Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 8, “Mirror, Mirror”
August 31, 2014 , 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
Sex is psychology. Freud knew it. Bill Masters knew it. And every person who has ever spent any serious time thinking about what it is they like and why they like it, what it is they need and why they need it, understands this deep down. There are things that what we desire and what we find discomfiting say about us. To call them mere preferences, incapable of being analyzed and impossible to quantify, would be disingenuous; it would be letting ourselves off easy about something that might provide answers that are more difficult than what we are prepared to face. So much of who we are can be learned from how we approach (or in some cases flee from) sex and discussions about it. It’s the doorway into our true nature we almost never acknowledge, the closet door we’d just as soon keep closed. What’s inside might do more harm than good; what’s inside may define us in ways that are revelatory or distressing.
“Mirror, Mirror” is all about the psychological side of sex. It chronicles the period in which Bill and Virginia shift their study from being strictly about gathering data toward actually attempting to heal the sexual dysfunctions that plague many of their patients. It also marks the two-thirds point in what is increasingly developing into a shapeless season of television, one that may never cohere beyond a document of an increasingly elongated period in the lives of Masters, Johnson, and the study that bears their name. This season has had an abundance of subplots, which appear to bounce off each other before revealing themselves to be more separate than they first appeared. Libby’s racial issues seemed about to click into place as part of the larger season when Bill began to work at Buell Green, but then he quickly moved on from that and Libby remains stranded in a plotline that seems occasionally to come close to saying something, only to run toward other things entirely. Bill and Virginia say no, then yes, then no, then yes again to engaging in what they delude themselves is not an affair, a cycle that may be mirrored by reality, but which doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the boundaries these two erect and the way they help to tear each other’s down. Flo, the head of Cal-o-Metric is still a part of this season, and now her subplot has pulled Austin into its sway. Why is she here? What is the purpose of her story for this season? Does anybody really know? There’s no through-line to this season, no anchor the show can return to after wandering off to check in on how Flo’s expansion plans are working or whether Betty has convinced Bill to file for tax-exempt status. It’s a lot of things happening, and in its best moments, those things develop a collective weight that hints at greater planning. Too often, though, they just appear to be detritus floating in the wake of a realization that none of this is necessarily heading much of anywhere, beyond the basic pleasures of any given episode and our basic respect for Bill and Virginia as characters.
Part of this is due to the way season two has pulled these characters apart and into their own storylines. It is hard to do a weekly-serialized story about people growing in different directions and losing track of each other (for evidence of this, look at the most recent season of Girls). This season has been about that separation and the loneliness it engenders in a fairly serious way, but it crammed much of that alienation and detachment into last week’s “Asterion,” and now seems to be aiming to stitch these stories back together like some sort of plot-based Frankenstein’s monster. When I used to write about Glee, I often said it felt like character pairings were being drawn out of a hat at random and thrown together, and the moment where Flo announces Austin is her new spokesman felt like that in a way Masters of Sex never has before. Just when it seems the show has enough balls in the air that it routinely seems to be dropping, the episode reveals that Francis is not an old med-school buddy of Bill’s, but in fact his estranged brother. It’s a revelation that carries no weight because there’s no real thematic purpose for this revelation, within the episode or the season so far. It’s just a thing that happens, probably because the plot needs it to, but possible just because the writers weren’t sure what else to do.
Part of this season’s problems relate to general issues of adaptation. Reality isn’t giving Michelle Ashford a whole lot in this particular period of the Masters and Johnson partnership, so if ever we were going to get Libby’s Adventures in Racism or Flo and Austin’s Road to Anorexia, this is the period in which it makes sense for the show to be flailing about madly for a tether. This doesn’t excuse what has become a shapeless season, but it does provide some necessary context that clarifies why it is that the show feels centerless at the moment. It’s in a between space, and just needs to keep us tuned in until it can get to the next big moments.
Ultimately, Masters of Sex is about Bill and Virginia. It’s about them as individuals, them as a couple, and the way they manage to make each other better over the years. It is also about the way they slowly learn about the ties between sex and psychology and begin to discover what their joint passion says about them, and what the peccadillos of others might reveal as well. If this season has a through-line (and at this point, I remain unconvinced), it may be the idea that sex is a window into the way we think. It accesses us on a deeper level, and allows us to communicate things we would otherwise never be able to admit. Bill and Virginia each have their issues, but through sex, both the study of it and the experience of it, they are coming to understand those issues, and maybe even to get better. If Bill and Virginia are the touchstones of this show (and come on. Of course they are), this is a season that keeps forgetting how potent their connection can be and how complex their interactions remain. These two alone gave us “Fight,” the series’ best episode to date, but much of this season has been running away from a focus on this pairing and how it changes the two of them. Masters of Sex isn’t a plot-based show, not by a long stretch. This is a character piece we are watching, and one that asks us to invest deeply in who Bill and Virginia are and how they work and live together. It’s an investment I am willing to make, but only if the show recalls that interpersonal complexity and psychological depth are its bread and butter. And without that focus on the central pairing, “Mirror, Mirror” is some pretty dry toast.
- “Just because you’re born with one face doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it.”
- “If they’re brave enough to come in, we should at least keep a record of that bravery, don’t you think?”
- “Our new mission here is not simply to observe; it’s also to heal.”
- “You think its enough to fix that outside. That’s the easy part.”
Mirror, Mirror” is all about the psychological side of sex