Masters Of Sex is clawing its way out of its lull. Last week and this week, the narrative has had a decided momentum to it, as if all of a sudden the show figured out which way it was going and hit the ground running. I’m probably going to err on the side of the show’s critics for a little longer—there are a few things about it that never quite resolve for me, like the crude way Virginia’s character is sketched—but it’s getting much, much stronger.
Masters and Johnson have started sleeping together in the least romantic way possible—Virginia nudged Bill into starting their sex life for the study last week, and this week we catch them copulating for science many different times, in many different ways. The first few minutes of “All Together Now” are excruciatingly painful—an incredibly awkward session in which Masters narrates his sexual response to his partner: “Plateau. Climax. Resolution.” He’s using the labels to distance himself from his own experience of it, which is rather powerful. We have already guessed that he’s in love with Virginia, or at least romantically kind of obsessive about her.
“All Together Now” lets us watch how powerfully Masters is feeling this connection to Virginia. He’s humming after intercourse; he’s engaging her in small talk, before and afterwards; he’s neglecting his wife, even more than he did already. At first, it’s not reciprocated—at least, not on the surface. In her sexual history interview, Virginia owns that she’s not like other women; she doesn’t get emotionally attached. Masters, meanwhile, admits to the powerful effect emotions have on his sex drive. So when he starts demonstrating attachment, Virginia pushes him away. It’s interesting that even though she initiated, there’s no particular tenderness on her part toward him—or even affection. And then when Libby comes into the office hungover and tells her that she and Bill haven’t had much time to themselves lately, Virginia practically orders Bill to go home and service his wife. But by the end of the episode, she’s pushed him too far—now she’s the one that wants to go out for a bite to eat afterward, but Masters has to go home to Libby.
There’s a lot of silent push-pull between the two of them, a grappling for power that comes with the territory of intimacy and sex. Michael Sheen plays Masters’ shifts in character very well, showing us a character who is gradually turning into a sexually adventurous being. (Among other things, Masters discovers the Kama Sutra in this episode.) And his relationship with his wife is another area of quiet struggle—Libby doesn’t get anything by communicating with him, and Masters doesn’t like communicating with her, so they’ve both resorted to manipulation. (It might be loving, but it’s still manipulation.) Virginia and Bill have also established themselves as colleagues and coworkers at this point, and they have a spousal work relationship that translates rapidly to the bedroom. They communicate. They have shared interests. They are essentially already sort of in a relationship, and having sex just makes the obvious known. Earlier in the episode, Libby remarks to Ethan that Virginia has more in common with her husband than she herself does. Poor Libby coming into the office to speak to Virginia—the woman who is sleeping with her husband!—has such a powerful force of subconscious recognition on Libby’s part and guilt on Virginia’s.
But the missing piece of this triangle is Virginia, as it has been time and time again. Virginia is an astonishing, captivating character, but she has almost no interior in Masters Of Sex, and whatever the show provides often feels misplaced or tacked-on. The final few moments of “All Together Now” show her staring at her own reflection in the glass, on the hospital bed where she and Masters have just made love—again. She might be lonely, or the camera might be interested in framing her pretty face in the window. It’s never clear what the show wants her to be, except a catalyst for everyone else’s growth. But hey, Virginia can grow, too. She already kind of has! She’s interested in something for the first time in her life. She’s promoted, she’s hired a secretary, and she’s unpacking her own issues with intimacy, just as Masters is. So why is she denied the rounding out that would make her a full character? Lizzy Caplan is a fine actress, and the show has room to work with her character. I’m not sure what’s going on there, but it’s an omission that is more and more glaring.
This plotline ends with Masters and Johnson having sex again, in a throwback to the first scene of the episode. But this time, instead of awkward, it’s hot. They’ve had practice. They know each other better. The clinical narration of stages becomes a descriptive part of the appeal, not a detachment from it. I don’t know if their instruments are registering this, but their relationship is changing, and their sex life with each other is changing the way they feel about each other. I’m not surprised, but it looks like they’re surprised, which is funny to me. When, in any television show, has sex not changed the dynamic of two characters? Why would they even think that was possible, in the prudish 1950s? But despite all my questions, the alchemy of it is still so much fun to watch. Sex can be scientifically studied, but the scientists are still human. That’s the whole show’s theme, in a nutshell.
That central driving point stays strong throughout the episode, making this one of the strongest since the pilot, I think. Add to that the scintillating stories around the main plot—Allison Janney’s turn as Margaret Scully is beautiful, and even Provost Scully is sympathetic after he’s bloodied in a gay-bashing attack. The Scully marriage story is still unfolding, and Margaret and Austin are heading toward a grievous misunderstanding, but the pacing of that plot feels natural, and it makes me look forward to next week.
- Many thanks to David Sims for picking up the slack last week. He and I have fought over this show numerous times, so I'm glad you all got a different viewpoint.
- “She couldn’t spell anesthesia.” “I can’t spell anesthesia!”
- Jane is really wonderful as Masters’ new secretary.
- There's some stuff with Ethan and Vivian, but it's skippable.
- Dr. Masters, both “than me” and “than I” are acceptable for appositive ending a sentence. Don’t you talk to me about grammar.