Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 1, “Parallax”
July 13, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
Fittingly for a season premiere, “Parallax” takes place in the space between two moments, the time between the cliffhanger and its inevitable resolution. For the characters, this is a fairly short period, but one in which Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson are operating on completely different wavelengths about what, exactly, happened that night after he showed up on her doorstep declaring he needed her, that she was the one thing he couldn’t live without. We see that scene, and the days that follow it, play out from both their perspectives, as each thinks they are sacrificing something they have always wanted for something they need. Bill Masters gives up on his efforts to avoid becoming his parents, to keep himself from being a philanderer like his father or neglectful like his mother. Virginia Johnson gives up on her idea of a simple marriage to a good man, the sort of arrangement that would give her financial security and peace of mind. They both think they are making the same decision, but in fact, their calculations are very different: Virginia Johnson is choosing work. Bill Masters is choosing love.
Masters of Sex is a show that often thinks itself more subversive than it actually is, and “Parallax” plays with that notion by covertly inverting the standard gender roles in Masters and Johnson’s decision-making. Much like its tendency to turn Virginia into a magical sex fairy last season, the show seems to think it is being slightly cleverer than it is with this, but the episode is still brilliant at putting us inside the heads of both characters as they upend their lives to reach the same end for very different means. The way “Parallax” drifts through time, picking up on threads at different moments to give them different meanings is masterful, and the build to that moment where Bill thinks Virginia is agreeing to have an affair and Virginia thinks Bill has offered her an equal spot at the table, and both are a little heartbroken to see their old dynamic reassert itself, is shattering. Bill sees where things are headed and throws back up his walls, and in the process, he reminds Virginia, even if unintentionally, who still wields the power in their relationship. Both enter that conversation hearts aflutter, optimistic that their dreams are coming true. Both leave it slightly bruised by different realities setting in. These two are operating on different levels throughout the episode, and neither really understands what is happening between them, because neither has the strength to be completely honest with themselves or with each other. They walk into that room fulfilling different dreams and walk out of it nursing different wounds. And then they go upstairs together, to keep working towards dovetailing goals.
“Parallax” is an episode about the way we are all trapped in our own little worlds, gated in from others by our perception and the way bias can color it. All we have is our ability to read one another which, when you get right down to it, is often not very good. We judge our surroundings by cadence, by tone, by the actions of others; but each of those is fed through our own hopes, fears, and desires until warped, sometimes beyond recognition. We get what we want, or what we don’t want, or what we need out of a conversation, but that doesn’t necessarily bear much relationship to what is actually occurring when we talk to someone else. And what is the reality of the conversation anyway, for that matter? Two subjective intents that may or may not overlap come together, and outside of them is a muddled gray area where maybe no one can be sure exactly what has happened. We fight sometimes about totally different things. We declare our feelings to people in similar words that are oceans apart. We think we know what we mean, they think they know what they mean, but everyone could be wrong. Maybe those oceans are vast, but maybe they’re much smaller than we think. After all, what happens in “Parallax”? We can call it any number of different things, but at the end of the day, it may be simpler than it first appears: Virginia chooses Bill and Bill chooses Virginia.
That sex is complicated and love no simpler is not exactly treading new ground, for Masters of Sex or for pop culture at large, but “Parallax” explores many facets of both problems tonight, both through its split perspective narrative and on the sidelines. Jane is moving to Los Angeles to be with Lester, but also to get into pictures where her face can be seen. Austin is done with philandering…except the three-month affair he has been having with his sister-in-law. Barton is desperate to make things work with Margaret, and suicidal when he can’t bring himself to be the man he thinks he should be. There are multiple meanings at work for each of these characters, multiple realities they navigate as they try to find their way through the fog of their own perceptions and into a reality where they can feel comfortable. All of them want more than one thing. All of them are more than one thing. Their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires very often clash and conflict, and no one is exactly sure what is winning out at any given moment, or how anyone else’s maelstrom might clash or combine with theirs. We’re all looking for a port to call our own, when in fact, maybe, we should be looking for another storm.
- Welcome to Masters of Sex season two. I’ll be here writing about Bill, Virginia, love, sex, me, and you all season. We’re gonna go deep. It might get weird.
- Normally, these reviews will have a bit more…review…in them, but I wanted to wade into “Parallax” and resituate us all into the show’s central relationship, and one of its chief thematic concerns, as the season began.
- “Death shall come on swift winds to he who disturbs the peace of the tomb.”
- “You young girls can panic over fat. I look at it as insurance.”
- “Of all the gin joints…” “I would say the same, Betty. Since I am expected at medical fundraisers…”
- “Barton, you can’t pretend I’m something else.” “I’m not!” “Then look at me!”
- “Do we have glasses?” “Mugs.”
- “It’s sad no one would ever think I got a black eye from jealous lover.”
- “Freud probably said it best.” “There are no accidents.”
- “Bill, we could have an affair. Millions of people do. But affairs are so pedestrian. What we have between us is…something more than that. We have the work.”
“Parallax” is an episode about the way we are all trapped in our own little worlds, gated in from others by our perception and the way bias can color it.