10/27/13, 10:00PM, SHO
There are silences that are louder than screams. People go through their lives shrouded, separated, by their own boundaries and by the boundaries of others. People yearn for connection, seek desperately to be accepted and understood. Many of our anxieties in life (including, yes, those about sex) are actually worries about being misunderstood or failing to understand. We want to express ourselves. We want those we love to express themselves. We hope our expressions will become something more, will bind us, will tie us together in the darkness and pull us through until dawn. But we fear opening ourselves up, letting ourselves be vulnerable. We fear what might happen if we are completely open and totally honest, and another person recoils in fear, repulsion, or worse, disinterest.
This quest for connection and the various anxieties that stymy it are at the core of Masters of Sex, which constantly lays them bare throughout “Catherine.” Libby is metaphorically and then literally an open wound begging to be dressed, crying out for the love and attention her husband can’t manage to give her. Virginia is giving her all to her children, only to find they are left wanting something she cannot give them. Vivian is so forthright with her wants, she manages to get everything she’s looking for, except, of course, the thing she wants the most. Once again, the show positions its female characters as capable of expressing their wants and needs, their triumphs and disappointments, while its male characters are pinned down and repressed.
None of the men expose their real selves to the women in their lives. Ethan pretends chivalry when his motives are decidedly less on the straight and narrow. Scully pretends deep, abiding love when his interests lie elsewhere. Bill pretends all sorts of things, anything really, to avoid dealing with who he really is and what really haunts him, what has shattered him into pieces he can barely keep track of. When Bill finally breaks down at the episode’s end, it is heart-wrenching but also cathartic. He is finally, blessedly revealing himself, letting himself feel, letting himself be more than a straw man held together with a thin veneer of burlap.
I’m not sure the gender dynamics on Masters of Sex are period appropriate, but I’m also not sure how much that matters to the show’s larger purposes. They do feel a little bit neat right now, as if the show is acting out a more layered and sophisticated version of that hackneyed stand up routine that goes “Women do [INSERT ACTIVITY] like this, but men do it like that!” It isn’t that all of the men or the women feel like they are the same character or have the same outlook, but they are aligned in many ways by their gender, and aligned so that the women represent openness and possibility and the men represent repression and limitations. This is fine, especially for the show in its early going, but it also seems like the opposite of how many women might have experienced the actual 1950s. Should this show last, it will eventually take us through the sexual liberation of the late ‘60s, but a lot of the time, it feels like it is getting there a bit too early. Again, as a modern viewer, I like this and how it is being expressed, I just want to watch the way the show deals with these dynamics going forward. To be a show about sex, it will have to address gender again and again, and to be the great show about sex I expect it to become, its approach will need to be varied, layered, and complicated. For now, the show may be laying some groundwork, but everyone feels a bit pigeonholed, and not in a way that seems to be a point the show is making.
“Catherine” is about loss, but not just the obvious one at its core. Some of its losses are good, some of them are bad, some may be triumphs in the making, others are catastrophes just waiting to metastasize. Bill is losing some of his protective shields, opening up ever so slightly around Virginia until the levies break in the final scene. Vivian loses her virginity and strides confidently into the adult world. Virginia fears she is losing her children; Libby actually does lose her child. Even Bill’s mother is losing her carefully manicured delusions and being forced to open up to the darkness she’s kept out of the corner of her eyes for so long.
Libby loses more than just her child, though. She loses hope. She does her best imitation of a perfect wife and mother, but she’s dancing a tango by herself, trying to form a perfect marriage without any help from her husband. For Libby, the child was more than just a step forward; it was a potential new beginning. She poured all of her hopes and dreams of a better marriage into it, and then Bill cut it out of her. He can’t stand by her side; he can’t be the man she wants and needs him to be, the perfect husband to her perfect wife. And so she is left, repeatedly, alone with a weight that buoyed her until it dragged her down. She screams for companionship, attention, understanding, and her shouts fall on ears that, while not deaf, are completely incapable of processing what she requires.
This episode is book-ended with conversations about God, and similar observations are sprinkled throughout. What is fascinating though is that no one is ever really talking about God, or at least not in the way they seem to think. When Masters says “God may have created Heaven and Earth, but he is not an obstetrician,” he is really talking about himself, but he is telling a couple that thinks their pleas are falling on deaf ears that what they think is rejection is something simpler to resolve. There may be no more serious rejection for a deeply religious person than an unanswered prayer, an absent God, but Masters steps in to assure his patients that is not the case. At the end, Virginia tells him, “you are a powerful man, but you are not that powerful.” She refuses to let him blame himself, to close himself off again. Bill has created an echo chamber in his soul, where he keeps his anguish restrained, buttoned down and hidden deep away from the world. Virginia tells him the most important thing he could possibly need to understand, the thing he can’t tell his wife, or anyone else for that matter. I’m listening. I hear you. I understand.
- -“One weekend with Dad is better than a million days here with you!”
- -“Cheaper than a matinee and you are guaranteed a happy ending.” This is a line of dialogue in a show about sex. And somehow, it is about watching babies in a nursery.
- -“Just because you can’t reduce it to a number doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
- -“I’ve really missed being a pioneer on the front lines of science!” “Right. Me too. Wear that perfume I like.”
- -“Vivian, that is not it! It’s…a little bit it.”
- -“I am definitely not the settling down type.” “Then why should I be?”
- -“You can keep going.” “Actually, I can’t.”
- -“But after the Ferris wheel, I’m gonna go live with Dad. I don’t want to live with you anymore.”
- -“You break it, you buy it.” “And they say chivalry’s dead.”
- -“Think about how she feels.” “How does she feel?” “Lousy. Send her a dozen.
- -“Well he’s not adhering to any pattern now.” “None whatsoever.”
- -“Men don’t know what they want, sweetheart. That’s why they have wives.” Allison Janney is marvelous in a very small appearance here. Fingers crossed she’ll be back.
- -“If God wasn’t invented for a time like this, then why invent him at all?”
- -“I guess there’s enough sorrow to go around for us all.”
- -“Close your eyes.”