Masters Of Sex originally appeared to be a Showtime historical drama about sex researchers Masters and Johnson. This second season, we’ve seen more of a psychological examination drama of all the conflicting adult human emotions beyond the sex. The historical part appears to have fallen by the wayside, as the timeline of events in Masters and Johnson’s real lives don’t match up here (Masters’ son was not named Johnny, and he was born before Masters met Johnson, for example). I know there are some sticklers for factual accuracy out there, but I’m not one of them: I’m enjoying these weekly explorations of various emotional powers and strengths too much.
This week’s theme is a bit heavy-handed, as the word “trust” is tossed around so much that only a complete lunkhead could miss it (I am not that lunkhead!). It’s a broader continuation of last week’s tour de force, “Fight,” in which both Bill and Virginia unveiled themselves to the other, but only after a certain amount of trust and symmetry was revealed. The message: Opening yourself up to someone else is possible, but terrifying; consequently this week almost no one is being up front with anyone. Our only bastion of candor is the nefarious lathario Langham, who spends the episode determined to make Bill and Virginia reveal the truth about themselves, despite all their efforts to the contrary.
The oft-mentioned “trust” is how we cement our relationships; without it, when we feel like we have no one, we apparently turn on others. Lillian feels so betrayed by Gini’s affair with Masters that she gives her entire study away. (If Gini can’t trust Lillian to tell her the truth about her and Bill, then Lillian can’t trust Gini with the study.) Libby says that the reason she’s so fierce with Coral is that she can’t trust her, but it’s not. She feels so powerless, mothering a baby her husband hasn’t bonded with, that I believe she’s bullying the poor girl to try to wrangle some control back in her own life. Otherwise, I still have no rationale for Libby’s horrible treatment of Coral, seeing as it’s coming from someone who until this season has been a sympathetic character. I won’t say I’m not buying it, but it’s disappointing. When Libby embarrasses Coral by dismissing her in front of the doctors’ wives (“She didn’t ask for your whole life story”), Coral’s small, subversive “aksed” instead of “asked” is cheer-worthy. But the final shot of Coral with her wet hair, towel, and $5 bill in the Masters’ bathroom is devastating. Of course if Coral had any other options at all, she’d quit, but I can’t imagine that too many domestic workers in that era would be able to walk away from a doctor’s household.
Unlike Libby’s, Virginia’s motivations are clear: Feeling like she’s been abandoned now by not one but two doctors whose studies she helped champion, she embraces the only solo job she has left: pushing the awful Cal-O-Metric. Unfortunately, as the nasty Cal-O-Metric lady points out, happy, secure women don’t buy diet pills, so the now-mercenary Gini must turn on her seemingly well-adjusted neighbor until she makes the woman feel so insecure, she’ll purchase Cal-O-Metric. Gini can do it, too: I haven’t really gone off yet on Lizzy Caplan’s performances here, but I love her whole delivery. Her throaty voice and slightly stilted inflection is a perfect seductive fit for the 1950s era; she can even make those Cal-O-Metric pitches sing, so I’m sure many women would buy from her, loathing her matchstick-thin frame while doing so. But even Caplan’s reaction shots are incredible: When Lillian wants to know Gini’s secrets, you can see Gini’s entire inner battle as she wrestles with wanting to tell her closest friend about the relationship with Bill, but she knows there’s too much at stake: the study, Masters’ marriage, her job, etc. So she remains silent, dismissing herself as “not that interesting” (we know that’s not true), and loses another study and her friend in the bargain.
Michael Sheen is no slouch in the reaction shots either, but his bow-tied character is so consistently bottled up (he barely shifts weight when Langham reveals what he knows in the backyard), it makes his eventual breaks all the more powerful. I’m not even talking about his shoving an egg roll into someone’s face and punching out his boss, but in his final confrontation with Libby. (The 1950s: the days before therapy was commonplace, before EST, before talking about your feelings.) When Libby finally explodes, the conflict-avoidant Bill becomes completely undone, until he can barely breathe. Sheen consistently turns out masterfully controlled scenes here: Whatever this show is lacking this season in plot progression, it is gaining in these stylized, deep, valuable performances.
We see this even in the secondary characters: My favorite scene this entire episode was Gene and Betty’s discussion over TV dinners. Betty finds out that the Pretzel King was always aware of her professional past, because he had come to her as a john when he was younger: “I knew you weren’t a good Christian girl; I just thought you were the love of my life.” Talk about reaction shots: Betty displays a silent, piercing dismay as she realizes that her husband loved the real her, and now she might have lost him, due to her deception.
These kinds of falsehoods are also very much in play this week, as they build a protective barrier to trust: Gini and Bill both lie to Langham about their relationship, as they try to brush off their alliance as professional, not personal. Gini’s lies to Lillian have a ruinous end, but her lies to her Cal-O-Metric customers may be her salvation as she tries to eke out a living. Bill may be the most duplicitous of all, enjoying his fibs to Greathouse about why he shouldn’t view the study. Unfortunately, Greathouse sees right through him and turns the sex study into the hospital equivalent of a “stag film at a frat house.” The poor research subject looks a lot like Virginia, and in an effort to protect her, and his work, Bill attacks practically everyone in the room. And our favorite ob-gyn is jobless once again, until he walks into Buell Green Hospital.
Should we trust people? At first glance, Masters Of Sex indicates no: Bill was obviously right never to trust Greathouse. The last thing Bill begs of Libby is to trust him, even though he’s being unfaithful. But look what happens when we don’t: Libby alienates Coral, Gini says goodbye to another study, Betty might lose her husband by not believing that he could love the real her all along. Sometimes placing our trust in someone else is the absolute bravest thing we can do.
- “Not that kind of donation.”
- Between this show and Mad Men, the 21st-century perspective indicates that being a mid-20th-century stay-at-home housewife could transform anyone into a raving lunatic. Although I love the way both Bill and Coral swerve their heads around to look at mean Libby, as you would guardedly evaluate a rattlesnake in your path.
- Regarding that final scene: The “black hospital movement” started after the Civil War, as many facilities, especially in the South, still had segregated health-care facilities, and many African-American doctors had to offer care to their patients in basements. The 1946 Hill-Burton Act was an effort to desegregate heath-care facilities, citing that they were no longer allowed “to discriminate based on race, color, national origin, or creed” (although a problematic “separate but equal facilities in the same area” clause was not struck down until 1963). The Act could indicate why the (fictional) Buell Green Hospital, then, would be so open to integrate its staff with Bill Masters.
- Nit-picking (Haw! I’m so sorry): Among my many unofficial titles is “Unofficial Lice Expert Of My Kids’ Kindergarten Class” (two rounds!). So if the Masters baby can’t get lice from Coral, and his father probably doesn’t pick him up that much to get close to him, where did he get lice from? Libby? It’s not like he’s hanging out in a crowded daycare center or anything, and the bugs are not going to spontaneously show up on his little head.