10/6/13, 9PM, SHO
In its early going, Masters of Sex can feel just a bit too programmatic, like a prestige biopic vying for heaps of Oscars, more concerned with checking off the necessary boxes than with coloring them in all the way. The show has several advantages over the standard film about historical figures, though. For one thing, it has time. While most movies run around two hours, Masters of Sex is already nearing that and just getting started. It can take its time filling out its world and filling in its characters, because it has the time to spend. It has also shown, in its two episodes, that it is willing to use that time to its advantage. Though the show has been racing through developments in its plot, it never does so without taking the moments it needs to linger on its characters. It is meticulous in its approach to characterization, tonight giving us several glimpses into Virginia’s head (and one into Bill’s) that explain her largest conflict and get to the heart of her character without beating us over the head. Masters of Sex may not be one of the best shows on television two episodes in, but its certainly on its way.
In “Race to Space,” everyone is making sacrifices. A leak means that Scully has heard about Bill using couples in his study, and he shuts it down. Undeterred, Masters turns to Betty and strikes several deals to ensure he can continue his study in the brothel. To do so, he has to give up some of the control he dearly loves, becoming beholden to Betty’s whims and, by episode’s end, to Virginia as well. In terms of the larger historical narrative Masters of Sex is weaving, the move to the brothel, the time Masters spends in a jail cell, and his decision to continue even in the wake of potential scandal and career suicide form the core of the episode.
This isn’t what makes “Race to Space” great, though. What does is the way the episode focuses on several different women and, more subtly, on the struggles inherent to being a woman. Last week, I talked about the way Masters of Sex needs to lay some ground work on the rules of the game before it can really cut loose and be the show it is clearly building towards. This is an episode that manages to do a lot of heavy lifting in that department, but combines it with excellent character work throughout.
Virginia is put in a terrible position by Bill’s “suggestion” that she take part in the study. Even if he didn’t mean to manipulate her (and the episode gives us plenty of reason to think that he did), he has forced her to either have sex with him or risk her job. As she runs through various possible conversations, her options seem very small and the stakes rise considerably. In order to get what she wants, she may have to do something she doesn’t. When Bill fires her, it isn’t because of her reticence to put herself in a terrible position, but his reasons aren’t much better. He fires her for being “unprofessional” by sleeping with Haas, and theoretically compromising the study. In large part, he fires her for being exactly what he needs for his study to succeed, and while he’d never admit it, by episode’s end, she has convinced him that he needs her.
Her struggles are hardly limited to the professional sphere, though. Her son is suspended from school, with everyone from his teacher to her babysitter implying she’s an unfit mother and to blame for his outburst. The kid clearly just needs attention though, escaping into the comics that give the episode its title, stories of a boy escaping loneliness for a life of adventure. While Virginia is forced to contemplate serious professional sacrifices this week, it’s clear that she would do so without blinking, because what truly matters to her is her ability to provide for her children. Yet that, too, comes with sacrifices, tearing her away from the only people she even thinks she is capable of loving. She may be able to keep food on the table, but her son reads the final issue of Race To Space with the babysitter.
Libby too is making sacrifices, both repressing her judgment of her husband’s work and contemplating the things that work might say about him, and about the ways she might need to change to please him. Her character was the weakest in the pilot, but “Race To Space” goes a long way toward giving her some much-needed depth. She doesn’t understand her husband, not really, but she is trying. She has started to sense emptiness in the man she shares a bedroom (but not a bed) with, and has yet to determine exactly how to react. She tries to give Bill what she thinks he wants, letting him watch her, but he can’t give in. Bill Masters is far more broken than we have yet to discover, I think, but Libby is starting to find out along with us. He has cast the blame for their infertility on her, and it is becoming clear he has cast a lot else on her as well. The Masters marriage is in one sense an incredibly conventional one, in large part because both parties seem to think that is what marriage requires of them. They seem to think that is what love is, and though Libby is trying to break free of the strictures and truly connect with her husband, Bill can’t let himself out of the box. In his work, he studies that which is taboo, but at home, he is the very model of a conventional husband. He is dutiful to a fault, but there’s little sense of humanity in the way he treats his wife, and this is slowly dawning on her.
And then there’s Betty, who seems to gain an upper hand, using her leverage over Masters to get a job at the hospital, only to reveal that her longer game is to sacrifice everything for a shot at normalcy. It is obvious Betty has not had an easy life, but she sees a shot at a better one and grabs at it with all she’s got. She meets a nice, rich man (at Church!) who wants to marry her and have a bunch of kids, and she looks to get her tubes untied and leave her lover Helen in the lurch, because life on the other side of the tracks looks brighter to her, and because she, too, hopes to find in children what she has not seen in the rest of humanity. Betty has not been presented with an excess of options, so when she sees one, she is willing to sacrifice everything to seize the opportunity.
“Race To Space” still occasionally feels like early Mad Men in the way it shapes its world and its characters, but there are much worse points of comparison for a series in its early going. In its second episode, the show has proven itself adept at fleshing out virtually all of its major characters, and not shying away from their weaknesses. Bill Masters is, at best, a little bit of a bastard, and Ethan Haas grows more repugnant by the minute. Betty is in a tough position, but isn’t beyond outright blackmail to get what she wants, and Virginia is happy to engage in deception if it will keep her job. The show needs to shake off the burdens of establishing the story, the stakes, and the world, but once it digs in deeper, I expect it will become something truly excellent. For now, Masters of Sex is just consistently very good, a smart, quotable, incisive show about people shaped by their circumstances and struggling to break free. Their journeys won’t be without sacrifice, but they are each fighting, in their own ways and with varying levels of success, for a better life. It’s a fight worth watching. It’s a fight worth being in.
- -“You defied me.”
- -“Maybe, in some way, its romantic. The two of us making a baby together through science.” “We’ll start with a vaginal swab, in preparation for a saline douche. Just like an evening of dinner and dancing.”
- -“A back door man. I’m not surprised.”
- -“If this is about us in the study together…then we can sort it out.”
- -“You know what I do for my children? I shift my schedule to be with them.”
- -“You’re not gonna climb up here with me?” “I am not.”
- -“But isn’t the normal way to just, you know…put it in me?” “We will. We’re playing first.” “But mother said never to put anything in your mouth unless you know where it’s been.” “Well this has been there since birth.”
- -“I can drive, if you want.” “No thanks. I would prefer control of the car in case I decide to veer your side into a tree.”
- -“People were having sex in front of you.” “Well not the prostitutes. The prostitutes only masturbate in front of me.”
- -“We can still continue the study. Just the two of us.”
- -“That’s not how you bargain.” “I’m not bargaining.” “See, this is your problem. You put on a suit of armor to attack a plate of whipped cream!”
- -“Men get to yell in here for one reason and one reason only.”
- -“I guess I’m asking if you like to watch. Because if you do, you can watch me.” “Don’t. Don’t. I love you too much. You don’t have to do this.”
[notification type=”star”]79/100 ~ GOOD. Masters of Sex may not be one of the best shows on television two episodes in, but its certainly on its way. [/notification]