In the time between Season 2 and Season 3 of Masters of Sex, I certainly remembered that I like the show a lot, that its subject matter is compelling and its cast is great, but Parliament of Owls reminded me that the show also features genuine tour de force acting. Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, and Caitlin FitzGerald acted up a storm in this episode, each a whirlwind of complex emotions, all of them wound so tightly they can barely draw breath. You don’t normally get your Emmy reel out of the season opener, and I’m sure there’s plenty more in store for us, but any of these three could submit this episode, knowing that showy and powerful scenes await the viewer. While the writing on this show is not always satisfying (although, no complaints this week), these actors make it all worthwhile.
You’re going to read an Internet full of reviews saying that Masters of Sex has jumped forward five years, because that’s what Showtime’s press releases say. In fact, The end of Season 2 had jumped forward from 1959 to
1963 1961–the Previously On clips showed JFK’s inaugural address in last season’s finale. So the jump is less than 5 years–the press conference takes place at the end of 1965, just prior to the 1966 release of Human Sexual Response, and the flashback vacation scenes at the lake take place four months earlier.
What is happening here is a whirlwind of anxiety. Everyone is incredibly anxious and doing their best to self-medicate. Libby is treating her anxiety with Serax, Virginia uses sex, Tess drinks, Bill works, Henry runs away, and poor Johnny just freaks out. The tension of the press conference, the pointed question about the phrase “sexual tension,” is just part of the incredible tension of their lives. Studying human sexuality gives neither Masters nor Johnson and control over the sexual and other explosions in their own lives.
When you look at what draws Ginny and Bill to each other, you see their intense level of control. Each is a highly controlled person, adept at keeping the world manageable and at arms length. Yet with each other, they’ve allowed a fundamentally out of control affair to proceed for years, to the detriment of both of their families. And now everything feels crazy, manic, comedic, and yet horrifying. The swirl of screaming kids and voices over each other–it may be a cliche, but it didn’t feel that way, it felt terrible and ordinary and invasive. Tessa and Henry have sexuality that’s wildly out of control, and the loss of control is highlighted by the backdrop of the Vietnam War. Ginny says she “cannot” have Henry come home in a flag-draped coffin–as if she gets to choose.
The show has screwed up with the kids. They were played by young actors in the 1959 episodes, then the show jumped forward almost 2 years and the actors didn’t change. Then the show jumps forward almost 4 more years and now they’re the age they should have been last season, which garbles the perception. Just go with it.
Masters of Sex is also not a show that cares passionately about historical accuracy–Michelle Ashford is not Matthew Weiner. While shorter skirts were around in 1965, housewives like Libby Masters weren’t wearing them. The most glaring bit of anachronistic speech was certainly Henry saying his mother was trying to “guilt” him. Parts of speech were not nearly so interchangeable fifty years ago.
But these are merely production issues. Parliament of Owls is a powerful season opener, that, I hope, brings promise of a strong third season.