Some critics have described Masters Of Sex as a glossy soap set against the backdrop of a couple of sex researchers, but I think it’s much more than that. I admit that my knowledge of Masters and Johnson is basically limited to this series and some online research (although the volume Masters Of Sex by Thomas Maier is currently on my nightstand). But despite Bill Masters’ many questionable judgments in Masters Of Sex (paying off Virginia, for example), I applaud what the man was ultimately trying to accomplish—delving into an unexplored, almost entirely interior (as Jane pointed out last season) world. We only need look at the sad story of closeted Provost Scully to realize that sexuality can in fact constitute a life-and-death situation, especially in an era when homosexuality was still egregiously termed a “mental disorder” by the American Psychiatric Association (and would be until 1973).
In American nuclear families of the 1950s, the husband was considered the “head” of the family, with the wife given the consolation prize of being the “heart.” But in “Parallax,” the season two premiere of Masters Of Sex, the women are all running the show. They’re procuring jobs for their husbands, raising the children (Ginny gets not one but two babies handed off to her this episode), steering their spouses toward and away from certain projects, and even saving a husband’s life against his will. While the men appear to be caught in the webs of their various compulsions and physical desires: Thanks to his neverending libido, Langham even beds his own sister-in-law, for God’s sake.
As Ginny pointed out early last season, sexual attraction and chemistry were always going to be the random factors in the sexual physiology study (why Langham could respond to Jane and not to a different test subject, for example). Both Masters and Johnson failed to even entertain what would happen when the random factor of love would enter the equation during their 23 scientific dalliances. This episode shows the first time they have sex without wires, which in Bill’s reminisces via Michael Apted’s excellent direction, are way too passionate to be contained by any laboratory, especially after Bill’s rain-soaked, heartfelt doorstop declaration to Virginia that ended season one. But when they discuss the incident afterwards, both parties cloak their real feelings behind “the work”: Ginny maintains that she is choosing work over love (thereby tossing Ethan for Bill); Bill scoffs at the idea that he and Ginny are having an affair—he’s a happily married man!—even though his feelings have ventured way beyond the scientific. Literally everything about their setup at the end of the episode indicates an affair: an out-of-town hotel, cocktails in the lobby, a fake name at registration. It’s clearly a love match, so why are both Masters and Johnson refusing it call it what it is?
Fear, for one reason: When Ginny tells Lillian there are advantages to being “careful,” she goes into her own parallax view. “Careful” would mean accepting Ethan’s proposal, which would make her kids happy, and enable her to go back to school and get whatever degree she wanted. But when Bill shows up on her doorstep, she’s too attached to him, and the study, to reject that path. This could also be due to that stubborn independent streak we’ve seen in Ginny from the beginning; she could be (and will eventually become) a doctor’s wife, but a doctor’s wife who is a partner, not a stay-at-home.
But even our stay-at-home wives are running the show here: Libby decides that Bill needs to get back to work, forcing him to attend a fundraising event where he does indeed swing a deal to get his study started up again at Memorial Hospital. This is thanks to a fortunate run-in with ex-prostitute Betty and her new husband, the wealthy Pretzel King (Greg Grunberg). Even Bill’s new boss, Dr. Douglas Greathouse (Danny Huston), has to meekly ask Bill to keep him posted on the sex study when his formidable wife is out of the room.
Perhaps the strongest of the wives, Margaret Scully, not only refuses to let her husband fantasize about another gender when he tries to have sex with her, but saves his life when he tries to hang himself the morning afterward. And poor Elise Langham marches into the hospital with all of her kids to announce her husband’s most heinous dalliance yet. Ginny feebly tries to stop her, but Elise tries to strike a small blow for sisterhood: “If women can’t stick up for each other,” what chance do they have?
It’s a subtext that flows throughout the other frequent female pairings of the episode: Jane attempts to get Ginny to break away from Masters and the sex study, but of course she can’t; Ginny tries to get Lillian to confide about why she really has a black eye; it takes both Margaret and Vivian to cut Barton down and save him. One of the loveliest scenes is also the most troublesome: I love Ginny and Libby together, so am concerned about the ramifications of Libby finding out that her friend has been sleeping with her husband. I assume that was the message behind Virginia encouraging Libby to take care of herself and Baby Milkshake first.
So while Ginny’s parallax view is all about her choices (she tells Ethan she’s turning him down because the work is where she belongs), Bill’s memory goes right back to the sex, as he watches a test pattern or stands in the shower. We’ve learned that he’s expert at cutting out certain parts of memory; although he appears to be coldly rejecting that awfully cute baby, Bill feels railroaded by the way the baby was conceived while terrified that he’s transforming into his parents, a fear he confirms in a final showdown with his mother. He says he has turned into both of his parents “by some dark, malevolent slight of hand”: He turns up music to drown out his son’s cries of anguish like his mother did, and he cheats on his wife like his father did. It’s no accident that the first name Bill uses for his pseudonym at the hotel is “Francis,” the same as his father’s.
Helmed by 56 Up director Apted, who also behind season one’s exemplary “Catherine” and “Love And Marriage,” this episode continues and builds on the impressive momentum that charged this show from season one. Watch the way Apted frames Virginia as she makes her choices: She is caught in a doorway as she asks Bill, “So what do we do now?” (the same question Bill asks his mother in the middle of their fight); then she is trapped by two pillars in the episode’s final shot, but Bill is not. The setup answers the puzzling question of why Virginia is going along with an affair that’s hiding under a sex study: She is caught by her desires as well. Because while the head may try to fight the heart, the heart always wins in the end.
- Why wouldn’t Margaret let Bill in to see Scully? Wouldn’t he of all people need a friend right then? Apparently the Scully family is attempting to keep their family crises private, but Allison Janney delivers another sublime performance as she politely but sternly turns Bill away.
- Excellent news: Michael Apted is directing the next two episodes as well.
- I suspect Jane and Lester’s departure to California means the end of Heléne Yorke on this show, which is unfortunate.
- Any guesses on what is up with Lillian and the medicine cabinet?
- I’m not really sure what the point of the Cal-O-Metric diversion was, except to point out how perfectly suited Ginny is for her job and not for other ones, but I hope that’s the last we see of those nasty diet pills.
- Since cute little Baby Milkshake’s nana says that he should be “worshiped and adored as much as any messiah,” maybe it’s a good thing that she’s headed back to Ohio.
- I am beyond thrilled to be joining you for the second season of this show, although I realize that I have large shoes to fill. If you haven’t read Sonia Saraiya’s take on MOS season two yet, I suggest you check it out as soon as possible.