TV Recap: Masters of Sex, “Involuntary” (1.9)



November 24, 2013, 10:00 pm (EST), Showtime

Over the course of its first season, Masters of Sex has repeatedly proven adept at fleshing out its characters and their relationships so fluidly they feel completely natural and fully realized. Even characters who were weaker early on, like Ethan, have developed to be relatable and sympathetic. This allows the show to lift us up with its characters when the succeed, when they fall in love, when they succumb to lust. We feel elated as they do. It also primes us to be emotionally devastated when they are hurt. “Involuntary” involves a lot more of the latte than the former, as Ethan breaks off his engagement, Libby tries to save her marriage, Essie wants to save her son from becoming his father, and Bill distances Virginia because of the man he fears she is making him.

That Masters and Johnson would become emotionally involved when they became sexually involved was obvious, even to people with no knowledge of the actual historical details. What neither expected is the way they have become emotionally involved. Bill figured he would fall in love, Virginia assumed she would stay detached emotionally. Instead, Virginia has found herself growing increasingly enamored with Bill, and he with her. The problem arises when his mother tells him he is behaving like his father, that he is engaged in exactly the sort of thing that ruined his childhood. When he learns that, he doesn’t yet know that Libby is pregnant again. It doesn’t matter. No matter what the situation, no matter whose heart is on the line, Bill Masters is not his father. In the face of virtually anything else, he clings to that as gospel.

That sex is complicated is something I have said before in this space, and, I imagine, will say again. What makes Masters of Sex great television is the various ways it makes that point without ever reducing it. Sex means different things to different people, and it has different effects nearly every time it happens. For Bill, it is a scientific passion driven by a deeper yearning he hesitates to acknowledge. For Virginia, it doesn’t have to mean anything—at least, that’s what she reassures herself when it is clear to us that it has always meant something to her, whether power or pleasure or connection. For Libby, sex is all about life, which to her means starting a family.

In lesser hands, the moment when Bill tries to pay Virginia for their “participation” would feel like a huge cliché, a moment coming three quarters of the way through the season like it would three quarters of the way through a romantic comedy. Yet here, with the time and space to develop both parties, the show turns that moment into a wave of devastation that resonates over layers of meaning. We understand what Bill is doing to Virginia. We understand why he is doing it, and why he feels he must. We see how much it hurts him, and that he does it anyway. We see Virginia react, first in shock, then disbelief, and finally in heartbreak. We have learned enough to see this isn’t some betrayal of her core principles, but an evolution in her understanding of herself. The show has given us such insight into these two that even a moment like this plays as much better than the sum of its parts. It plays as the interaction between two wholes, two people who come to the table complete if not intact, who are trying to communicate or to hide their desires, and who are faltering on their way to happiness.masters-of-sex-involuntary-2

Devastating too, and in a way that surprised me, is the dissolution of Ethan and Vivien’s engagement. That Ethan shouldn’t be marrying her is clear, but the way the show handled his realization made me appreciate the character in ways I never have before. He submits to the idea of a religious conversion without a fight, and then slowly comes to realize that is how he has lived his entire life. He accepts things blindly, he lets decisions be made for him, he floats. When he admits to the man at the hospital that he only ever went after something once in his life and it didn’t work out, it is heartbreaking. And when he really learns from that moment, understands he shouldn’t be with Vivien, and breaks things off, it makes sense, even if it is sad to watch him break her heart. Ethan isn’t a great guy, but like everyone else, he is trying to work things out, and “Involuntary” shows him making great strides, even at the expense of others.

First, do no harm. That is the oath a physician takes, and it is the oath that haunts Bill as the episode ends. It is one he has failed to live up to. So has Ethan. So has Scully (who does not appear tonight) and Austin. It seems all of the doctors on this show (DePaul included) leave misery and hurt in their wake, though why they do so has a variety of explanations. Mostly, however, it reduces to selfishness. Masters is thinking of himself instead of Virginia when he tries to pay her off. Ethan is thinking of himself, not Vivien, when he breaks off the engagement (though, honestly, this was the right call and he seems to also be considering her feelings). Throughout the episode, Masters and Johnson study the involuntary spasms that accompany sex. They miss one spasm, however, perhaps because it is hard to observe as it is occurring. They miss the involuntary connection that has bound them together, and thus, they miss each other. They are failing to communicate, even though each is screaming silently at the other. They are each other’s echo, even if they haven’t realized it yet.

The Roundup

  • -“Its not like I’m constantly bing graded on my performance. Though I guess one might consider this positive feedback.”
  • -“Miss “ready for anything” has been ready for everything so far…”
  • -“I’m not Jewish! I’m nothing! Okay? The man you are going to marry is nothing!”
  • -The way Sheen sneers at Ann Dowd as she tries to connect is incredible. Such hatred, such pain.
  • -“Really? I did that?” “Well, it depends where you stand on the auteur theory…” It’s like they are writing Lester just for me.
  • -“I figure you’ve probably worked up an appetite by now, watching all that sex.”
  • -“‘She has become absolutely invaluable to me.’”
  • -“No woman will ever be able to fool you again, Dr. Masters. Not that I’ve needed to.”
  • -“This is exactly the problem with religion. You can’t joke, but you are supposed to believe in magic bushes…”
  • -“The man your father was with Eleanor De Sousa was the man he wanted to be. And what we got at home was…very little.”
  • -“You know the one time I really did go after something, it…didn’t work out.” “Only the young think floating is an option. When you get to my age, you realize floating…floating is for boats.”
  • -“What I am, what this baby is, what this family is…is your echo.”
  • -“You picked me.” “No. Viv, you picked me.”
  • -“And you? Did you pay yourself?” “Of course not. It’s my study.” “Its our study.” “Right. You shouldn’t be selling yourself short.” “I wouldn’t sell myself. Period.”
[notification type=star]88/100 ~ GREAT. That sex is complicated is something I have said before in this space, and, I imagine, will say again. What makes Masters of Sex great television is the various ways it makes that point without ever reducing it. [/notification]

About Author

Jordan Ferguson is a lifelong pop culture fan, and would probably never leave his couch if he could get away with it. When he isn’t wasting time “practicing law" in Los Angeles, he writes about film, television, and music. In addition to serving as TV Editor and Senior Staff Film Critic for Next Projection, Jordan is a contributor to various outlets, including his own personal site, Review To Be Named (where he still writes sometimes, promise). Check out more of his work at, follow him on twitter @bobchanning, or just yell really loudly on the street. Don’t worry, he’ll hear.

  • Ezra

    i’ve just watched this episode and you’re the only recapper who mentioned the “auteur theory” joke. i’m not super up on my vintage film crit history, but isn’t it wildly unlikely that this character would have that phrase in his pocket in, whenever, 1956? this was JUST when the Cahiers gang was formulating this idea, right, and years before Sarris and Kael were battling it out over its merits in NYC. does that exact, fully-formed phrase appear anywhere prominent enough pre-50s to make the line here not anachronistic?

  • Jordan Ferguson

    I’d say the line is almost certainly anachronistic (Though Lester’s presence in a university setting makes him more likely to be up on what was going on at Cahiers at the time, calling it “The Auteur Theory” rather than politiques des auteurs is pretty distinctly Sarris, who got to it much later), but I don’t particularly mind, because he’s such a whimsical film geek character. Other aspects of the show are anachronistic in ways that are more troubling, but I think Lester mostly exists for film nerds in the audience, and he serves that purpose well to me.