There is something about female blood. It was so obvious, in Masters of Sex Episode 5, Catherine, that Vivian was a virgin, so that the blood on the sheets could have been a little cliché. Yet the image was stark, and sure enough, it was repeated later in the episode, blood on a white (ish) expanse of fabric. Each time, blood representing a dramatic change in circumstances, each time, blood sitting at the core of the raw terror of female sexuality. The blood that changes a man in relation to the woman he loves. “You break it, you bought it.” It’s no coincidence that Bill Masters asked the virginal and naive wife about her “menses.” This was an episode about women’s blood.
Not entirely, of course. It was a stand-out episode for Bill Masters and for Michael Sheen. I won’t soon forget the images of that final scene, “Close your eyes,” and the anguished sound that escaped him. As I said, staggering. This show changed its nature last night, going from a well-written, well-performed and attractive period piece with a fun premise, and becoming instead something digging at the core of human fear, pain, and longing. I don’t imagine it will always rise to that level, and I think there’s an element of soap opera in playing off the family drama as the basis of this episode’s emotional impact. Yet there’s a delicacy to it all.
Consider Bill’s journey with his mother, calling out the “sickness” that pervades their family history, screaming it to his mother’s retreating back. Consider the way that Ethan accepts his fate; he broke it and bought it, and the Provost’s daughter is not someone an ambitious man can treat shabbily. He has a girlfriend, like it or not. Consider that Ethan being so genuinely wonderful with Henry seems designed to make the audience, and Virginia, forget that he blackened Virginia’s eye, and yet it is not the path back to her bed, but rather to the friendship she wanted all along. Consider the complexity and humor of Scully and Masters forgiving one another (“I wouldn’t want it misconstrued” made me laugh out loud). This is not a show taking the easy path through any of its personal stories.
If Catherine is about female blood, literally and metaphorically, it is also, literally and metaphorically, about male impotence. In the world of things I thought would happen, Austin’s impotence once reunited with Jane didn’t even once suggest itself until it actually happened. Yet aren’t all these men a bit impotent to their fate? Ethan accepts a relationship he never wanted, Bill wants to be all-powerful yet can prevent neither Libby’s late miscarriage nor his own sleepwalking. Even Henry is impotent, fighting to escape to his father, yet brought back to where he must be, whether he likes it or not.
If there is one element of the show that feels by-the-numbers, it’s Virginia’s struggles as a working mother. OMG work life balance is so HARD. It feels so much like it’s staring at the 21st century and saying “relevant.” And yes, these struggles are incredibly relevant, and yes, Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson acts the shit out of it, but it feels like such a played-out story, and this show has nothing new to say about it. “Working mothers are not accepted by society and their kids feel upset” is a trope, and the amount of time that Masters of Sex gives to that plot-point is a bit of a problem.
Still, if episodes stay as excellent as this one, it’s a problem I can live with.