10/13/13, 10PM, SHO
Since its excellent pilot, Masters of Sex has become increasingly concerned with moving its plot. This makes some sense, as there is a lot of table setting the show needs to do in order to acclimate us to the characters and the culture, but it also means something has been lost in these two episodes since the show’s debut hour. The pilot had a keen sense of its two main characters, and a smart focus on their outlooks and their struggles. More than any episode to this point, “Standard Deviation” is a place setting episode, where things need to happen. It lacks the sense of character of the pilot, and doesn’t linger long enough on the effects of its plot the way “Race to Space” did.
The strongest element of this episode, at least conceptually, is the flashback sequences, which show us a young, idealistic Masters yet to be beaten into his repressed, pseudo-conservative corner. They contrast nicely with the Masters we meet today, but “Standard Deviation” never effectively bridges the gap between these two. We learn that Scully told Masters he would have to become respectable before he could study human sexuality, and we see the ways that advice has reverberated throughout Masters’ life, but we never get a strong idea of why, exactly, being forced to hide in plain sight has so thoroughly hollowed Masters out. The episode feints toward making the apt connection between Masters and the homosexual study participants he initially rejects, but the way he blackmails Scully at the episode’s end shows this is a lesson he has not fully learned. Perhaps Bill Masters has become too good at hiding in plain sight and lost himself along the way. If so, I hope future weeks deal with this more in-depth, because here it feels like a solid analogy the episode never fully commits to.
The full weight of what he has sacrificed becomes obvious in the episode’s final moments, as he reacts in shock rather than joy at Libby’s announcement that she is pregnant. The Masters household is about to grow larger, and this in the same evening that Bill has forced his world to shrink even further, alienating Scully to ensure the survival of his study. Though the show has yet to come out and say it, it is at least implied this evening that Bill married Libby as part of his campaign for respectability, which means it is possible he has alienated the only person in his life who truly understands what he has gone through for his passion, the only person who has had to hide like he has.
What is sublimated now, what has changed about Masters between the flashbacks and the present, is his desire. He was openly passionate as he watched the rabbits copulating; now, he is far too officious and removed to ever show his excitement or his wants. This doesn’t mean, of course, he has no wants, just that he has gotten so good at masking them it is hard to ever reveal them, even to himself. This is probably why Betty understands Masters better than just about anyone. She has made a career out of profiting from the sublimated desires of others and, whether she’d admit it or not, she is doing exactly the same thing to Masters right now.
The largest problem with “Standard Deviation” is that it doesn’t take the time to delve into these various emotional avenues and explore the way they have and continue to form Masters as a doctor and as a man. Where “Race to Space” spent a lot of time trying to get into the head of Virginia Johnson, “Standard Deviation” feigns toward a similar goal but gets too caught up in its plot. This is the episode that moves the study back inside the hospital. Other than that, everything it accomplishes feels slight, blunted by the way the show zips by some potentially meaningful interactions. Masters has much in common with the gay men he is prepared to study, but this escapes him. He also has more in common with Scully than he has ever known, but he uses this knowledge as a spear instead of as an olive leaf. This episode reminds us that Bill Masters is a bit of a bastard, but it never convincingly explains why that is, or why he lacks sympathy for those he should inherently relate to. “Standard Deviation” throws a lot of fascinating ideas out on the table, and then proceeds to play with the cardboard box from which they came. It’s fine, for now, but there’s a lot of colorful material out there I hope the show gets to soon.
- Ethan deals with quadruplets this week. Except, then, he doesn’t. If the show is trying to make him an ineffectual antagonist, it is sort of working. If it wants him to be relatable, I hope there is more to him than mustache twirling.