11/3/13, 10PM, SHO
Early in its run, Masters of Sex was forced to spend a lot of time building up the rules of the game it was playing, developing the characters, yes, but also developing the society in which they live and setting a somewhat complex plot in motion. “Brave New World” is aptly named in that Masters of Sex has finally and fully arrived where I hoped it was headed, to a point where all of the characters are clicking and all of the plotlines flow together seamlessly. The show is great at capturing the magic of a moment, the ineffable spark that attracts two people toward each other regardless of anything that stands in their way.
The interactions between Masters and Johnson have developed a casualness and ease since Bill’s breakdown last week. They speak more as equals than as a boss and his secretary, and its clear Bill is ecstatic to have someone thinking about the same things and asking the same questions he has always had to hide from the world. Bill’s natural curiosity about human sexuality has always been a liability, a perversion he was always advised to keep hidden. But in Virginia, he has found someone with whom he can finally be himself, can finally open up in ways he has never previously been allowed.
That also makes him vulnerable, however, and “Brave New World” isn’t shy about the ways that weakness offends Masters. He is constantly on edge at the idea that the female orgasm might be better achieved without a man, and in Virginia’s ease with their subjects, he must also see the possibility that his study on human sexuality, too, might be better without a man. He comes from a culture and a worldview so phenomenally tilted toward masculine superiority that he seems reticent to give even an inch, despite the fact that the answers he’s finding are largely the ones he set out to discover. Bill isn’t a misogynist, and in fact is probably closer to a feminist, but he has never really been forced to confront the idea of female equality before, and it seems to throw him, a bit, just like talking with homosexuals did a few weeks back. He has viewed women as patients, as subjects in his study, and as objects on his table, and while he may not be completely conscious of that fact, Virginia is waking him up to the truth.
Though this is another Virginia-lite episode, the few moments she has are fascinating, especially in the final scene. Her reaction to Bill’s compliments and pseudo-promotion is also probably unconscious, and yet when he gives her the praise and validation she’s been seeking, she gives him what he has wanted all along—she disrobes and places his hand on her breast in the name of science. This doesn’t feel transactional, and it doesn’t even seem conscious. It’s just Virginia’s natural reaction the electric charge of Bill’s approval, but also, to the allure of scientific discovery, of finding something she’s good at and seeing how it could change the world. Bill and Virginia are falling a little bit in love with each other in the way we all seem to at first—by finding in the other a reflection of the things they have always hoped and wanted to be true of themselves.
And then there’s the tale of poor Margaret Scully, who is so very alone in her marriage she feels hollowed out inside. She has an emptiness at her core caused by decades of dissatisfaction, confusion, and loneliness, and in “Brave New World,” she decides to try and fill it. Allison Janney is miraculous in the role, and watching her pain break through to the surface as she is rejected from the study for never having experienced an orgasm is absolutely devastating.
That Margaret and Austin find each other after a screening of Peyton Place would feel too neat if the show didn’t so perfectly capture their encounter. Both are creatures of open yearning, and when they meet, they manage to make the other’s pain go away, even if only for a little while. This sequence is a compelling argument for the idea that Masters of Sex has figured out what it is and what it is good at by this point in the season. Austin and Margaret have enough shading at this point that watching them fall together is a little bit magical, and it gives each of their stories that little charge that Bill and Virginia feel at the episode’s end. The characters on this show are entering a brave new world, and they are all frightened, anxious, and just a little bit exhilarated about what they might find there.
Equally devastating was Libby, alone in Florida and making up a little life for herself that solves all of her problems and fills the holes left in her heart. She gets to know the elderly couple, and they get to know her as a widower and mother of two. Libby’s delicate, internal breakdown is completely tragic, and the show mirrors her and Margaret incredibly well. Margaret has spent 30 years in her marriage, and it has broken her down further than she has even realized. Libby, whose been married to Bill for around 10, maybe (she lies about their anniversary tonight, but the number might still be close to accurate), is feeling acutely his absence from their relationship. He buries himself in his work because, just like Scully, he cannot possibly get what he needs from his wife. Yet neither Bill nor Scully is willing to recognize there is a person on the other side of their marriage, not just a prop that can be wheeled out whenever either needs the sheen of respectability. Both Bill and Scully are callous towards their spouses, never fully realizing the toll their indifference and negligence takes on the women they profess to love. Libby turns down the advances of Barry Bostwick, but it isn’t hard to see how, after another few decades married to Bill, she might take a strange man up on his offer of just a little comfort, closeness, and attention.
Every character on this show is moving towards change, and for the most part, this change seems positive. It’s just that the sorts of evolutions they are making involve throwing aside decades of learned repression and shame and looking for openness and acceptance. It’s scary to decide everything you’ve ever been taught to think and feel might be wrong. But it’s exciting to realize all the desires you thought were so wrong might, in the end, be very very right.
- -The sound of the baby crying in the neighbor’s house is devastating.
- -“A quarter of women walk through my door saying they’re frigid.” “Maybe that’s because their husbands can’t get the job done!”
- -The way the scene between Scully and the prostitute is shot, from behind with both of their faces in the shadows, is perfect.
- -“Can you still hang stockings if you don’t have a family?” “We’ll hang mistletoe. Libby, we have a family. Just the two of us. That’s enough for me.”
- -“Problem’s not in your pants, Austin. It’s in your head.” “Going up?”
- -“It’s King-sized. It could sleep a whole family.”
- -“He has a cigar. He obviously new what he was talking about.”
- -“Don’t put too much pressure on him. We all know how that turns out.”
- -“My clitoris beat my vagina? That’s crazy!”
- -“My mom has nothing to do with my penis!”
- -“I think we should plan a session for tomorrow night. Get some data. On your hypothesis. That men are completely unnecessary.”
- -“There is a sort of tension.” “And do you experience release?” “Oh. When its over? Tremendous relief.”
- -“Your wife is like a home. You live there, you know every nook and cranny. But it’s always nice to travel…”
- -“I loved that old wallpaper.”
- -“When a woman can please herself as well as a man can, or better, it’s a brave new world.”