Season finale review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Manhigh’

Showtime”s “Masters of Sex” just concluded a debut season so strong that I ranked it the fifth-best show overall of 2013. I interviewed creator Michelle Ashford here, and I have a review of the finale coming up just as soon as I can spot a statistically average masturbator from a mile away…

“It’s you.” -Bill

On paper, the climax of “Manhigh” should have made me groan. Here we have this really smart show that has ducked cliché left and right, has avoided seeming like a copy of anything even though it roughly shares a time period with “Mad Men,” and it’s all been building to William freaking Masters rushing over to Virginia Johnson’s home to stand in the rain and finally declare his feelings for her? Really? We’re going to close on a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to love him? Had the producers quietly replaced Michael Sheen with Hugh Grant or while I was busy Googling Project Manhigh(*)?

(*) A real thing. Gini’s son Henry talks about Major David Simons, whose mission was in August of 1957, but as Ashford says in the interview, it’s best not to think too much about specific dates with this show.

But if the set-up of the moment was closer to rom-com tropes than Ashford and director Michael Dinner had perhaps intended, the content worked, because the show has spent 12 hours establishing the very specific nature of this relationship, and the intensely buttoned-down persona of Bill Masters. (For all the discussion we’ve had about whether the show sympathizes too much with Gini over Bill, we know much more about what makes Bill tick at this point, while Gini is oddly more of a mystery even though she’s much more emotionally open with the people she cares about.) It is no small thing for him to be standing there, rain or not, and admitting to her what we’ve known all along, and what she probably did, too. He is the man who tries to separate attachment from sex, love from conception, emotion from everything, but the fact remains that he has deep and complicated feelings for Virginia Johnson, and at this moment in time – with his research scorned and his job (and all the familiar supports that came with it) gone – meeting her feels like the only good thing that has come out of this project. Bill has to tell her, and because Bill is played by an actor as good as Michael Sheen, that moment has real weight, and puts us in interesting territory for the start of season 2 (whenever that winds up being set).

It’s also a valuable moment because up until then, “Manhigh” feels a bit more like a conclusion of the plot of season 1 than it does a conclusion of the emotional experience of the season. There are notable character moments, to be sure, like Margaret confronting Barton about the secret he’s kept from her for their entire life together, or Jane trying to encourage Lester about his filmmaking. Mostly, though, the hour was more on the dry Bill Masters side of the tonal ledger than the Virginia Johnson side. We get to important story moments – none bigger than Bill’s presentation to the hospital staff taking a very bad turn after Lester turns on the film projector, and an even worse turn after Bill starts telling these very 1950s men about how much greater the sexual power of women is compared to what they can do and experience – but I found that what I kept craving was more of Bill and Virginia being together emotionally if not physically. There’s a spark to their awkward encounter in the hall (inadvertently ruined by Libby’s arrival), and to the moment when Virginia discovers that Bill named her as co-author of the report, and especially to his arrival on her doorstep. But I found that the fate of the study itself, of Bill’s career, of Ethan completing his transformation into the perfect alternative for Virginia (if, that is, she didn’t quietly hunger for the professional greatness offered by Bill) less compelling than those stories have been in some previous outings. So maybe I’ve just become a ‘shipper myself, or maybe I’m just eager to see the next phase in this professional and personal relationship.

So go read the Ashford interview (which, I should note, does allude to events from later in Masters and Johnson’s career), and then tell me, what did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at