Masters Of Sex is about intimacy. Which, of course. Duh. It’s about naked people doing naked things. But “intimacy” extends beyond even that. We tend to think of that word in terms only of sexual intimacy, but there are all sorts of other meanings to it. Pure physical intimacy can be as simple as having someone you feel comfortable taking the hand of in public, and psychological intimacy might be something you have only with a family member or significant other. But it’s emotional intimacy that Masters Of Sex is after, the kind of intimacy that derives from knowing somebody so well that you can understand them in every facet, can anticipate their responses and emotions and can grasp their drives and frailties. If you’re lucky, you might have this relationship with another person in your life, but for the most part, it’s impossible to ever know someone else that well. Other people are, on some level, mysteries to even the most perceptive of us. You can know everything about them—as Masters and Johnson “know” everything about Flora—but you can’t really know them.
I offer this up as preamble because while I think this show is moving at a more confident clip than Sonia seems to think, I’ve been hard-pressed to explain to her why I feel that way in the conversations I’ve had with her that led to me taking on the show for a week. Yet as I’ve been watching the first season of Mad Men again, the more I’m realizing that that season wasn’t so much a fully-constructed and perfectly realized season of TV as it was a preamble to all that was to come, a prologue designed to lay out the themes and concerns the series would look at going forward. And while I don’t think Masters Of Sex is as skillful as that show was at laying out its own major thematic concerns, I definitely think it’s been terrific at laying the stage for what’s to come. This first season has shown us a bunch of people who are separated, who live on their own islands apart from each other. Presumably, the rest of the show will be about how the gradual and growing understanding of human sexuality—driven, in part, by the work of Masters and Johnson—leads to a new frank openness about these subjects that doesn’t necessarily create a better world but a more honest one, where someone like Barton has the words he needs to talk with his wife about who he truly is.
It’s a bit of a pity that I’m coming in on an episode that wasn’t the show’s strongest. (For my money, that honor goes to “Catherine,” still one of the best hours of TV I’ve seen this year.) Masters Of Sex has a fair share of flaws. It’s never met a bit of subtext it couldn’t underline 15 times in red ink to make sure the audience gets it (notice how Virginia talks with Lillian about how things are different for women and men, as if the latter never would have considered that), it’s a little too fond of explanatory monologues in which a character tells another exactly what they’re feeling, and I agree with Sonia that the series has spent its time focusing on Bill to the detriment of some of the other characters, particularly Virginia. (Also, the Libby plots are rarely my favorite things on the show, though she isn’t in this episode, so we don’t get to talk about that.) But in a weird way, that makes sense for the first season of this show. Virginia is such an object of fascination for Bill because she, in all her sexual frankness and knowing more or less what she wants, feels like a creation of the world that their study is about to build. Bill is a creature of the first season of this show; Virginia is a creature of whatever its last season will be.
The series is also a little too interested in having romantic connections for the sake of having romantic connections, and it will sometimes push them a little too much. Granted, there’s going to be lots of romance on a show like this, but I’m not entirely sure I needed, say, the kiss between Lester and Jane, even if they’re sort of sweet together. The same goes for the renewed relationship between Virginia and Ethan, the buildup of which gets lost in another of the show’s time jumps (though, in general, I like the time jumps as a method for building the series’ universe). I wanted to see more of the two of them together, to get a better sense of how this is going the second time around, rather than simply feeling like it was thrown in there to provide a bit of misdirection about why Bill was so intent on removing Ethan from the hospital staff. (He’s really upset about Libby getting pregnant, because that meant he had to put the kibosh on his relationship with Virginia, so everything does come back around to her in the end.) Plus, the decision to revisit Virginia and Ethan makes some of the episode’s other bits of repetition—Virginia quits the study again! Austin is still a cad! Margaret tries to find out what’s up with Barton!—slightly tougher to take.
Yet I still found much to admire in “Fallout.” I’ve talked with some other critics who feel that the civil-defense drill was a bit too heavy-handed, that all of the talk about the end of the world and the detonation of nuclear bombs in an episode in which the series blows up much of its central conceit skewed too heavily toward the series’ weakness for over-explaining things. I can agree with that to a degree, but I loved the drill for the way that it forced a more rigid structure on the episode and kept finding ways to isolate the characters who needed to be isolated together so they could have the conversations they needed to have. Plus, the sequences during the drill—particularly Virginia walking down the hallway as the lights shut off all around her—were gorgeously shot by director Lesli Linka Glatter, who’s been one of the best things about this season of Homeland and brings her flair for visual intimacy to this show. (I love her work on Homeland but wish she would come onboard full-time here instead. Her style really fits what the series is trying to do.)
Virginia, in some ways, functions as this ethereal, unearthly being in the world of Masters, a person who embodies things that other characters can’t quite wrap their minds around yet. Glatter keeps isolating Lizzie Caplan in the frame to emphasize this, to separate her from the other characters in ways that allow her to share the scene but still let the frame and lighting function as dividing lines that pull her out and away from everything else. I’m thinking, in particular, of that scene where she ends up under the desk with Lillian. It’s not the best-written scene in the episode—the “things are different” line I complained about above is present in this scene—but there’s one shot, in particular, where Julianne Nicholson is more conventionally lit, but Caplan’s face has a key-light on it to pull it out of the shadow, while the rest of her is swathed in darkness, that makes her look almost like a benevolent angel of good advice. It adds a neat layer of visual poetry to a scene that doesn’t really need it, and I think said visual poetry is one of the things that elevates the show.
For roughly the first half of the season, the division between those who really liked this show and those who were a bit colder on it roughly centered on Michael Sheen’s performance as Bill Masters. Pretty much everybody could agree he was doing stunning work, but those of us who thought the show was really good with the potential for greatness saw in him a great character to build a series around, while those who were more skeptical of the series’ charms wondered why the focus was on him when there were so many other potentially interesting figures around him. Yet the second half of the season has gotten away from those concerns quite a bit, even if I’m worried about some of the show’s long-term prospects, since precisely none of my favorite supporting players are regulars on the show. (I don’t dislike Ethan and Austin, but the show rarely uses them as well as it does its recurring players like Margaret, Jane, and Barton, at least two of whom now have other ongoing work on other series, though that ongoing work takes place on shows airing on CBS, which is Showtime’s parent network, so maybe I need not worry after all.) Indeed, the second half of the season has spent a substantial amount of time simply exploring the many, many intriguing corners of the show’s universe and has been all the richer for it.
All of which is to say that Bill is all but a supporting character in this episode. Yeah, he has a plot, but he gets to be more of a villain, keeping Ethan from a career with the hospital and standing in the way of Virginia disseminating the knowledge of Flora’s pregnancy to both interested parties. (Sidebar: I found it difficult to believe that Bill wouldn’t have really thought about the potentially devastating consequences of a pregnancy that would surely result from the study, outside of the legal ramifications, but the series seems to vacillate a bit on the level of his coldness depending on which character we’re seeing him through the perspective of.) Instead, this is an episode about Virginia and Margaret and Jane and Austin and Ethan (sort of), and that helps to spotlight how the show has steadily been building these characters in the background of the story of the study, even if not every plot in the episode works.
The best material, as it has the last few weeks, goes to Margaret, who finally learns from a friendly prostitute that her husband is gay. There are elements here I don’t like—almost all stemming from the device of the world-weary, knowledgeable hooker and that over-obvious speech Margaret gives about how objects in orbit are always falling toward an Earth that curves away beneath them (which I swear I’ve heard at least once before in some other show)—but the overall thrust is so perfectly realized that it feels churlish to quibble. In particular, I loved the way that Margaret’s reaction to learning that her husband likes men was to have a laugh of relief and release, a realization that all of the baggage she’d been carrying around about not being enough for him had nothing to do with her in any way whatsoever. And I also loved that wordless scene of the character walking around her husband’s bedroom, Allison Janney’s face conveying all the sorrow and pity and sympathy Margaret felt both for herself and for her husband in that moment. I’ve been very impressed with how skillfully this series has emphasized that Barton may not love Margaret sexually but he does love her in his own way, and I’m excited to see how this all wraps up when she inevitably confronts him.
What I’m most struck by, though, is how well “Fallout” pushes toward the series’ central themes of intimacy and honesty and truth. It’s an episode where Virginia, Ethan, and Austin all seek answers and aren’t necessarily happy with what they find. In particular, it’s the best episode for Virginia in a while, as she’s reminded of just how cold and implacable her boss can be when he feels his study being threatened. On some level, Bill will always understand humans better as individual points of data than as people he needs to care about because he shares a species with them. Virginia’s meant to be the window through which he views them in that way, but at a certain point, he tried to force her back into a point of data, simply because he couldn’t indulge his growing feelings for her. And while there’s something sad about that for him, there’s something devastating about it for Virginia, who’s come so far and learned so much what it is that she loves to do and now finds herself having to quit that job because of who her boss is.
Her quest to find the father of Flora’s baby seems for most of the episode to just be about her trying to do the right thing, and we expect her and Bill to have an argument about the proper response to the situation when they finally confront each other toward episode’s end. Instead, they mostly have an argument about technicalities and legal jargon, until Virginia finally quits after telling Bill how he’s feeling about their relationship. She—and, by extension, the audience—found herself in a place where she knew so much about Bill Masters that she was repulsed enough by him to go work for Lillian. But if there’s anything Masters Of Sex has taught us about knowing another human being—and, by extension, having intimacy with them—it’s that there are always more depths to plumb.
- I think Jane should get to wear her little hat in every other episode of the show. It would give her a greater sense of authority.
- I was really divided on the end-of-world stuff. On the one hand, Bill walking out of the building after Virginia quit to the radio broadcast about the drill was a quietly appropriate moment to end on, pointing out all of the muted tension he feels in his own soul. On the other hand, having every other character say the words “end of the world” at some point, with the show all but holding up flashing signs that said, “THEY’RE REALLY TALKING ABOUT THEMSELVES” was a bit much.
- Ethan’s potential removal from the hospital doesn’t strike me as all that interesting yet, simply because he makes such a good foil to Bill that I can’t imagine the show ever writing him out entirely. On the other hand, I did like the casual closeness of the scene with Virginia, which indicated that their renewed relationship has been going on for a while, and the scene where he confronted Barton was good stuff.
- It’s absolutely fascinating to me how upset Bill is about becoming a father. It’s a great counterpoint to that final scene in “Catherine” when he finally let himself crack just a little bit.
- It’s crazy to me that I never thought about the possibility that women in the study might get pregnant, but that probably has something to do with growing up in an era with easy access to the pill, which all but eliminates a lot of these problems.
- One other place I differ from Sonia on this show: I actually like the slight medical workplace element that goes on in the background of the episodes. It’s a little “well-made show” in its frequent use of the patients of the week to play off the characters’ personal problems, but I like the way it expands the scope of what the series can talk about.
- Thanks for having me! Sonia will be back next week, and if you’re missing her thoughts and watch Homeland, she covered that series for me this week.