December 15, 2013, 10:00 pm (EST), Showtime
In a lot of ways, “Manhigh” feels like the finale that the pilot of the show was building towards. All of the predictable conflicts come to a head, from Masters presenting the study to him finally confessing his love to Virginia, and everything becomes tied up. “Manhigh turns the season into a neat bow, which is slightly disappointing because Masters of Sex is at its best when its as messy as lust and love tend to be.
This isn’t to say “Manhigh” is a bad episode of television; it isn’t, and in fact, it is another solid entry in one of the best shows of 2013. It’s just that, after all of the beautiful moments of character interaction and development we’ve been treated to since the pilot, a lot of this feels a bit perfunctory. Every major plot gets served here, and each comes to a sort of conclusion, while leaving plenty open for the now confirmed second season. In a show that has done some phenomenal character work, “Manhigh” is an episode focused almost entirely on plot movement.
A lot of that plotting goes off as well as it does, though, because of the accumulated weight of this whole season, because of the way we have grown with these characters and watched them grow. The way Masters is wounded when his presentation explodes only works because of how we have come to know this broken man and his insecurities. Virginia’s pain at her exclusion, and then confused, tentative joy at being credited on the study comes across as fully as it does because we’ve been on this rollercoaster ride with her all season. Ethan’s proposal, doomed as it is, actually feels earned the culmination of a character arc that started off painting him as fairly odious and slowly revealed his humanity. And watching the Scullys nuzzle each other as they try to come to an understanding (that Barton plans, almost immediately, to betray for what he believes is the greater good) was as crushing and heart-wrenching as it was because we have watched all the pain and love these two have to deal with, all the hurt and all of the shame they have put on each other over the last year, and to some extent, the entire life of their marriage.
And even in this storm of plot developments, the show still has its flair for small character details, and we still get one of its now quintessential scenes of two people being drawn together. We’ve seen Jane and Lester kiss before, so their passion is a bit of a retread, and it never hits the highs of, say Austin and Margaret’s initial liaison, but it is still a reminder, in an episode that constantly questions the study, of the phenomenal import of the work Masters and Johnson are doing. Jane is ashamed and worried throughout the episode, but crucially, she never gives up on her faith in the study. She knows she has been a part of good work, done by brilliant, committed people, and that work has allowed both her and Lester to progress to the point where him calling her vaginal walls beautiful is the stuff to close the deal. These two have been subtle breakout characters for the series over the course of this first season, both the right amount of weird and funny, and both with character arcs that feel full despite their lesser screen time. I loved watching them come together the first time, and it worked for me again here.
Because that is, ultimately, what Masters of Sex is all about. Behind all the funky shots of naked people wired up to machines, behind all the period flourishes and subtext that always flirts with becoming text, behind the subplots about closeted gay men and dancing instructors, and doctors who just can’t stay interested in a woman once they’ve bedded her, this is a show about the ways that people come together, the things that connect them, and the paths they find to overcome the obstacles life lays in their path. I have seen many people try to paint Bill Masters as another in a long line of prestige drama anti-heroes, but I think those people are misreading not just the man, but the show around him. Masters of Sex is something altogether different than what has come before, and maybe, eventually, even better.
This isn’t a show about watching Bill Masters screw up and try to fight his way out of bad situations. This isn’t a show that asks us to revel in, celebrate, or even tolerate his flaws. This is a show fundamentally about people trying to be something better, and to make the world around them better too. Bill and Virginia aren’t obsessed with the study because it will advance their careers, nor even because of the way it allows them to explore their connection. They are obsessed with the study because it shows them a better world, a world where sex and all of its complexities is laid bare, a world where people can speak openly about their hopes, fears, and desires, a world where no one needs to hold back, where everyone can connect. Masters of Sex is a story of two broken people, ahead of their times in some ways, but of their times in the scars they bear, trying to forge a new world because they believe there must be a better one out there. The show returned again tonight to the metaphor of space exploration, the way it captured the public imagination and promised to change everything for good. When we see, along with Henry and Virginia, the report from high in the atmosphere, we are told that up there, the stars don’t twinkle, they just shine constantly on, like tiny beacons in the darkness that promise us there is a light out there, if only we can find it. Bill and Virginia spend so much of their time groping in the dark because they know, deep down, that somewhere out there is a light. And if they can find it, they can guide the rest of us there, and we’ll all see a brand new day.
- -“How do you know I’m fine?” “Because I’m a doctor. I can spot a statistically average masturbator from a mile away.”
- -“And all males defined excessive masturbation as more than they were doing, as a means, it seems, of justifying their current habit.”
- -“You hadn’t even met me yet, and you already knew you could never want me.”
- -“Whose we, Dr. Masters?” “It’s the royal we, Dr. De Paul.”
- -“There are women in the room, Bill!” “There were women in the study, Chuck!”
- -“It takes helpers to do great things.”
- -“I have nothing to offer you, except, maybe, the truth. I finally realized there’s one thing I can’t live without. It’s you. You.”
- -What did all of you think? I hope you enjoyed this season as much as I have. It’s been a true pleasure covering it for you.