, as opposed to just an obstacle in Bill’s fixation on Virginia. Her adventures with the two retirees was certainly an attempt to let her stand on her own, but it was an odd piece of business that mainly made me eager to get back to St. Louis.

* When skimming Julianne Nicholson’s IMDb filmography to remind myself how many weeks it had been since we saw Dr. DePaul, I was reminded that she was also in “Kinsey” – the only actor, as of now, to appear in both. Not deeply meaningful – unless she becomes the first of many, in the way that “Justified” and “Sons of Anarchy” keep bringing in actors from “Deadwood” – but interesting trivia.

* Speaking of guest casting, there were several recognizable faces among Mrs. Scully’s pals, including Ann Cusack and Joan Severance – the latter of whom gives me an excuse to link to a few clips of her and a young Kevin Spacey as the uber-creepy Profitt siblings on “Wiseguy.” Also, though they don’t share any scenes, I appreciated the mini-“Spin City” reunion with Alan Ruck (very funny, as you’d expect) as Langham’s Freudian therapist and Barry Bostwick as Libby’s older hotel neighbor.

* I especially loved Cusack’s attempt to explain the difference in sexual satisfaction by comparing it to finally wearing properly-sized shoes: “It felt like I was walking on whipped cream.” After a line like that, was there any way Margaret wasn’t going to pay a visit to Dr. Masters?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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