July 12, 2015, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
“I believe whatever arrangement between grown, consenting adults, it must begin with the truth.”
When we reenter the story of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson in 1965, one thing is as clear as ever: Bill Masters is a self-righteous hypocrite, a prickly, difficult, deeply troubled man whose tunnel vision is rewarded with massive success scientifically and mixed results personally. That quote, which Bill says at a press conference announcing the publication of Human Sexual Response, is a perfect example of Bill’s hypocrisy. He means every word of that, in theory, and in his professional life he strives to uphold that ideal. In his personal life, however, he carries on a years-long affair and cannot bring himself to sleep in the same bed as his wife, opting instead to be plagued by mosquitos and bedeviled by crickets. The arrangement that exists between three grown, consenting adults in “Parliament of Owls” is one that is largely working for all involved parties, but the problems within it can mostly be traced back to Bill and his inability to be totally honest with himself and with the women in his life.
Most of the episode takes place during a Masters-Johnson family weekend at a lake, where the two clans come together and we come to understand the new dynamic between Bill, Virginia, and Libby, one that functions mostly as a three-way marriage where only one party is completely in the dark about the truth of the arrangement. Libby has known about the affair for years, and though it has broken her in some ways, she has made her peace with it. Virginia is now, if not before, fully aware of Libby’s knowledge, and of the role she must play in the Masters marriage—ensuring Bill stays in that marriage, even if the affair continues—going forward. It is Bill that is alone, outside, in the dark. It is Bill who is once again ensconced in his own isolation, walled off from the people who would love him if he would let them. It is Bill, with his inability to be honest or open with his wife, his mistress, or his children, that creates and supports so many of the rifts going on in the extended family.
“Parliament of Owls” is full of powerful, emotionally resonant moments that build on years of character development and lend insight into how things have change in the years since the season two finale. Several scenes underline the new Libby-Virginia dynamic, but none better than the one when they literally share a bed and Libby opens up about what she needs to make this arrangement work. We get insights into several (though pointedly not all) of the children, as Henry attempts to enlist, Tessa explores her sexuality with an unwilling Bill, and Johnny rebels against his absent father. The scene between Bill and Johnny where the boy throws the manuscript into the lake and Bill raises his fist at his son, only to realize how close he is to becoming his father is incredibly powerful, and Michael Sheen sells the hell out of Bill’s horrified back-pedaling as he lowers his fist and tells Johnny he is grounded. He feels impotent in that moment, but more than that, he is terrified by his own fury and desire. Bill has always been worried about himself as a father, and in “Parliament of Owls,” his worst nightmare very nearly comes true. That it doesn’t speaks volumes about the ways in which Bill is not his father, but it is a shocking, troubling, heartbreaking and fascinating sequence nevertheless.
After a troubled second season that veered wildly between effective storylines (which it frequently abandoned moments after they began) and awful ones (which stretched on for weeks), “Parliament of Owls” seems poised to recapture the balance, tone, and thematic depth of the show’s first season. It helps, of course, that we are entering another very important and productive period in the Masters and Johnson partnership, but the personal material also feels more engaging and focused here than it almost ever did last season. While the show still seems to feel more comfortable rooting itself in Bill’s brokenness than in truly investing in the internal lives of Virginia and Libby, all get great moments here that indicate that may be in the process of changing. Masters of Sex remains a fascinating show full of excellent, layered performances, and one that can reach greatness when it sets its mind to it.
- “Should I cancel the photographer?” “You should stop talking so I can fuck you properly before we try to sleep.”
- “Mr. Buckland…we are the sexual revolution.”
- “Good idea. Like storming Omaha Beach only to pause and study French cuisine.”
- “Two career cards for your father. Naturally. Life imitating life.”
- “How about I trade you? You let me drive the GM to the General store, and I’ll let you talk to me about how my body works.” “Oh, a perfect lose-lose for me.”
- “Over thirty people have lost their lives fighting for Dr. King’s cause, fighting for civil rights.” “Thirty is..a…shocking number.”
- “Life is filled with loss. It is ridiculous to think that you can stop it.”
- “There is no universe where feat is a barrier worth preserving.”
- “Right, sorry. We wanna keep the sex research clean.”
- “You’re…you’re grounded.”
- “I think that a heart can only be broken so many times, and then its done. And I think that I’m done.”
- “If we view the sexual union as something so sacrosanct that it cannot be open to question, we should remember a similar view was taken regarding the stars in Galileo’s day, and I think we can safely say Galileo had the last laugh on that one.”
“Parliament of Owls” is full of powerful, emotionally resonant moments that build on years of character development and lend insight into how things have change in the years since the season two finale.