It’s been heralded as the smart new prestige drama of the fall, but Masters Of Sex has been building very cautiously and slowly throughout the year, and has been fairly accused of feeling a little unfocused. Aside from its compelling main characters, what exactly is going on here? What’s the end game? We’re charting the course of William Masters and Virginia Johnson’s study, and that requires big time jumps, making everything feel even more disjointed. But I’d argue that with “Brave New World,” which marks the halfway point of the first season, there is a feeling of coalescence.
Last week, we witnessed a major breakthrough on William’s side as he finally let some emotion slip through a chink in his thick armor, crying over the loss of his child in front of Virginia (although he refused to let her see him cry). There is a consequent relaxation in their interactions this week. William has obviously been fascinated by Virginia from very early on, but still, with every episode, we see them get more casual with each other, and it’s darn well exciting to see. If nothing else, this is a television show about a relationship, personal and professional, and the subtle shifts in William and Virginia’s comfort with each other has been expertly managed.
Virginia, attending a lecture at the Anna Freud center, is struck by Sigmund Freud’s concept that the difference between a “clitoral orgasm” and a vaginal one was the difference between sexual immaturity and maturity; essentially, an argument that one needs to have vaginal sex with a man to have the proper experience. This show has revealed so much for me about antiquated thoughts on sexuality, and that this was an accepted notion is kind of mind-blowing, although as Anna Freud points out, there existed too much taboo to try and gather scientific information to rebut the idea.
But what Masters and Johnson are studying already might refute it, and Virginia’s interest is piqued enough that she does a formal investigation, which leads her and William to surmise that clitoral stimulation and vaginal stimulation might well be one and the same—in effect, that a woman might actually have more fun by herself than with a man. It’s such a simple notion, and such a wonderfully radical one for the era.
Of course, the end of the episode begins to answer a question that’s been dangling since the pilot, about William and Virginia’s deepening connection. William goes on vacation with Libby at the beginning of the episode, seeking some respite after her miscarriage, but he’s quickly kicked back to St. Louis by his wife, who realizes he’s much happier and relaxed at work than he is trying to be with her. It’s a serious indictment of their marriage, of course, and it’s a little too simply done—William can’t stop listening through the wall to an elderly couple having sex, his version of bringing work to the beach.
But there’s more to it, of course, since William remains so fascinated by Virginia. She represents so much of what his study is trying to uncover: that women, even in a more repressed era, were complicated, individual creatures when it came to sex. At the end of the episode, to prove a point about women achieving orgasm without vaginal stimulation, she disrobes and gets onto the hospital bed, putting William’s hand on her breast. It’s all in the name of science of course—“we’re scientists, let’s see,” she says. But it also comes right after William acknowledges her immeasurable contribution to his work by elevating her from the title of secretary to research assistant.
As much as William is trying to keep his sex study from ever getting personal, it’s so difficult to keep things clinical, and this is just another example of how personal interaction seeps into everything he’s doing. Another example comes with poor Margaret (Allison Janney), the provost’s wife, who is intrigued by talk of the sex study (one of her friends is participating) and tries to join up. The scene where William and a slightly less tactful Virginia interview her about her sexual history is absolutely wrenching to watch and a seriously spellbinding piece of acting by Janney. William is, of course, armed with the knowledge that her husband, Barton, is gay, which is why they have sex maybe once a year and it’s clearly very unsatisfying.
Margaret can’t participate in the study because she’s never had an orgasm—her sense of rejection is heartbreaking and leads to her going to the movies (1957’s Peyton Place, the forbearer of the TV show) and running into Austin Langham, who is dealing with his own sexual dysfunction by seeing a Freudian therapist (Alan Ruck) who is probing into his feelings on maternal love. The two unite in a car, and it all feels a little too neat—Margaret has been through enough at this point that it’s somewhat plausible she’d be driven to do something reckless, but still, that’s kind of a crazy thing for anyone to do. Still, good for her, experiencing sexual pleasure for the first time and all.
Libby, left alone in the Miami hotel, has a similarly strange encounter with a septuagenarian couple that still manages to keep it frisky. There’s another wrenching scene as she describes a fake life to them: husband dead, two children who are the apple of her eye. The husband, played by Barry Bostwick, later tries to initiate sex with Libby, with the wife listening in the other room; they’re kinda-sorta swingers, which I guess is how they keep the marriage alive. It’s a perhaps unnecessary twist that doesn’t seem to add much to the proceedings.
So, we end by entering a brave new world. William and Virginia are making great professional progress as well as personal progress. What it means for their study is clear. What it means for everything else is less so. This, and the compelling, brilliant performances the actors are turning in week to week, is enough to keep me hooked.
- William gave up on Oedipal theory in college. “Nearly put my own eyes out.”
- God, Barton kissing Margaret on the nose before turning in to a separate bedroom just murdered me.
- Looks like Vivian and Ethan (not seen this week) are still going. He attempted to cook for her and everything!
- Jane is impressed by Freud. “He has a cigar. He obviously knew what he was talking about.”
- I like Julianne Nicholson’s mean doctor character a lot. She’s incredibly sympathetic while, at the same time, incredibly unsympathetic. She’s doing great work, and going about it in the way she sees best. It’s hard to argue with, but it’s also annoying when she chides Virginia’s more friendly manner.