The central theme of “Involuntary” is that the hospital staff’s annual performance reviews are coming up. Bill has yet to fill out Virginia’s. Jane is fishing for a good review with her excellent coffee presentation and, in her words, “always looking out for you, and ready for anything.” It’s a good metaphor for the episode—which, in many ways, feels like a deep breath before the finale, whatever the finale is going to bring us. It’s still a few episodes off, but the paced has picked up a little bit.
As a result, “Involuntary” focuses on Bill and Virginia, who are now fully committed to... something. They have an easy candor that is nice to see, a friendship, at least, if not a relationship. They’re great together. The first scene is Bill complaining that Virginia clawed at his back during her orgasm, but it has that quality that spousal bickering does—he’s secretly quite pleased with it, and complaining just to call attention to the fact that they totes had sex. It hurts, but it’s a mark, a claim, and he likes it.
It’s funny—for all that this show positions Masters as the clueless one about sex, and Johnson as the knowing minx, Bill seems to be the one who is way more clued into the reality of what the sex is doing to them as a couple. Both seem to be happy to pretend that it’s okay to cheat on Libby when it’s all for science; a pleasant fiction, to be sure. But Bill’s the only one who has begun to admit that he feels inconvenient feelings for Virginia. She might not even totally get it by the end of the episode, when she’s sobbing in the car, and then angrily writing out her own version of her performance review: She writes that she gets too emotionally invested, which seems like an unfair interpretation of the situation. This is a little more than taking file organization too seriously.
Or—is it? I guess that’s the other part of Masters Of Sex’s unpacking of the Masters/Johnson relationship. Is it just science? Or does the sex mean more? These are two people trying to look at it clinically, and trying to untangle it. But it defies un-complication. It makes babies and encourages people to fall in love and also, sometimes, makes some people very angry, when you have it with other people. It’s made of the stuff that moves us and drives us. Masters’ caution about sex is rooted in some truth, anyway: It’s not that easy to have sex without things getting messy.
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are lovely to watch together. Their chemistry keeps the show afloat. Even when it veers into obsession or manipulation—and it does, sometimes, especially on Masters’ part—there’s a mutual respect and fascination there that continues to ring true. That being said, the choice to pay off Virginia, while obviously hurtful, was a very cliché move, right up there with the machinations of a teen movie. What with the monetary price on a relationship and the promised punching next week, Masters Of Sex is taking on the tone of 10 Things I Hate About You.
The other unifying theme of tonight’s episode is Virginia trying to describe accurately what an orgasm feels like. Which ties into “performance review” nicely, on some level. What I liked about this episode is that it managed to keep that theme steady on different levels, with the characters in their different interpretations. Masters is forced to give a performance review of Virginia, and reveals too much about how he feels about her. Then he fails her performance review, of a sorts. And Libby’s, too. Libby’s passed hers, because she got pregnant despite the odds. She asks Masters’ mother Essie to be a more proactive figure in Bill’s life. And Virginia gets a 99 on her test. The characters are all presented tests, and a set of expectations. Do they pass? Not always. But these expectations and roles define them.
One of the finest moments of the episode is when Essie confronts Bill about the obvious affair he’s having with Virginia. It takes all of these concerns about roles and expectations and shoves them right into Bill’s face (metaphorically). A lot of the character drama on this show falls short for me, but this scene did not.
I still think Masters Of Sex doesn’t quite know what to do with all of its characters, now that it’s built them. Ethan and Vivian’s religious conflict, and now, breakup, is interesting enough, but I’m never quite sure what this show is trying to accomplish with its multifaceted storytelling. I usually get much more out of the implications of the study, and the characters participating in it, than the personal drama of the side characters. (Margaret Scully is the exception to this rule, but she did try to participate in the study.) Like Jane this week, shocked at how she looks having an orgasm, and suddenly feeling shame, or modesty, and asking them to destroy the film. That’s a more powerful and revealing moment to me than anything Ethan does.
- “Everyone’s done it, except the Virgin Mary.” I know Bill doesn’t like his mother much, but I like her just fine.
- “There was something really wrong with his penis. It looks like an anteater!”
- No Allison Janney this episode. Sadface.
- “Mrs. Johnson’s manicure has proven problematic in research sessions.”
- Did this many people engage in premarital sex in 1959? Inquiring minds want to know.
- Are they going to get into Virginia’s character, with that lunch scene following the rejection by her med-school classmates? Because I’d like to see more of that.
- Next week, Todd VanDerWerff and I will be swapping reviews: He’ll take this, and I’ll drop in on Homeland. He has a different take on this show, and will be sharing his verbal stylings with you.