Masters of Sex: Mirror, Mirror

"Our new mission here is not simply to observe. It's also to heal."

Well, sure. Seems reasonable that in navigating the whirlpool of sexuality, it wouldn't be long before Masters and Johnson were confronted with a litany of complex psychological issues that come with being human.

Even though, at one point, Virginia is hawking their study to a potential board member that they need, therefore trying to soften the sex part of 'sex study', she says so herself, "our study isn't really about sex at all," because it's not. The two did come to form an institute that was as much as a center for research as it was for treatment of issues relating to sexual function. Okay, so it was time to usher in some of those origins. It was a little bumpy but based on the subject matter, how could it not be.

The universe is full of coincidences.

Lovely that in an episode called ‘Mirror, Mirror’ we are offered a philosophical incongruity. If you wind back any one storyline here, you have two belief systems from which to choose: there is no order in the universe or there is order we assign to our lives by use of highly personal and subjective interpretation. There’s much to turn over in this episode, maybe too much, in respect to the tape loop in peoples’ minds, the weight our psyche carries on our most basic functioning, how our belief systems are formed and how much control we, in reality, have over any of this. And the Masters of Sex writers have a point of view but never judge their characters. How many coincidences had to come together for Libby to witness the hate crime in front of Bill's office? What circumstances formed the story that gave way to Bill becoming estranged from his brother, Frank (played by the charismatic Christian Borle)? What occurrences could be strung together into the narrative of the day Bill Masters first met Virginia Johnson, for that matter? It makes perfect sense that when working with historical material, the writers would have moments of pause to wonder, how did all this come to be and how is that interesting.

But here, in this lab, what you do every day, it's all brand-new.

That’s true of this show, too, which really is trying to evolve the conversation. Ashford and company are confident enough not to mention brave to portray women and men in different ways than we are used to seeing them. This extends beyond gender difference, too. (Though personally, I feel this is where their greatest talents lie.) I think that’s what Lester’s speech about Hollywood telling the same stories again and again was all about. Masters of Sex, through sheer will, means to engage people in a colloquy that subverts our familiarity with heroes and villains, may both the gratuitous and the ho-hum be damned. Libby's story this season is an interesting example of this. We are watching a woman realize both how little she understands yet how much she participates in a major human injustice which she has felt until now largely sheltered from. While her treatment of Coral was utterly horrific to watch, her lack of true awareness about the casual destruction of another person's worth is at least in some part beginning to dawn on her. She is recognizing how she's glommed onto some societal construction of a class and race hierarchy without a second thought, as so many had and have. As a native of St. Louis, I cannot imagine a better place to have a revelation certainly about class than the archaic and very elitist Veiled Profit Ball which is frankly much more misogynistic, as well, than depicted in 'Mirror, Mirror'.

I want my brother back.

Watching this episode the second time I saw a much more nuanced viewpoint of Bill and Frank’s familial relationship (though I still couldn’t figure out what Pauline, Frank’s wife, knows) which wasn't explicitly revealed until the final moments of 'Mirror, Mirror'. The effect of their dad triggered Frank’s alcoholic gene at some point as it's set off numerous maladapted coping skills in Bill, too. College was their sweet spot away from the neglect and violence of their family of origin. They were both driven to success in the medical field -- a profession where the agency frequently lies more with the doctor than the patient. Hey, they both even have low sperm count. Bill’s intolerance for closeness likely pulled them apart. And Bill's need to keep his brother a secret even while treating him and Pauline was fascinating since his version of shame is very specific. (It had the whole office talking and by that I mean Betty and Virginia.) So why now is it important for Bill to look in the mirror -- or was his brother showing up as his study is beginning to shift and deepen with a therapeutic patina just a coincidence?

Bits and Pieces

*This episode had a different title when the season first started. It took its name from the Dickens quote that Frank referenced. There are a lot of reasons to change an episode title but it gets less and less common to do so once the episode list has gone to press and the season has begun airing. The fact that the episode didn’t have the show’s usual smoothness or flow coupled with the title change probably had something to do with last-minute script issues once production of the season started.

*I cheered out loud when Sam Duncan, respectable police chief joined/formed the Masters and Johnson board!

*Bill was at one time an avid fan of literature, a romantic even -- quoting Dickens and submersing himself in other peoples' stories.

*I thought Bill's sensitivity to Lester, the death of his father and his admission of impotence by way of a lack of just general initiative was very sweet. Especially when he invited him to be in front of the camera to talk about why and how he was contributing to the study.


Frank: “Obstetrician, plastic surgeon. Two of Rochester medical school's alumni made good.”

Virginia: “Well, if they're brave enough to come in, we should at least keep a record of that bravery, don't you think?”

Flo: “You've been a very naughty orthopedist, Dr. Langham.”

Libby: “Well, you'll come with me and Bill. We'll go as a triumvirate.”

Bill: “Well, we're in the volume business. I suppose it makes the most sense to start where we can make the most difference. Male impotence it is.”

Flo: “Look, I'd love to help you out, Lib. Can I call you Lib?”

Betty: “And the man does like to keep his secrets.”

Bill: “…nature doesn't always have to have the last word.”

Bill: “Whatever demons this man was battling with, clearly, they were considerable. They can't harm him anymore, can they?”

Lester: “Should we take a break?”
Bill: “Uh, let's, uh, keep rolling, actually. Take a seat. I realized that, uh, after all this time of you filming us, you haven't had a chance to discuss your own role in the study.”

Bill: "In your work, what would you say has been your most important inspiration?"
Lester: "The study. I mean, in Hollywood and I know because I've been there, they just churn out the same old stories. The western about the outlaw with a heart of gold or the monster movie about the scientist that no one will listen to until it's too late..."


ChrisB said...

Well, that was a reveal I didn't see coming. I thought for sure it was going to turn out that Bill and Frank had been lovers. This twist was even better.

This episode did a stupendous job of showing the mind/body connection. Barbara's story was simply heartbreaking. How sad that she would carry so much shame and guilt that she would choose a life without sex rather than talk about it to a man. Again, heartbreaking.

Heather said...

I know. There's so much about humanity on MoS that strikes me as heartbreaking and much of it I have never seen before on TV, or at least seen it treated with so much depth, kindness and compassion. That might be my favorite aspect of the show.