Something clicked for me with Masters Of Sex in tonight’s episode, “Phallic Victories.” Despite my earlier reservations about the show, tonight it seems confident and purposeful, moving toward an ending that, for once, it seems to know the shape of. It finally finds Virginia, and the results are really lovely.
Last week, when Todd VanDerWerff covered “Fallout,” he wrote that this first season of Masters Of Sex reminded him a lot of Mad Men’s early episodes: setting the groundwork for what would follow. I don’t completely agree, but that struck me tonight, when it seemed like we were finally reaping the rewards of investing 10 episodes into these characters. Masters has struck me as unfocused at various points throughout this season. Tonight, it is not unfocused.
There are a few things that are remarkable about this episode, besides the fact that it’s the one I've liked the best so far: One, there are no sex scenes. It’s too late for sex—Masters is on the cusp of presenting his research, cobbling together notes to make a presentation. Two, there is no Allison Janney. She’s been my favorite part of this whole season, but there isn’t time for subplots in this episode—the action is squarely on Virginia and Bill and how their lives are faring after their rupture (it seems inaccurate to call it a breakup, though that's what it feels like). Both omissions are signs that the pace of the show is picking up. There’s a kind of electricity in the air, ever since Virginia delivered her bombshell last week. (Since I didn't get to gush about it, let me do so now: That was one of Virginia's finest moments in the show, one that let her move more into the “subject” role and away from the “object” space. For once, she is telling someone how they are, instead of a thousand people talking about what she's like. And it was delicious to watch a man like Bill Masters take the knowledge that he was the one who got emotional.)
This type of emotional breakdown is the stuff every romance is made of: Masters keeps calling for Virginia but gets Jane instead (he calls out “Vir-Jane” a lot); Virginia defends Bill to Lillian, even though she doesn't need to; Masters has visions of her as he's trying to get on with his life. They covertly gaze at each other from across a crowded room, then avoid each other in the elevator. Even Libby has picked up on the romance, though she doesn’t know whose romance it is. Somehow, Virginia herself is a kind of empty point at the center of this love polygon, where the romantic passions of three different men are intermittently aimed in her direction. (Bill, Ethan, and George are basically Virginia's fuck-marry-kill.)
Which is why I was so happy the show put Virginia on a slow bus to a golf conference with none of these men. Instead, she makes a career foray with her new boss, working on spreading the word about pap smears. A lot of things go awry—one of the nice things about Masters Of Sex is that it’s not afraid to be funny—but it’s ultimately a success, in a delightful little twist on where power resides that might be just a fantasy but is still fun to watch. Lillian has become one of my favorite characters, in part because she has grown so rapidly: Every episode, we seem to uncover another layer. It’s more satisfying than many of the other character arcs. (This might be because she won’t be with us long.)
The other day I got into a spirited debate with a few other writerly friends about the Bechdel test—that oft-cited, oft-misused "test" that writer and illustrator Alison Bechdel introduced as a quick way to measure whether or not a work of art represents women well. (Bechdel is a fan of Virginia Woolf's writings, and in A Room Of One's Own, Woolf introduces the same rubric.) The Bechdel test doesn't “solve” feminism, nor does it guarantee it; a film like Gravity can’t pass the Bechdel test, because there’s only one man and one woman in space, but that doesn’t make it, necessarily, a poor representation of women. Then again, it’s fascinating that a film like Inside Llewyn Davis (already lauded by critics) features two women who are in the same room for just one scene, and don’t speak to each other. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, naturally. But it does make you wonder what the film has to say (or not say) about women.
“Phallic Victories” is a fantastic example of why the Bechdel test works, and why it's still a useful tool. Lillian isn’t the first woman that Virginia’s spoken to, on-screen, but now that they’re working together (and strategizing together), their conversations are some of the richest on the show. When Virginia talked to Libby, or to Jane, it was usually through the lens of Bill Masters. Lillian and Virginia are not seeing each other through a filter—they’re meeting each other head-on.
Which makes it easier to see Virginia herself. She bounces off of Lillian enough to show us her character—her charm, her brilliance, her stubbornness. I loved that she said she didn’t want to be a man; it fit with what we saw her do, which was use everything she have to her advantage. Seeing her in the wild, it underlined how hemmed in Virginia is by her world—even by all these men who claim to love her.
All of this is a long way of saying that the end of the episode was perfect. Virginia singing that no one truly knows her—the man she’s singing to is “just a friend.” And she’s singing in a booth—closed in, but transparent, where people can watch her. If the show is going to constantly push the button that Virginia is somehow magical—and it has shown no sign of stopping—I like that it at least gives her her voice.
- No particular surprise here, but Michael Sheen plays the crumbling Masters fantastically well in this episode.
- George returns and spars a bit with Ethan. It's not bad, but considering that we maybe, kind of know that Masters will end up with Johnson, the other two guys crossing swords isn't that fascinating.
- There's a vibrating bed.
- My guess for next week's finale is that Ethan becomes the doctor to work for Lillian on pap smears, because Virginia ditches her to save Bill's stage presentation. What's your theory?