Jul 132015
Courtesty of Showtime

Courtesty of Showtime

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.


  8 Responses to “Masters of Sex Season 3 Premiere: Parliament of Owls”

  1. One might also note the verb “process”, which certainly would have been novel in 1965. “To process” as a pop psychology concept may also have been a few years in the future. On watching Mad Men again, I was surprised by the number of anachronisms; on Masters of Sex they pour down constantly. My favorite is still Barton’s daughter (name?) saying, in the 50s, that she looked like Mr. Ed growing up. She might as well have referenced Sponge Bob Square Pants.
    This was, by far, the best episode of the series, I think. It also made me almost understand why some people hate kids, though I liked Tessa.
    The first American combat divisions were sent to Vietnam in 1965. They guarded bases and then, somewhat later, were sent out to look for guerillas. I wonder if the images of flag draped coffins returning, mentioned by Virginia, had yet appeared.
    On a final note could the parliament of owls be a Batman allusion? I believe in DC Comics they are a sinister underworld court — like the press conference? Or is it a random reference to the two engravings in Tessa’s room?

    • Yeah, there were tons of anachronisms, I just chose my favorites. The terror of flag-draped coffins coming home from Vietnam is also an anachronism by about 2-3 years.

      In terms of the title, it could be a reference to the way the birds behave, or perhaps a Narnia reference.

    • It’s occurred to me, in relation to the road accident scene, that men and women were not as likely to shout scatological insults at each other then, either. (This does not imply that it was an idyllic time of lost gentility.)

  2. “A parliament of owls” is like “a murder of crows” – a VERY strange word used to indicate a flock of a given type of bird. I have no idea what this title is referring to, maybe the roomful of reporters/scientists at the press conference? The families at the lake?

    I haven’t rewatched last year’s finale, but I don’t recall it jumping to 1963… didn’t it end with JFK’s inaugural address in January 1961? Either way, I agree that they screwed up by not aging the kids (that is, replacing the actors) in last season’s internal time jump(s), because even with an early ’61 to late ’65 inter-season jump, some of the kids have grown up way too fast.

    I don’t even concern myself with anachronisms and wrong-era references and slang on this show anymore. It’s just been so sloppy from the start. But the acting is such a feast that I don’t much care.

    • You’re right. It jumped to 1961, and the press conference was 1965.

    • Incidentally, when they showed Jane drawing inspiration from Kennedy’s speech, I wonder if they realized that it’s a clarion call to fight the Cold War against the Communist menace more effectively. It contains no references to domestic policy.

  3. Yes, I enjoyed the chaos of the extended, chattering mess Ginny, Libby and Bill have created. I also very much enjoyed the scene between Libby and Ginny where they conspire to maintain Libby’s home. Was that the first time Libby’s admitted, albeit tacitly, to full knowledge of the affair? Anyway, it was great. And all the performances, as ever, were great too. I turned off the telly feeling pretty warm towards MoS.

    But then I thought about it for a bit and realised I’m still deeply ambivalent about this show.

    Where to begin? The Vietnam stuff. Yeah, I got that the flag draped coffins thing was probably nonsense too – and I’m British – and, frankly, if I got that then the show’s creators definitely should have got that. It’s just lazy. And the worry is that the laziness extends to everything else. Which it transparently does. Kid signs up, for starters, is an incredibly lazy piece of wartime drama plotting. I didn’t mind it in Mad Men because it was the culmination of a story that began years before and actually had pathos. Plus it was done with in one episode. But the idea that this is going to be drawn out concerns me. They’d better do something with it, like, for instance, explaining the boy’s motivation. Just to be clear here, I don’t always think that’s necessary, but a show has to offer a lot more than MoS does for bland storytelling like this to work. It may well do that, sure. But then I cast my mind back to the terrible civil rights story arc last season and… It really is like they’re ticking the 60s boxes.

    Where else are they ticking the boxes? Oh yeah, the stuff with Bill and his son. Obviously we were all interested to see what the relationships would be like now the children are older, and this was so disappointing. See! Bill was abused and now he’s raising his fist to his son! So linear, obvious and dull. You could write it in your sleep.

    The fake out with the AMA journalist was cheap too. While I felt the fuzzies at the time, I was left thinking – so what? It didn’t resolve any themes and was just a gimmicky twist calculated to provide release after an hour of familial bedlam (I still like the bedlam). It was one of two weak conclusions, because, despite the excellence of the Libby/Ginny bad scene, I think I’m probably done with unplanned pregnancy as a drama engine, at least for a bit.

    So, yeah, I think the shows weaknesses were out in force this time around. I wonder if I’ll still feel as conflicted by the end of this season. That would be weird.

    Pretty much unreservedly enjoying Halt and Catch Fire though. It has none of the poetry, elegance or depth of Mad Men, but it’s going from strength to strength and the story’s firing on all cylinders. Perhaps because they know they won’t get another shot at it. Damn, how I wish writing rooms would just take a leaf out of Weiner’s playbook and pump every season with all the story they’ve got. Best writing philosophy ever. I’m sure story generates story too, so all the withholding is not only boring but pointless.

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