This week’s Masters of Sex recap combines the previous two episodes, as I’ve fallen behind. The Excitement of Release, from two Sundays ago, and Undue Influence, from this week, are two very different animals, and combine to highlight both the excellence and flaws of this series.
In The Excitement of Release, Virginia and Betty pursue new investors so that Masters & Johnson research can stay afloat, while Bill seeks a more academic means of finding funding–pushing the use of Human Sexual Response as a textbook. Tessa Johnson explores her sexuality under the shadow of her mother’s notoriety, Bill and Virginia attempt to renew their sexual relationship after a long hiatus, and Libby and Bill develop a friendship with the neighbors.
The introduction of Tessa as a player of importance has largely been greeted with hisses and groans by critics, but her plight this episode is surely one that is both realistic and heartbreaking. She’s trying to carve out a sense of self under some extraordinary circumstances. Virginia surely never predicted that her work would put sexual pressure on her daughter, but here we are. The forced blowjob scene was awful and frightening and humiliating, and is seated squarely in an era when “date rape” were two words never spoken together. As much as she was forced, in this episode, Tessa believes she volunteered, and in Undue Influence, she does volunteer, although it’s painted as an act of rebellion and anger, not of desire.
Looking over these two episodes, though, it’s hard to see the presence of Virginia’s three children as anything but an excuse to keep her whipped into a frenzy of anxiety and worry. It’s really hard to play angry rebellion while generating any sympathy, although Isabelle Fuhrman is doing a pretty good job, but she’s not convincing us that she’s there as her own person; her scenes are purely commentary on the main players.
What I found most interesting about The Excitement of Release were the ways that the investor meetings inverted expectation. After the Playboy meeting, it was clear to Professor Spouse and me that Hugh Hefner was the best investment opportunity. Hefner’s offer came without strings attached to the kind of research Masters and Johnson would next do, and surely this is what they need. By contrast, Bill’s pursuit of Washington University and academic prestige seems vain and short-sighted. Yet, in his argument at the end against Hefner, suddenly he’s right; suddenly, he’s the only one who fully appreciates the delicacy of the work they do. By accepting the offer to allow their prestige to elevate Playboy by comparison, they tacitly approve of a furtive and smarmy view of sexuality, which they wish to avoid. There’s almost humor in this, as the smart, worldly women (Virginia and Betty) are always shown as a contrast to uptight, clueless Bill, and the whole thing is unexpectedly inverted. Of course, the brown paper strategy in the following week’s Undue Influence almost contradicts this. Almost.
Undue Influence is a maddening episode, almost a sit-com in its blatant manipulations of who-what-where. Libby sees the fur, Barton and Margaret see each other, Barton sees Libby, Tessa sees aftershave. Layering these coincidental occurrences one on top of another is just too much. What saves Masters of Sex in episodes like these is twofold: An extraordinary cast, and expertly rendered dialogue. Of the cast, plenty has already been said. The stars are great of course–Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan knock it out of the park week after week. Sheen is amazing in this episode, getting just right the delicate interplay between humor and pathos in his attempt to allow Dale Carnegie to solve all his problems. Beau Bridges and Allison Janey equally deserve Emmys for their work in past seasons, and it is a joy to see them return. But everyone is so good. New guy Josh Charles as the perfume executive is great, bringing grounding and presence to what appears to be gearing up as a complex role.
But the dialogue! I never, ever hear the kind of pat, flat, nobody-says-that phrases that pass for so much of television writing. Every conversation has a clarity, and a personality, that makes it utterly listenable. I so much prefer to watch good actors speak well in awkward situations, instead of mediocre actors speaking inanely in any other situation, even a smart one.
As an historical note: Masters and Johnson really did take funding from a perfume researcher, whose name was Hank Walter. His affair with, and engagement to, Virginia Johnson is what ultimately prompted Bill Masters to divorce Libby and marry Virginia. However, Josh Charles’s character on Masters of Sex is named Dan Lloyd, suggesting that the writers want the freedom to diverge from history. We don’t know what will happen with Lloyd, although an affair with Virginia should be high on the list of anyone’s guesses.