July 26, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
“The Excitement of Release” elegantly weaves several subplots about the effects and potential effects of Human Sexual Response underneath its story of Bill and Virginia struggling to figure out how to finance their work so that the research might become self-sustaining. It’s an episode that does a lot of table-setting, but with enough tact and subtlety to effectively establish or advance several ongoing subplots. Whether the book is promising social evolution of the sort someone like Barton will eventually benefit from, providing cover to a rapist as it does in the lead up to and the wake of Tessa’s assault, or simply allowing couples to communicate more equally, as it does in Lester and Jane’s marriage, the build up of the last two seasons is finally coming to fruition here, as Masters and Johnson begin to usher in a new age the world may not be ready for.
While all of this is going on in the background, Bill decides the book should become a medical textbook, while Virginia and Betty start to woo potential investors. As per usual, Bill is high-minded and short-tempered enough to piss off the Provost at Washington U, while Virginia is charming enough to woo Hugh Hefner and perfume magnate Dan Logan (Josh Charles) into offering to support the study. The mechanics of getting the work at the center of the show funded is a well this series returns to again and again, providing as it does a source of tension between Masters’ ideals and the practical reality of doing dirty work in a world still clinging to puritanical notions of cleanliness. Bill wants to be seen as worthy of respect; he wants to be wanted, not just by Virginia, but by the medical community as a whole. But while even his enemies seem to acknowledge how revolutionary his work is, not everyone is picking up banners to support the cause yet, and Bill finds those that are less than enthralling. Of course Bill would balk at letting Hugh Hefner support the study, and of course it makes sense to let him do so (Hefner did eventually begin funding Masters and Johnson’s work). We don’t learn anything particularly new about Bill or Virginia here tonight, but “The Excitement of Release” underlines how hard it is for them to be themselves in both their professional and personal lives.
Season three is shaping up to be a strong narrative about women primed to thrive outside the home in a world that isn’t always sure it wants them there. Virginia has long struggled with the fact that she cares far more about her work than her family, Libby is constantly confronting the limitations of life as a housewife, and now Jane is taking work reading the office’s hate mail because she is too smart to be limited to just being a mother. Masters of Sex never comes close to condemning the women who decide (or are forced through lack of options) to stay home, but it also brazenly confronts the idea that for many women, the role of housewife is constricting. This is hardly a revolutionary idea in 2015 (though it probably continues to be more of one than it should be), but that the show so straightforwardly confronts the way society tries to thwart the ambitions of women is still impressive and exciting.
It’s just one way that Masters of Sex is more progressive than the story it is adapting, even though it is hard not to welcome changes that burgeon (or, at least, make more blatantly textual) the feminist narrative of a trailblazer like Virginia Johnson or soften the bigoted edges off of Bill Masters (who would have been far less welcoming to the real-life analogue of Barton Scully, seeing as Masters later ran a clinic to “cure” homosexuality). This season finds the show deviating more than ever before from reality, with the fabricated storylines for the children and more prominent side steps from reality or tweaks to the timeline, but these changes are mostly serving the narrative in positive ways. The Tessa material has not been the strongest part of this season so far, but her subplot tonight was heartbreaking and horrifying in exactly the right measures, Isabelle Fuhrman is fantastic this week at playing Tessa’s coy flirtation and the way it curdles into fear and then resignation as she endures an assault she can’t talk about with anyone in her life. Tessa’s emotional isolation has frequently played out like any number of other ham-handed teen angst subplots in prestige dramas, but in “The Excitement of Release,” the consequences of her strained relationship with her mother are made startlingly, tragically clear. At times, the episode feels a little overcrowded, as table-setting episodes are wont to do, but the way it swerves between subplots without leaving anyone underserved is keeping me optimistic that this season will be more coherent overall than its immediate predecessor. If nothing else, “The Excitement of Release” gives the women of Masters of Sex plenty to do, and while that hasn’t always been the case on this show, it’s a welcome change of pace.
- “This is a preposterous conversation, and I’m hungry.”
- “I’ve come to tell you that Hell is a real place.” “No worse than St. Louis in August.”
- “What is the smell of sex, and how do we get it in a bottle?”
- “Come where you’re wanted, Barton. Where you’re respected.”
“The Excitement of Release” elegantly weaves several subplots about the effects and potential effects of Human Sexual Response underneath its story of Bill and Virginia struggling to figure out how to finance their work so that the research might become self-sustaining.