The work of Masters and Johnson, and everyone connected to them, is displaced in the season opener 'Parallax'. Luckily, Virginia and Bill have no problem dancing around each other, as ever, as the show begins to intuit what it's really good at: its inquiry into the paradigms of power struggles, particularly ones of a sexual nature.
In one season, Masters of Sex has become the prestige project Showtime has always longed for. It’s masterful in its writing and acting like nothing the cable network has had the good fortune to host before. It’s almost impossible not to hang off every word, look and expression of body language that Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplan exchange in a room together as the dynamic couple. Michelle Ashford has taken her inspiration from Shampoo and her know-how from Dark Angel and 21 Jumpstreet to create a world that looks on the surface crisp and ordered but underneath is just so elegantly fucked up.
At its core, Masters of Sex makes me want to sing Sade songs. For one, the show's portrayal of the female psyche is endlessly interesting. Add to that Virginia and Bill are tangled in the best kind of love with the worst possible circumstances. Throw in two peoples' motivations to earnestly understand the complexities to the human body's response to sex and you have a premise that, like Masters and Johnson themselves, stands apart from its contemporaries. A side note: when people refer to it as "the sexy Mad Men" they are selling the show frustratingly short. (Oh, marketing.) The Masters of Sex depiction of the human mind and spirit could only be insinuated, maintained and evolved by a female-run writers' room. This is the show that runs head first into conflict with boundless love and kindness, unmoved by typical binary gender concepts (a huge undertaking considering the era it's set in), devotedly committed to uncovering the ways humanity is exquisitely fragile. After all, this is a show that brazenly anchors its first episode of the second season with a scene so knotty, it's as emotionally impenetrable as it is riveting.
One study. Like a nuclear rain falling on us all.
The wreckage from the study's presentation has reached far and wide. Like some troublemaker apparition, it remains at the hospital where Bill was fired from, channeled through Jane, Austin and Virginia. Jane is moving to L.A. to pursue her relationship with Lester and her silver screen dreams (read: get far away from her participation in the research). Austin has vowed to correct his adulterous ways (again), perhaps in an effort to reconcile his contribution to something seen as so spurious and illicit. Even Libby’s pediatrician toes the shame party line when he compares Bill to an infamous serial killer. But no one feels it more than Virginia. She's forced to either fend off the male doctors (even in the ladies' bathroom) or ignore her sanctimonious female peers. She perceives her reputation as so sullied, she almost squanders an opportunity to share her knowledge in a well-funded study with a respected doctor willing to meet her on her terms. It's a smart move that the show makes the reflection of the opinion of the study fall squarely on her shoulders because she acts as our go-between, an angle by which we view both the burden of all women in 1958 and this woman who is, fascinatingly, a rare being made of staggering self-awareness and deep compassion for the rub of humanity.
There’s only a shred of me left that still feels like a woman. You can’t take that. I won’t let you.
Margaret Scully has a burden on her shoulders, too. What was concealed from her for the majority of her marriage, the fact that her husband Barton is gay, is now making sense of all the emptiness in their substantial house (that's about to become emptier with the departure of their daughter, Vivian), now heavy with heartache of two unhappy trapped people. Barton signs on to ECT with terrible futile results. In a desperate attempt to compel what simply cannot be, he tries to join his wife in bed. A small digression here to say that Allison Janney is everything. Thus, Margaret is so in touch with every possible emotion a labyrinth of this nature would present that the scene executes a perfect dead-stick landing. With no loss of tenderness for Margaret or Barton and their horrid situation inanely crafted by our society. In the family's final moments together in 'Parallax', Margaret, along with Vivian, rescue Barton from a suicide attempt. The two women lift him up to prevent him from suffocating before Margaret cuts him down and they all tumble to the floor in a heap. A family both held together and kept apart by Barton's genetic human sexual response.
You know, the real magic here, like some dark malevolent slight of hand, is that I have now also turned into you.
Any show that has the good sense to cast Allison Janney is clearly operating on a higher level but to cast Ann Dowd (as Estabrooks Masters) in that same show? Well, now they're just showing off. Count seeing Bill filtered through the eyes of his mother as another way the show is understanding its talents. His disdain for his new circumstances (no job, new baby) reach a boiling point when his mom walks in to see that he's listening to loud music to drown out his son's cries. A small digression--I am over the critics' complaint that Bill Masters is too unsympathetic and unlikable to watch. Putting aside one's entitlement to their opinion for a second, the scenes with his mom show a level of damage as deep and wide as the Grand Canyon. So to decide that this character, whose actions are never not motivated by an obvious and massive amount of pain, should be discarded shows a curious lack of dimension. Each time Bill is in the room with Essie he completely melts into some confused teenage version of himself. It's absolutely heart wrenching. More than the uncomfortable element of witnessing a grown man devolve into a trapped animal who only knows how to protect itself by lashing out, is the unexpected reaction of Essie over and over again. She responds to him with so much tenderness (born of that weird mix of mom guilt and unconditional love). It's unlike any familial relationship I've ever seen illustrated. And it's more love than Bill can tolerate, too, because he sends her away, back to her home in Ohio despite all of the evidence of what an asset she is to his life.
You know it is a rare man that can understand how a woman could choose work over love.
For my money, the best scene in 'Parallax' easily belongs to Virginia and Bill in the hotel lobby at the end of the episode. Each of them fights like crazy to gain the upper hand in a situation that only works because no one has the upper hand. The acting is so spectacular I don't think I breathed once, I was afraid I'd miss something. Maybe what makes this interaction so delicious is that it's the origin of Dr. and Mrs. Holden. Maybe it's the way Virginia and Bill can simultaneously convey their desperate desire to be fragile while fiercely clutching a shared illusion of control. But I suspect, what's most charming is watching two characters exchange dialogue as if they're captains of a baseball team holding a bat between them to call dibs, each placing their hand, one on top of the other's, again and again, until one inevitably comes out on top.
Bits and Pieces
*Parallax: the effect whereby the position or direction of an object appears to differ when viewed from different positions, e.g., through the viewfinder and the lens of a camera.
*I'd be remiss to not mention the perfection that is Libby Masters played fantastically by Caitlin Fitzgerald. If her portrayal were a tick to the right or left of what it is, the entire show might not work.
*Margaret's reading material has gone from Peyton Place to Lolita…
*What both Virginia and Bill remembers in their respective flashbacks of that night is so cool. She remembers telling she knows he put her name on the study, the sex and then telling Ethan she can't marry him. He remembers her face when she opened the door, being in her bathroom, taking off his wet clothes then holding onto her in his sadness, the sex (more details than her, for example he remembers holding her arms down) and her telling Ethan on the phone that she belongs here.
*There's equality for you: Right at the half-hour mark we shift to Virginia's perspective of the rainy night.
*I need to mention the welcome return of Greg Gunberg as 'The Pretzel King' AKA Gene Moretti and his beaming bride, Betty. I'm glad to see they'll both be around in the near future.
*Ditto to Julianne Nicholson's Dr. DePaul.
*Finally, Michael Apted directed this episode. He's a highly acclaimed director who they've been very lucky to land now several times.
Austin(to Virginia when she knees a doctor coming onto her in the women's bathroom): “Nice shot.”
Austin: “Jesus. Women are so vicious.”
Austin: “That study. Honest to God. It’s worse than the Mummy’s Curse.”
Virginia: “You’re taking my pulse?”
Bill: “More like flying blind. There’s no instruments. No points on a graph.”
Virginia: “Dr. Holden…”
Virginia(to Libby): “If I were you I’d take care of little milkshake here, right? Most of all, I’d take care of myself. That’s all you can do.”
Barton: “Can I stay here tonight?”
Margaret: “In my bed?”
Hotel clerk: “Mrs. Holden, nice to see you again.”
Libby: “Bill. No one knows more about babies than you do.”
Dr. DePaul(when questioned about her black eye): “Watch out for medicine cabinets.”
Virginia: “Lillian, that’s what everyone says when it’s not a medicine cabinet.”
Virginia: “We could have an affair. Millions of people do. But an affair, it is a fairly pedestrian thing. And the story always ends the same.”
Bill: “Does it?”
Virginia: “What we have between us is so much more than that. More than a simple affair. We have the work.”
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