Jul 212014

Masters-of-Sex-Parallax-Virginia-BillThank 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.


  14 Responses to “Masters of Sex Season 2: Parallax and Kyrie Eleison”

  1. A superb review. The pacing, editing and composition as well as the writing on this season so far place it far above the first season. I think I detected a profound sadness in Betty’s reaction to the young woman’s references to her nymphomania (presumably the clinical concept in question) as the worst part of her, though.

  2. I can’t have been the only one to notice that the actress who played Anna Draper played Rose’s mother!

  3. Love the show and very much like your take on it. Just one thing: It was Gini who got the verbal slap from Vivian. It’s a compliment to Lizzy that she has so inhabited the character.

  4. The shock and suffering in Episode 201 was very hard to take – indicating that the show has really sunk its teeth into devotees. I can hardly imagine that they could have pushed any more buttons. So Ep 202, which was only normally provocative, was a relative relief.

    I’ve was pleased to see Bill Masters get yet more sympathetic treatment this season.

    Vivian apparently felt that he is close enough (an “uncle”) to get the news about Barton. This reminded me of Anna’s niece telling Don of Anna’s imminent demise – though Don was nothing like the intimate that it seems Bill Masters is.

    Of course his assurances (and practical contraception) to the young twice-pregnant daughter-of-a-VIP served to humanize him as well. Betty (Mrs. Pretzel King) has served an interesting fly-on-the-wall role and “snoop”. She did a great service with her confession to the same teenager and also found out a little about the Doctor behind his seemingly indifferent mask. I’ll be interested to see what the next device will be to keep Betty in the loop – “fertility treatments” can only work so long.

    I thought, when they reprised Ethan’s phone call to Gini (this time with his voice), that Mad Men would never have done that – given that it seemed pretty clear what was going down that first time and that Ethan is only in the chorus and not a main player. Then I remembered that MM did much the same thing when they reprised Don’s visit to Joan after the deed with the Jaguar King. The reprise also served to give us a Masters reaction shot that indicated that his stock holding in Gini Corp. was not as large as he’d thought.

    • Ginny and Bill never let each other in. She is passionate about the work, but didn’t anticipate that saying so would make him retreat. They both ended up with less than they wanted or imagined they could get from the other.

      Bill has been a part of Vivian’s life her whole life. He’s close enough with Barton that he can drop by the front door unannounced.

      • Some believe that Masters and Johnson were never in love. Masters seems to have asked her to marry him, and divorced his wife, to prevent her from dropping out of the research project, when she was on the verge of marrying someone else. She, herself seemed ambiguous about the question, when interviewed for the book.
        I take it that like the Scullys, Ethan is made-up or a composite. This would seem to mean that a huge proportion of what we’ve seen so far (outside of the details of the study) is fictional, particularly since Dr. Masters never deceived his wife about the fact that it was he who was nearly sterile. Does anyone know?
        Incidentally, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with that, of course. We can still appreciate Macbeth although the historical Macbeth killed Duncan in battle and presumably never met anyone unusual on the heath.
        It is good to remember though particularly since the evaluation of recently alive real people is involved. Kudos to excellent thought-provoking television.

        • Ethan is indeed a composite. He combines a “fellow” under Dr. Masters’ supervision with one of Mrs. Johnson’s beau. The beau left to marry another after two years with Ginny (and became a judge).

      • Barton and Bill were in a distant flashback – observing mating bunnies in a lab (was that already at Washington U, or before they moved there together?)

        Vivian, now 19 or 20, would have been a toddler then. No doubt she can not remember a time when uncle Bill was not coming around.

        • Incidentally, Barton had a framed photograph on his office wall, then, of (I believe) Lord Alfred Douglass (“Bosie”), famous as the lover of Oscar Wilde. Could that have been a clue of some kind?

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