13/20/13, 10:00PM, SHO
So far, Masters of Sex has been on a bit of a slow burn, revealing its buttoned down characters in increments while it pushes its plot forward as forcefully as possible. “Thank You For Coming” is a step back, plot wise, and as a result it is probably the strongest episode since the pilot. By focusing more on the characters these events are happening to than on the events the previous two episodes have centered on, the show recaptures some of that early magic as it delves further into the pasts of Masters and Johnson.
The arc of Bill Masters’ evolution is, at this point, a slow examination of the various ways he has been broken by his life, the ways he has been torn apart and has in some sense failed to ever recover from. There are scars at his core that just won’t heal, and they have dictated not just his professional choices, but his personal decisions. He has woven himself a safety net by picking the perfect wife and becoming a respectable doctor, yet he yearns to break free. It isn’t just his study that he thinks will provide him the catharsis he searches for, though. He is also looking to Virginia to be the salve on his wounds.
This actually makes the story of Ethan Haas, who is easily my least favorite character at this point (and, I think, intentionally so) all the more relevant to the long term game the show is playing. When Ethan met Virginia, he thought she would be the perfect match to fill out his perfect life. He looked at her not as a woman but as a particularly attractive accessory; he desired her not for her self, but for what she might say to others about him. There is a long history, in pop culture and in real life, of men looking to women to save them, to complete them, to fix their problems and enrich their lives. In this equation, the woman is little more than an ‘x’ factor. This outlook deprives the woman of not just agency, but of the ability to have her own wants, needs, and desires. Beyond the inherent sexism of the outlook, it avoids something that is true about relationships from either perspective: no one can truly save another person. No one can erase your problems but you. Bill hasn’t learned that yet. Ethan hasn’t learned that yet. Virginia, though, has learned that lesson far too many times, and it is what makes her the glue that holds Masters of Sex together.
“Thank You For Coming” is more focused on Bill than on Virginia, yet her presence suffuses every aspect of the episode. Attraction to her drives the actions of Bill, Ethan, and her ex-husband George tonight. Her children provide the impetus for Bill’s fears about childhood. A chance for a window into her sexuality forces him into an obsessive fervor. This is not an episode about Virginia, but it is an episode about “Virginia,” about the idea of her in the heads of the men around her and the way they use her without her consent or her knowledge to paper over their own flaws. They idealize her as the woman who could make right all of their many wrongs. They turn her into something she could never be, and would never want to be either. As George tells us in voice over, as we watch the very real Virginia sitting at a bus stop, “This woman…is magic.” She isn’t, though, because none of us are. It’s just that all of the boys around her are stumbling on their way toward discovering that fact.
This is sort of undermined and sort of reaffirmed in Ethan’s faltering first steps toward a relationship with Vivian Scully. She views Ethan as the cure-all for her previous insecurities, and when he stops viewing her as just another body to throw between himself and his feelings for Virginia, he starts to see more clearly that there is a person on the other side of all of his sexual encounters. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Ethan’s problematic treatment of women, but I do think, for the first time tonight, there’s some potential forward movement by one of our male characters towards appreciating a woman as something more than a solution to his problems.
This all comes back to the relationship between Masters and Johnson, which the show is starting to develop in a potentially fascinating direction. Bill Masters is obsessed with Virginia Johnson, to be sure, but he is also, at this point, largely obsessed with solving the riddle of why he is obsessed with her. He hopes to untangle more than just the physiology of sexual response. He wants to understand the human impetus to desire, and his furtive listens to the interview with George are a new version of his suggestion, a few episodes back, that he and Virginia should engage in the study with each other. Part of Bill Masters is certainly infatuated with Virginia Johnson. But part of him also wants to try to understand what that means by studying it from the inside, and this is both unhealthy and completely understandable. To understand desire, we must understand ourselves. True self-knowledge is a difficult and elusive goal, however. So for now, our characters (or at least, our male characters) are looking hopelessly, fruitlessly outside of themselves, searching for anyone who can heal the pain they hold inside. They turn their efforts outward desperately because they fear what they’ll find if left to search inside themselves.
- That was “Where Does This Door Go?” by Mayer Hawthorne closing out the episode, another great example of the show using anachronistic music to excellent effect.
- “I am not paying you to babysit your own children, George Johnson!” “It’s win-win!”
- “Velma. It’s Velma. With a ‘v’.” “I meant to call.” “And I meant to put that on your plate.”
- “Do you give shots?” “Well, yeah, sometimes.” “I don’t like you. I don’t like him.” “She’s an incredibly perceptive child.”
- “I was made to wear those knickers until I was fourteen. Fourteen.”
- “Did you know you were good at it? Before you had them?” “I don’t know that I am good at it.”
- “It’s better late than never, son.” “Is it?”
- -“You looked so handsome in black and white.” I love the way this loops back to Ethan’s earlier comment, “Once you’ve seen Oz, who wants to go back to Kansas?” Beautiful symmetry to that.
- “Women look back, but men. They just look straight ahead. Disappointment and regret. That’s where we live. But men? They run from it.” “Toward what?” “Well, I guess toward the best distraction they can find.” “Which is?” “Toward pleasure.”