After all of my whining last week, this week’s Masters Of Sex, “Thank You For Coming,” is a strong episode, albeit one that still feels like it’s gearing up for something bigger. As far as I can tell, the show does best when it balances between the wry, tongue-in-cheek humor of sexual politics—this week’s title, a slightly lewd pun, is like a broad wink to the audience—and the actual desire forming between Masters and Johnson, which is finally openly acknowledged by the end of this hour.
If I’m skeptical about anything in Masters Of Sex, it’s that I feel like I’m always waiting for sparks to fly, and not many sparks ever do. I want the characters to hit against each other in a way that makes conflict or consequence come out of the woodwork. But Bill Masters is too uptight yet for flammability, and as we spend so much time with him and his milquetoast Libby, the only pieces of drama we’ve gotten have been his brief spats with Virginia and his confrontation with Provost Scully. “Thank You For Coming” zags in a different direction, bringing Masters and Virginia together in an oblique way that allows for an interesting range of fantasy and speculation. Virginia’s ex-husband George enrolls in the study, masturbating in front of the two researchers and cheerfully telling Masters that the lady he’s seeing “on and off” prefers it when he goes down on her first. That scene, where Masters is interviewing George, frames the episode: At first, it’s just another man contributing to the study, and by the end, it’s Virginia’s ex telling Masters what she likes in bed.
By this point in the series, it’s become clear that Masters is a little bit obsessed with Virginia. Some of it is in the way that anyone with a crush might be obsessed with the object of their desire, and some of it is in a peculiar, clinical way that seeks to possess her almost as much as it wants to put her under a microscope. Virginia’s every move, romantically, is an object of great fascination for the show, probably because it’s looking through Masters’ eyes to see what is so captivating about Mrs. Johnson. But I wish that Virginia were less of an object and more of a subject in this show. Presumably, the attraction between them runs both ways—we’ve seen Virginia sacrifice time with her family and money for this job—and yet we don’t feel that growing sense of desire from her, that romantic interest that burgeons with a crush.
Instead, we get a long (and repeated) monologue from one man who is interested in Virginia to another who is interested in her, about Mrs. Johnson’s sex life. I know there is a universe in which this is romantic, but I also found it a little creepy. I don’t mind creepy in a show, if it’s going to go somewhere, and based on other elements of this episode, it seems like Masters Of Sex is not afraid of creepy. But I do think that the last line at the end, when George sentimentally recalls Virginia as “magic” to a rapt Masters, as the camera cuts to her sitting demurely on a bus stop bench, is a little ridiculous. I am willing to accept that both men are interested in her, and further, that she is a unique woman for her time. But this idea that she is some special enchanted being just seems far too romantic and rosy-eyed. This is a woman who, in this episode, has had to fend off one occasionally violent suitor, an ex-husband who doesn’t pay for his kids and shows up without her permission, a boss who is stern and cold in part because he’s attracted to her, and the burden of two children, to boot. Let’s not get lost in romance.
I know the show knows better than to wallow in sentiment, because it’s blunt and intelligent in other areas. I’m highlighting the bad because I see so much good. I was much more interested in Ethan’s plotline this week than I have been in weeks; for some reason, seeing the man fall apart and potentially fall in love is kind of fascinating and empathetic. I don’t know if there’s a lot to say about Vivian Scully, his 18-year-old paramour, but I found their storyline engaging. There’s something in Masters Of Sex’s modus operandi that wants to show us how the reality of desire often confounds not just scientific rationale but even our own judgment. In this episode, Virginia sleeps with her ex-husband, even though she knows it’s a bad idea. And Ethan and Vivian are drawn to each other in a strange, vicious dance that is half-hurtful, half-ecstatic.
There’s a weird logic to all of it that Masters is trying to untangle, and he’s not doing well, so far. His rigidity at the dinner party—and his requisite good-deed-of-the-week, tying the immigrant woman’s tubes so her abusive husband can’t take more advantage of her—is part of his own trauma, the fallout of an abusive father and years of feeling trapped. More and more, it feels like Masters is at the precipice of a terrible cliff. This week’s revelation about his father is so moving and well done, if a little vague. He seems to barely understand what’s happening to him, and the study is the only area of his life that he has control over.
- Virginia’s daughter has a good sense of the world. “Do you give shots? I don’t like you. I don’t like him.”
- Libby’s maternity clothes are beautiful.
- It seems like we might be seeing more of Masters’ mother, which is great.