September 28, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
In “Parallax,” the premiere of this season of Masters of Sex, we watched Bill and Virginia fool themselves that they were communicating, even as they came to an agreement than meant different things to each of them. As this troubled season comes to a close, it is perhaps fitting that not too much has changed. Bill sabotages the CBS broadcast because he thinks it will be best for the work, and Virginia sabotages her private life because she thinks the work will be enough to fix it. Each does this without discussing with the other. Each believes what they are doing is putting faith in their partner, investing in their relationship. In fact, they are each setting themselves up for failure, because they still haven’t learned how to listen to each other. They rely on each other, but they are never sure who it is that they are relying on. They lean on each other, but they might as well be leaning on a pole. They never quite realize there’s another human being supporting them. They only see themselves being propped up by an ideal.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is an episode peppered with solid moments, but also rife with pointless digressions and plotlines that lead a total of nowhere. In other words, it is this season in miniature, a flawed, confused, not wholly effective endeavor that still shows hints of greatness lying beneath them. This season of the show chose to dramatize a not particularly eventful period in the Masters and Johnson partnership, and so decided to fictionalize some things (like Frank’s return and Bill’s impotence) and throw a lot of useless subplots at the wall to see what stuck. Not a lot did, and the result has been a wildly uneven, sometimes unintentionally absurd season of television.
Most of this season’s problematic aspects seemed to exist because the show felt it needed characters beyond Bill and Virginia, but never fully figured out how to integrate them into a greater whole. This lead to subplots like Libby’s adventures in racism, Betty’s adventures in marriage, and the whole Cal-o-Metric debacle that never really resonated thematically or from a plot perspective. Instead, they were filler plotlines that felt more like an excuse to keep the actors under contract than like they were motivated by a need to tell a particular story or a thematic point to underline. None of these stories ever worked fully, and the best of them (the dissolution of the Moretti marriage) was just a pale imitation of the Barton and Margaret Scully arc from season one.
It makes sense that Masters of Sex wanted to give a character like Libby something to do, but what, exactly, it was trying to provide her remains frustratingly unclear even now. It went from seemingly demonizing Libby so we’d root for Bill and Virginia to pitying her for how lifeless her marriage has become, and what happened in between was tonally discordant and wholly ineffective, as racial commentary or as character work. Caitlin Fitzgerald has been quite good throughout this season, but there is no through line that is easily attached to Libby this year. A lot of things have happened to her, and they involved race because clearly the show wanted to address the Civil Rights movement, but beyond those things, there’s not a lot of sense I can make of this. A series of things happened, and the show wants to pass this all off as a character arc. It isn’t. Libby was inexplicably racist until she was inexplicably in love with Robert for racially complex reasons the show doesn’t seem that interested in.
The Cal-o-Metric plotline is less central tonight, thankfully, but it also ends on a note that would have been wildly unsuccessful if this had been a one-episode subplot, but feels almost insulting having been drug out all season. Austin is shocked to find that Flo doesn’t find him intellectually rigorous enough to meet her politically connected family, and that’s mostly it. The show appears to think it is cleverly turning the tables by showing that Flo has value Austin never realized, but again, it isn’t. Flo’s “value” doesn’t come from her status as a person at all, but from her connections, and the lesson Austin learns here is so muddled as to be completely inexplicable. Be nice to women you are sexually harassed into sleeping with in case they have politically connected fathers? That’s the most cogent theme I can pull from this mess of a plot line, and I can be reasonably sure that isn’t what the show was going for.
But when “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” focuses on Bill and Virginia, there are still hints of the show that was one of my favorites of last year, the show I would legitimately call great. Virginia’s custody struggle, and the tough decisions she makes in an attempt to pull a long con on her ex-husband, is fascinating to watch, and Lizzie Caplan is flat-out phenomenal in this episode, as she comes apart at the seams when she discovers her plan is not going to succeed. The show does a great job, like it did in “Parallax,” of dividing this story so that we understand why Bill and Virginia are doing what they are doing, even as it is revealed that they are at unknowing odds in their agendas once again.
Bill and Virginia aren’t in a functional relationship by any stretch, but they need each other, they cling to each other in ways that cannot be denied. They have become co-dependent, even if that dependency isn’t earned by a real world trust and openness. These two have never really learned to communicate with anything but their bodies, and so they are left with their conceptions of each other as facsimiles of the real person to whom they hitch their wagons. Bill loves the idea of Virginia, and Virginia loves the idea of Bill. Their ideas dance closer and closer to reality, but as this episode makes clear, they aren’t there quite yet.
Unfortunately, that’s not particularly uncommon. In fact, it is mostly how love works. The first season of Masters of Sex was much more explicitly about how we can never know the people in our lives as fully as we might like, but this season has circled back to that idea once again. The best we can hope for is that our conception of the people we love is asymptotically close to the reality, when in fact, it is almost certainly not. You probably don’t know the person you love as well as you think. You may not know them at all. The best you can hope for, the best we can all strive for, is to know the people we love better, to work to understand them not as pillars that can support us in times of need, but as actual human beings with their own wants and needs, their own hopes and fears, that they will not and maybe cannot ever fully share.
At the end of this season, we are left with one masterful episode (“Fight”), a few more intermittently successful ones, and several deeply messy hours that lost sight of what this show does well and why. Season one of Masters of Sex was great television. Season two was a mess that became so muddled, the greatness often got lost in the noise that was created around it. The show hasn’t sunk itself, not by a long shot, but it has wandered pretty far off course, to the point where the end of this season had very little effect on me at all. I will still look forward to season three of the show, when we will be entering another productive period for the partnership and hopefully the show will have learned from its myriad mistakes this season. But for now, we have before us a season with fundamentally the same problem as its central characters: a variety of different agendas and intentions, and almost no ability to communicate those to the audience.
- “You dabble in chemistry?” “In another life. A life where I thought there was order to the universe. Now I know better. Now I get contracts signed.”
- “All the symptoms of a heart attack.” “Yes, but here we’re talking about sex.” “Could’ve fooled me.”
- “Let me remind you, I went to medical school. I am also a Doctor.” “One does tend to lead to the other.”
- “Austin, please. Women pay a lot of money for that color in a hair salon.”
- “I never meant to hurt Virginia.” “No. You never do.”
- Thank you all for sticking with me throughout this season. Hopefully the next will be more consistently successful.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is an episode peppered with solid moments, but also rife with pointless digressions and plotlines that lead a total of nowhere.