11/17/13, 10:00PM, SHO
Marriage is a delicate, complicated subject, both for those within it and for those barred from its protections. Marriage can mean any number of things—political alliances, social mobility, convenience, a way of keeping up appearances, or even, in some reported cases, love. Though the old song makes an appearance, sung by Vivian as she cooks for Ethan, “Love and Marriage” is less about the aphorism at the ditty’s center (“you can’t have one without the other,”) and more about exposing that sentiment as, if not a lie, then at least a gross misunderstanding.
The Masters marriage has always been stifled by a lack of communication and by the sense that the people in it expect and desire wholly different things from each other. It isn’t a stretch to say Bill suffers from some serious “Madonna/whore” issues with respect to his wife, but more than that he seems to see her as a prop rather than a person. Barton Scully told him he would need to become “respectable” before he could undertake his sex study, and Libby was one step on the road to developing that sheen. She, meanwhile, is being hollowed out by her husband’s lack of attention and affection, to the point where she is hoping a child will reaffirm their connection. Tonight she forms a quick connection to Walter (Flex Alexander), her handyman-cum-dance-instructor (and the show does well here underlining the racial politics of mid-’50’s St. Louis without making it the point of their story), and just as she begins to regain some of her confidence, she finds out she’s pregnant. The look on her face when she gets the new is far closer to Bill’s reaction the first time out than to her own. It isn’t that she isn’t happy, necessarily; just that she is immediately scheming. Her plan was to use this baby to make Bill love her again. What she doesn’t realize is she has immediately turned her potential child into the prop she is trying to avoid being herself.
Before turning to the Scully marriage, which proves an excellent point of comparison for the Masters’, I want to look at the two younger couples we get a glimpse of this evening. Ethan and Vivian are in the throws of young, idealistic love to the point where they can’t see any potential minefields in their future. When Margaret Scully gives her speech to Barton’s lover, it is hard not to hear her speaking also to Ethan and Vivian, who seem to think settling down is the perfect idea without contemplating any of the complexities or downsides. Ethan has wanted to get married since the pilot episode, and after having his heart broken by Virginia, he seems increasingly willing to dive in with Vivian as much because she’s there and willing as because of his own feelings for her. Austin, on the other hand, provides a cruel (and perhaps a bit too on the nose) counterpoint with his constant philandering and a wife who understands that when he brings home gifts for the family, it means “some poor woman is crying somewhere.” We hear the story of Austin’s proposal tonight, and it is incredibly romantic. But romance alone couldn’t keep his marriage from becoming a sham, couldn’t keep him from straying constantly, searching for another conquest he’ll lose interest in as soon as she’s won. Austin put on blinders getting into his marriage, as do many, but he forgot to consider the idea that at some point, they might come off. At some point, he and his wife began to truly see each other, and things started to fall apart.
The true peak of this episode, though, comes once again in the form of Margaret and Barton Scully. Allison Janney has been an absolute treasure to this show in the back portion of its first season. Her performance is the perfect amount of wounded and dignified, broken and not yet done seeking repair. When she hears Austin cancel their trip from afar, she doesn’t crumble, at least not initially. She simply pretends that calling off the affair was her idea (and Austin’s reaction is just about the least convincing performance ever). When she sees her husband at the club, she knows what’s going on, even if she cannot quite bring herself to consider what would be obvious to us in 2013 (she understands Barton has never been attracted to her and that he is seeing other people, but that those people might be men never seems to cross her mind).
Beau Bridges gets a true showcase in “Love and Marriage,” playing out the conflict between those two things beautifully. Barton truly loves Margaret. Not, perhaps, in the way a husband should love a wife nor how a lover should treat another, but he adores her as a companion and best friend, and is torn apart by the idea of hurting her (even as he has done so basically without thought for what sounds like decades). He cannot explain his lack of attraction to his wife except to reassure her he loves her (he does, though he cannot understand why that reassurance does little for her these days), and she cannot understand why the man she loves has never exhibited any passion towards her.
So Barton decides to undergo a self-administered, primitive form of aversion therapy in a desperate attempt to save his marriage after Margaret asks for a divorce. This whole story is completely wrenching, and beautifully performed by Bridges and Janney. These are both wounded people, trying their best not to hurt or be hurt in a marriage that has never given Margaret what she wants, and only given Barton what he needs to appear to want. Both of them have been destroyed by a culture that doesn’t serve their needs (“we were of our time,” Barton tells Margaret at the drive-in), and neither can fully understand the pain and suffering of the other. They are just too far apart at this point to see from the other’s point of view.
Yet watching Dale dress Barton down as his frequent client begs to be allowed to make himself physically ill at the sight of his lover is also tragic. We understand why Barton is taking this step, but we also see things from two other perspectives. We understand Dale, who has spent his entire life being hated, dismissed, and reviled, refusing to let someone he truly cares about join the rest of society in its disgust. We also understand this all from a more modern perspective, in which aversion therapy is a psychological disaster for its victims (and they are victims) and where society’s “disgust” at homosexuality has at least begun to soften into acceptance (not everywhere, and not entirely, but society is vastly more accepting of homosexuality now than it was in the ‘50s).
Beyond the complex, nuanced, heart-breaking treatment of gay conversion in “Love and Marriage,” I am happy to see the show broach a subject that would become one of the major chinks in the Masters and Johnson armor years down the road so early (I will be vague in my references to history to avoid spoiler, but let’s just say the two never become all that progressive in regards to the idea that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured).
Finally, there’s the couple that is the real heart of this show, whose interactions are so fraught with complications it isn’t even clear if either of them understands exactly how thick the mire around them is becoming. How much of their interactions are about sex? How much about love? How much about power, in both its specific and its societal notions? At the beginning of the episode, we see that Bill wants to have sex a second time in one of their research sessions and Virginia declines, citing a need to be at home with her children. For most of the rest of the episode, the two do not get back together, and the reasons become muddied with various agendas and implications. Is Bill spurning Virginia because she rejected him? It is possibly this simple, even as he would never consciously understand it as such.
Throughout the episode, he subtly undercuts her efforts to advance her academic career, even as he feigns complete support to her face. She wants a degree because it will command respect from others and help her secure her position at Bill’s side. He doesn’t want her to get one because it would enable her to leave him. She wants, in her daughter’s words, to “be seen,” he’s afraid if he loses his complete control over her, he’ll lose her entirely. She wants to understand him and his work better because she too feels passionately about it. He wants her to feel accepted by him, even if that means he stifles her further growth in an effort to love her as she is. He wants to maintain the power given to him by his position in their relationship, and his status as a white male in a white male-dominated society. She just wants a seat at the table.
Over the course of its first season, Masters of Sex has been slowing brewing this increasingly complicated relationship, and setting it into motion in the midst of an ever-expanding ocean of complex pairings. Each of these is flawed in some way because the two people in it never fully see eye to eye. Each of them is seeking desperately some connection, some understanding, some love. Pitched between that tragic yearning and its twin, caustic cynicism, is the show, watching these people struggle to find the best in each other, even if it means hiding or destroying themselves in the process. In the end, Bill is aroused by the idea of he and Virginia, together on the cutting edge of science. In the end, he is aroused by the idea of togetherness, by the idea that next to him he may find another person with the same goals and desires, the same passions and hopes, the same desire to find love among the wreckage and cling to it whatever comes.
- ”Dr. Masters rarely seems happy.”
- ”Actually, it’s the oldest story in the book. He was married, he felt guilty, so she paid the price.”
- ”This was never anything more than just a casual fling…was it?”
- ”We’re scientists. Not arsonists.”
- ”When the person who knows you best loses interest, that really takes something out of you. Like surgery almost. And then you start to wonder if you’ll ever be whole again.”
- Lester is my new best friend. His palpable joy at the challenge of making the new camera was infectious.
- ”It’s easy if you think less.” “Yes, I’ve found that to be true.” “…About the dancing.”
- ”Stylistically, I’m closer to Hitchcock.”
- ”Men are such idiots. Even the smart ones.”
- ”Vivien will be thrilled. Women always are…at the beginning.”
- “A degree is like magic. You still do your job, but people believe you know what you’re talking about.” “So…it’s like…people can see you better?”
- ”I wish I could be of more help.” “You’re standing here. That’s enough.”
- ”The study needs to be a priority.” “Because if she did manage to stand on her own two feet, she could walk away?”
- ”Don’t hustle me.” “Who says it’s a hustle?” “Because there is no universe in which what happens between you and I is anything other than a business transaction.”
- ”There’s only one person that gets to be sickened by me. And that’s me.”
- ”I am quite the outsider in that world. In many worlds, I presume.” “Not here.”
- ”its not the footage. It’s the fact that we’re the only two people in the world who’ve seen it.”