Masters of Sex: Party of Four and Full Ten Count

 Posted by on September 28, 2015 at 12:00 am  Masters of Sex
Sep 282015
Masters of Sex, "Full Ten Count", Betty

© Sony Pictures Television Inc. and Showtime Networks Inc.

Throughout Full Ten Count, the season finale of Masters of Sex, there were masterful (see what I did there?) speeches. Excellent dialogue, excellent monologues, powerful moments. Stunning scene after stunning scene. The problem is, each of those scenes could serve as a denouement, each could have been the final scene of the season. Bill confessing his affair. Libby saying “stay in jail”. The Little Brown rep threatening Betty. Dan putting the ring on Virginia’s finger. Each of these, and several others besides, had a knock-the-air-out-of-you quality. Each was a powerful summation of how the season and the series has lead to this moment. And each was wordy as hell.

By the end, I was exhausted. By the end, like Bill Masters, I’d been knocked out one too many times and just wanted to stay down. But for an audience member, that’s less than desirable.

Season 3 of Masters of Sex spent a lot of time spinning its wheels. It ran amok with Henry and Tessa. It wandered off into the land of Libby and Football Guy. For seven of its twelve episodes, it seemed mostly to be wasting time. And then the pace began to pick up. Once the ill-conceived Monkey Business (the 7th episode of the season) led us down the rabbit hole of gorilla love, the season picked up. But the past three weeks especially, it’s been hard to catch one’s breath.

Virginia actually mentions this in Full Ten Count–she wants to breath.

Not surprising. Lizzy Caplan’s performance in this episode and Party of Four is full of gasps for air. Her mouth opens and then closes. She tries to speak and does not. She stammers slightly. Often, Virginia seems to be suffocating. I wonder if Caplan had been given the “breath” speech from the finale several episodes in advance, because all of those little gasps the past two or three weeks begin to look like foreshadowing.

If we go back to Party of Four, we find an absolutely incredible dialogue between Dan Logan (Josh Charles) and Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) that spells out their competition, and Masters’ chess-like play for Virginia’s love and loyalty. It really was a remarkable scene, but it was followed by another remarkable scene, an extended dialogue between Virginia and Alice Logan. Again, this was just too much: Too much intensity, too much of Virginia gasping for air, too much insightful dialogue, too much of making the whole season happen in the last three episodes.

Obviously, any television series builds over a seasons, starts slow, slaps you across the face in the penultimate episode, drops all the loose ends and their inevitable results into your lap in the finale. We’re Mad Men fans, we know this. But am I wrong to find this too much, too frantic, perhaps even compensatory? Mad Men knows how to appreciate silences. Even Annaleigh Ashford’s Betty, always wonderful, always just the right touch of comedy, is in these episodes mostly running–running cover, running back and forth between Masters and Johnson, running between offices. It’s all so breathless.

For those wondering about the historical record, Bill Masters divorced his wife and married Virginia in 1971, after she became engaged to a perfume manufacturer.

The history makes such a jumble of what we watch at this point. We know the second book, Human Sexual Inadequacy, is published in 1970. We know the clinic remains open, and that Masters is not jailed. So these fictionalizations, that diverge from, and then merge with, and then diverge again from history serve to muddy the waters. They don’t tell us what we can expect, but they are supposed to lend gravitas? I guess?

Emily Kinney as Nora has earned my praise in almost every episode she’s been in. She has wonderful presence. Here, though, she is SO good as the Nora we think we know that I had a hard time accepting the turn to the Nora she really is. I expected some of the previous character work to have been an act; I expected a different face. Maybe that’s me.

Finally, Beau Bridges as Barton Scully. Let me assure you, Basketcases, I love a gay happy ending. Love. But didn’t we last see these two very much on the outs? Didn’t we last see Scully ashamed to be in public with The Gays? And now they’re holding hands? I call shenanigans.

There is much to love about Masters of Sex, including the many exquisite performances, the deft mix of comedy and drama, and the beauty of the production. I will certainly be back for Season 4, and I hope you Basketcases will join me here then.


  3 Responses to “Masters of Sex: Party of Four and Full Ten Count”

  1. I found this season very frustrating. There was no hit-you-in-the-gut storyline like Margaret Scully’s in the first season or Lillian DePaul’s in the second. There were endless wheel-spinners like Ginni and Libby’s relationships with other guys, which ultimately go nowhere, especially Ginni’s… since we know that she’ll be marrying Bill in a couple of years. Don’t even get me started on the dead ends of Tessa and Johnny’s plots. And the period details and (especially) dialog remain very sloppy.

    BUT… the acting on the show is absolutely stellar. Sheen somehow makes Bill interesting and occasionally even sympathetic. Caplan is a joy to watch, even when most of this season consisted of her doing her deer-in-the-headlights look as all hell kept breaking loose around her. Fitzgerald, in a badly conceived and underwritten fifties housewife role that makes Betty Draper look like Shakespeare, is somehow outstanding. (Her sequence in the police station with Bill was my absolute favorite scene in the finale, followed closely by her subsequent scene with Johnny. Give this woman better material and she’s amazing!) Ashford is rock-solid as Betty, and Bridges is great as Barton. I found the guest cast mostly hit and miss.

    I think the series has mostly squandered its chance to use its take on history to reveal the past expertly a la Mad Men, and settled for melodramatic soap opera plotting. There seems to be no interest in “the work” anymore, just more manipulative wheel-spinning. (E.g., the whole race-to-stop-Virginia-leaving-and-present-a-united-front-at-the-book-press-conference that took up the last act, which kept ratcheting up the tension… before ultimately collapsing under impossibility. It’s not that failure can’t be made dramatically satisfying… but you wouldn’t know it from this mess.)

    So I’ll be staying with it next season for the acting… not the plotting, writing, or the astute changing-times observations I keep hoping for.

  2. I agree that there was an extraordinary sequence of powerful scenes in these last few episodes. I thought the finale might show Logan’s formal proposal and end “ambiguously” with Master’s in turmoil as one of two possible endings. And I was right that Nora was an agent of the lobby fanatic. I will miss Alice Logan — the most sympathetic character this season.
    Unless the time frame contracts or the lives of these two fictional characters who share the names of William Masters and Virginia Johnson diverge wildly from those of the real ones, their marriage should be the theme of the next season.

  3. It would be interesting if someone would do a limited-run series, perhaps based on the book “Masters of Sex”, dramatizing the *real* lives and work of William Masters and Virginia Johnson — particularly since nothing of the kind has been done before.

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