Thank you, loyal Basketcases, for hanging in an extra week while I traveled for business. Although I sometimes imagine I’ll find a way to get the writing done while on the road, it rarely happens, so I’m combining two weeks of Masters of Sex Season 2 into one post.
So far, Season 2 is shaping up to be far better than Season 1. There’s no doubt the show has been improving all along, but now we’re in a place where the darkest nature of sexual desire is being explored.
In the season premiere, Parallax, we find Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters where they left off last season; he knocking on her door and telling her he cannot do without her. For a short while, intercut throughout the episode, they give their passion for each other rein, but soon they return to the comfortable, believable lie—that this is about the work, and not an affair. The cost is a little honesty, a little comfort; both Virgina and Bill are very good at holding their feelings in check and acting as if they can rise above it all. The real price is being paid by Libby Masters, of course, and Caitlin FitzGerald portrays her character as if she sits on a knife-edge of revelation and loss.
I will lie about my desire.
The parallel is Barton Scully. Agonizingly, heartbreakingly, he endures first electroshock, then a pathetic attempt to make love to his wife, and then a suicide attempt, all in an effort to lie about his desire. Barton—beautifully portrayed by Beau Bridges, who deserves to win the Emmy—is gay in a world which believes it is a perversion. Barton himself believes this, believes he is broken and must be fixed. He loves his wife (Allison Janney is also brilliant, and also deserves accolades) but they can be happy neither with a sexless marriage nor a sexual one. I have never seen the cost of living a closeted life portrayed with such brutality and tenderness all at once. I weep for these people.
In Kyrie Eleison, Masters of Sex doubles down with its exploration of the dark side of desire. This week, the darkness is eloquently articulated by a teenage girl with a sex drive so overwhelming that she and her mother both agree she should have a hysterectomy, believing it will drive the unwanted lust away from her. It’s a darkness within her, Rose says, that doesn’t care what her brain wants. Having established the theme, the episode gives us a whirlwind of darkness. Compulsive philanderer Austin Langham has been publicly humiliated for his infidelity, and his wife has left him. Virginia is verbally slapped by Vivian for “stealing” her boyfriend (Ethan) and then breaking his heart. Darkness is everywhere, even the darkness of Lillian’s metastasizing cancer, taking her sexual organs and turning them into a literal poison; the enemy Rose imagines her healthy uterus to be.
When Bill learns of his beloved friend Barton’s suicide attempt, he is literally floored (I’m not one of those people who uses “literally” as hyperbole—Bill finds himself unable to get up from the ground when the force of emotion hits him). It is perhaps his compassion for Barton that leads him to comfort Rose so effectively. “You are not the worst part of you,” he tells her. He argues passionately that her “perversion” is a dysfunction, and that his study is the beginning of discovering true treatment.
A lesser show would have ended on that note. A clarion call for understanding. Perversion isn’t so perverse, we just need to understand it. Instead, the show goes on to show both Virginia and Bill in separate situations that are horribly uncomfortable, as each is exposed to someone’s perversion in an unwitting way. Their study lays them each open to being approached by anyone, with any sort of desire, and not necessarily by people who want to respect the boundaries of science. AWKWARD! It’s one thing to rescue a teenage girl from the stigma of being called—and calling herself—a whore, it’s quite another to be stuck at your desk listening to a pervy doctor spinning his sexual fantasies while pretending it’s about medicine. Sometimes the darkness gets to stay dark.