Sep 292014


Masters of Sex Season 2 ended with a cry of anguish for almost all concerned. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised was, as a title, disappointing. In retrospect, it is literal: Masters and Johnson will not air a television special, certainly not a revolutionary one. Meanwhile, the subversive and angry intent of the title’s origin is lost. That seems like title abuse.

There were five basic threads of the Masters of Sex season finale: Ginny and her custody issue, Bill’s impotence, Barbara and Lester, Flo and Austin, and Libby’s affair with Random Black Sex Machine With No Discernible Personality. I may be broadcasting how I feel about that last one a little bit.

It really horrifies me that Masters of Sex is using the fight for civil rights, of all things, to marginalize a black man and treat him as nothing so much as a foil for Libby’s rebellion against her marriage. He’s her personal Magical Negro, except this trope, as defined by Spike Lee, is normally asexual, which wouldn’t do on this show. So he’s a Magical Negro with an Outstanding Ass. Robert shows no personality, no consistency, and no actual desire for Libby, except that he keeps fucking her. He’s just a blank slate; committed to a cause conveniently located for Libby, proper except when she seduces him, virtually expressionless. Given the racist history of the perception of black male sexuality, this is problematic at the very least, and making him a civil rights leader adds insult to injury.

I understand that the writers are trying to parallel Libby and Virginia, but it’s just not working for me. Virginia losing her children is not analogous to Libby having only her children, and I have no interest in yet another “can we have it all?” conversation. Caitlin FitzGerald is doing wonderful work as Libby, making her vulnerable, desperate, and painfully self-effacing, but that doesn’t erase the script problems.

This show is brilliant with a tight lens on its main characters. Whether discovering a treatment for impotence that is sexy, loving, compassionate, and effective, or working at cross-purposes on their television special, Masters and Johnson are the heart and soul of this show, and every moment where either or both is on-screen is powerful. Ginny’s increasingly brittle attempts to hold on to, and then release, her children, is heartbreaking. Throughout the episode, she is more and more tightly wound, and it’s a testament to Lizzy Caplan’s abilities that Virginia never becomes shrill, or strange, she simply becomes tighter, and tighter, and tighter, until the final snap. She has lost her children. She is destroyed. It’s a terrible thing to witness.

More so when we learn that Bill has created the situation, or at least, he knows that Virginia will believe he did. In fact, I can’t help but doubt that a judge would really have returned Virginia’s children to her primary custody. It was a pipe dream on the face of it. First, there has to be a reason to reopen custody–you can’t just waltz into court whenever you’re annoyed. There has to be a change of circumstance. In the current situation, George’s new marriage constitutes such a change, and the absence of a signed agreement opens the door to a hearing anyway. But the airing of a television special would not likely be seen as a change. In addition, courts recognize that stability is important to children. Having moved them once recently, a court would be unlikely to do so again soon after. Now, in 1962, custody favored the mother very heavily, so it’s possible that I’m wrong, but in 1962, the world was far more prudish, and I cannot imagine that CBS would somehow make Virginia’s job seem less smutty (particularly if George raised the issue of Virginia “working” until midnight).

Virginia believed she could get her children back because she had to believe something. That it was Bill who undercut her would enrage her. She has given up so much for him, and for the work, and she believes deeply in both, but now she may have crossed an irreparable line. Bill, knowing this, can never be fully honest with her, even if honesty was his inclination.

While tragedy howls around Virginia, while Libby suffers and Bill suffers his complicity in each of their pain, the unexpected return of Barton Scully was truly a breath of fresh air. Words cannot express how I love Beau Bridges on this show. The simplicity of his presence is so honest that it grounds everything. His little speech is enormously contrived—he is Yoda, giving Bill exactly the wisdom about partnership and trust that he needs at exactly the right moment. Despite the contrivance, I love how it tied everything together.

Here, then, is the cure for impotence, the root of romance, the study, all of it: Partnership and trust. Bill trusting Virginia in the office and in bed. Lester and Barbara learning from each other, not from “sex experts” or hookers. Barton talks about trusting Margaret. He has a way to go, I’m sure; he has to learn to trust himself, and he may never do that, and trusting his wife seems to mean allowing her to have sex outside marriage. Well, more power to them both for working something out. At least someone is happy.

I’ve little to say about Austin and Flo. He has just discovered he’s a dumb blond, and we’re supposed to care. I feel I can speak for Basketcases as a whole when I say, we don’t.

Lester and Barb, on the other hand, moved away from cliché into sweet, and I am glad the episode ended on a note of hope for their relationship.

So, Basketcases, what did you think?


  3 Responses to “Masters of Sex: The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”

  1. As true as Barton’s speech… “you never mean to, Bill”… may be in general, I find it hard to believe that Bill could have anticipated Virginia’s situation. One wonders what role Ethan could have played. The situation looks very like that on Halt and Catch Fire, when two disgruntled people, who knew the main characters, revealed a copy-cat computer at the trade show.,
    The CORE office may have jubilant at Kennedy’s election, given his famous phone call to Dr. King in jail in Atlanta, but the Civil Rights movement was generally at odds with the Kennedy administration. Until the summer of ’63 the administration was rather passive, in a crisis management mode. It was skillful editing that made it seem like the inaugural address was about Civil Rights rather than the Cold War. I wonder how many people realized that his “new generation, born in this century, tempered by war…” was the G.I. generation, not the baby boomers, then watching the Mickey Mouse Club.
    Barb is the most attractive character on the show, I think.

  2. I’ve also stated here more than once that when the focus is on Masters and/or Johnson, the show is brilliant, but that it continually runs into major problems with its subplots and supporting characters.

    I absolutely agree with Deb that they have made an awful mess of the civil rights story: that Robert is a non-character – just a collection of poses and attitudes – and that it simplyisn’t compelling, and actually perpetuates the stereotypes it’s meant to defeat… despite Caitlin Fitzgerald’s always excellent performance. Austin’s plot is supposed to show us reverse workplace discrimination and role reversal to comment on the main story… but just comes across as second-rate comic relief. (Isn’t Betty sufficient in this department?) Agreed that the child custody arguments seem pretty unbelievable for the period, though Lizzy Caplan’s outstanding performance almost makes that besides the point. I was also thrilled at Barton Scully’s return… but concur that he was just too much of a dues ex machina, plot-wise.

    Of all the side plots, only Lester and Barb stand out as interesting and sympathetic characters. They are simply adorable, and I’m rooting for them to evolve into a fulfilled couple next season.

    The most interesting reveal of this episode was that Libby has known about the affair for years. Of course, she’s too smart not to have figured it out. Yet she remains so friendly with Virginia, and seems to somehow understand that it’s required for The Work, and not just because Bill is cheating scum. Fascinating. How about exploring that rather than her dalliance with Robert?!?

    This season was, oddly, far rockier than the first season. Absolutely brilliantly written and performed scenes… directly adjacent to too many embarrassingly lame ones. I don’t blame the actors, who are all good or great, I blame the writing and direction. This show is so not on the Mad Men level that it’s often disappointing… but Caplan and Sheen are simply magic. Their textured, layered, subtle performances have so much class, and engage the viewer so strongly… and then the show cuts to something really dumb.

    I hope they take some of this criticism to heart next season, because I still believe that this could be a GREAT show with just some careful tonal changes and story editing. With all the time jumps to come (I read yesterday that next season will get to the publication of M&J’s landmark book in 1966), hopefully they can retool and refocus a bit… In the meantime, I hope there’s another Emmy nom for Lizzy next year – she’s always great, but jeez, that sequence of her trying to pull herself together enough to answer the phone was amazing!

    • I think the first half of this season was brilliant, and exceeded S1, but it got very jangled and confused after the time jump.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.