A few belated thoughts on this week's Masters of Sex – the show's best hour since the boxing episode from season 2 – coming up just as soon as I turn you on by mentioning social justice…
A few weeks back, I noted that the season premiere was making a concerted effort to fix the problems of Bill being such a monotonously smug and controlling protagonist. But even this more humbled and reflective Bill wasn't quite enough to rekindle that season 1 flame, and I was ready to accept that Masters had somehow run out of interesting stories to tell about the Masters and Johnson relationship, despite the many huge historical turns to come. “Coats or Keys” sat on my DVR, unwatched, for several days, and I was on the verge of making the show my latest Peak TV victim when a few Twitter followers independently asked for my thoughts on what they said was the show's strongest episode in years. Curious, I put it on, and they were right.
Like the boxing episode(*), “Coats and Keys” was both smartly compact in its structure – virtually all of it taking place at and around a swingers party being thrown by Bill and Virginia's new partners – and the way it forced various character pairings to confront things about themselves they were never quite bold enough to discuss under the day-to-day circumstances of their lives and more traditionally-designed episodes.
(*) “Fight,” “Coats or Keys,” and last season's best episode, “Party of Four,” are all contained and conversational, and all written by Amy Lippman.
Libby, for instance, got to confront Bill about the sexual failures of their marriage, and finally demand that he gratify her the way he so often has Virginia. And during their long night listening to Nancy have sex in the next room, Art helps Virginia understand how she feels about Bill. It was a case of a show that understands its characters very well, but also that understands what's unique about its premise and how best to exploit it: Don Draper encountered swingers a couple of times, but that was always a sideshow to what Mad Men was about, whereas these questions of separating love from sex are at the core of what Bill and Virginia have been exploring from the first episode.
Does “Coats or Keys” instantly solve the show's other problems? No. It still feels, for instance, like Libby is a main part of the narrative because the show doesn't want to say goodbye to Caitlin FitzGerald, which in turn is slowing down potential time jumps to juicier parts of the story. But the series' ability to occasionally knock one out of the park like this is enough to keep me sticking around to hope-watch through the slower and more aimless installments, provided no one's dumb enough to do anything like the gorilla sex plot again. It's not an ideal set-up in an era when there are so many shows that are more consistently excellent, but I sometimes see the show the way Virginia sees Bill: often frustrating, but between the reminders of former passion and occasional glimpses of true genius, I just can't walk away.
What did everybody else think?