Nov 20, 2013

TV Recap: Masters of Sex - "Love and Marriage"

Left to right: Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan
Welcome to the weekly recaps of the new Showtime series Masters of Sex that follows the history of Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson's (Lizzy Caplan) actual studies of sex. Make sure to tune in every Wednesday for a dissection of the week's episode as well as thoughts of the show in general as well as potential thoughts of where things are headed. Also, please feel free to check out my recaps on Bob's Burgers every Tuesday and Brooklyn Nine-Nine every Thursday.

Plot: Continuing the research, Masters and Virginia begin to have their exterior lives interfere. Masters wants to spend more time with Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) while Virginia is busy trying to do better in school to get a degree. Her irregular attendance causes the suspicion of her teacher (Julianne Nicholson) to wonder if she is really dedicated and refuses to let her get special treatment because she is a woman. Libby ends up hiring Walter (Flex Alexander) to clean the gutters to compensate for her lack of a mobile husband. This leads them to begin seeing each other to study the dances that Walter and his deceased wife used to practice. Barton (Beau Bridges) tries to pull things together with Margaret (Allison Janney) by going to the drive-in, but it doesn't go well. Margaret also calls things off with Dr. Langham (Teddy Sears) out of fear of his path crossing again with Barton. Barton talks with Masters and decides to take an experimental treatment to cure his gayness, which falls through. Dr. Haas (Nicholas D'Agosto) decides to propose to Vivian (Rose McIver), which goes over well despite Langham spreading cynicism. Masters attempts to improve the study by having his friend Lester (Kevin Christy) make a camera for their dildo. He ends up becoming part of the project and films the footage, which Masters is riveted by simply because he and Virginia are the only ones to have seen it. Virginia does well in her class and thus wins back the respect of her teacher.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Left to right: Caitlin Fitzgerald and Flex Alexander
This may easily be my favorite episode of the season so far. While we came off of a heavy hurdle of problems, it looks like the characters have been established and we are now able to just let them live their lives. Not that everyone's life is normal, but where we have been stuck in a mix of brooding for the past few weeks, here we see people taking initiative for change. From Virginia's studies to Barton's underlying homosexual debacle, this episode is packed full of brilliant character moments that not only help to make the universe stronger, but prove that there is sustenance in the show outside of the titular Masters and her partner Virginia. In fact, slowly it seems that the more that people are open up to the idea of sexuality, the more that things seem to fall into place better.
Probably the most interesting is the introduction to yet another taboo. Unlike most of the other taboos on the show, this one has to do with race. Walter is a gardener who befriends Libby and they soon hit it off. Even if this is his only appearance in the show's entire run, it introduces the astigmatisms that went with the era. In the closing act when Libby is confronted with Walter's presence, she calls him a "handyman." While not entirely incorrect, it does reflect how much people weren't willing to address the issue back then. Much like gender studies, this show seems to paint the culture accurately even if it has to make us feel sympathetic towards them first. I feel that was is more effective. Seeing Walter and Libby dance was a nice, refreshing moment for the series, as it finally gave Libby the chance to be happy, notably after the tragedy that was the miscarriage. It also gives me the sense that while she did befriend a perverted couple, that her exploration into the world will continue to lead to interesting relationships and make her as strong and as interesting as she has been when she isn't trying to please Masters.
I still feel like of all stories however that Haas and Vivian is the thinnest and most inessential plot. While I get that Vivian is the Scully family's daughter, they haven't done anything significant in comparison to almost every character on the show. Haas may work at the hospital, but comparatively, he seems to be rather put together. Maybe with the wedding we'll finally get some sense of drama. Otherwise, I am willing to call them the weakest part of every episode, even if their happiness was a nice tonal shift from the dread that occasionally happened. I am willing to give them time because much like Margaret and Barton, I felt like their stories didn't evolve until the middle of the season, which was perfectly fine.
Left to right: Finn Witrock and
Beau Bridges
In fact, they may have become the greatest part of Masters of Sex with the past few episodes. Even if the Langham affair was momentary, it did present a dynamic that was intriguing. Both are fine having affairs against each other, though they aren't entirely being honest with each other on them. As seen in the drive-in scene, Margaret is becoming more and more aware of his lack of fondness by noting that he refused to look at her naked body. It is heartbreaking to watch Barton suffer through this because he does seem sincere when he says that he loves his wife, even if he is a homosexual and has to hide his affairs by claiming he's seeing a prostitute when confronted at a restaurant. 
In fact, of all of the characters on the show, Barton has the most to lose here. Much like Walter being disowned by Libby at the end of the episode, homosexuality is considered way too detrimental to the career. Margaret still thinks that it is women and Masters is having his lips sealed on the situation. If things get out, he could sacrifice his career and lose the respect he has built. Nowadays, that seems ludicrous, but at the time it was crucial to not be seen as a pariah. Barton is endlessly fascinating as the show goes on simply because you root for him to keep everything together. Even if his outfits do give away a queer sensibility, he does seem like a lovable old doctor. The scene in which he confronts his male lover and tries to do a study to remove his gayness is heartbreaking, if just because that is how low he has to go. More than for his profession, he is doing it for his wife, and as romantic as that is, the lack of esteem Margaret seems to have built only makes the move seem more like it won't pay off. 
It is also interesting to see the sex studies move beyond viewing the patient and now the technical side of everything. Despite showing some nudity and sexuality in this episode, the central plot of Masters consulting Lester, a man who considers himself a documentarian in the style of Hitchcock, is fun on a different level. To understand how cameras have evolved over the years is fascinating, but to see it applied towards sex is something that isn't often seen, notably when involving searching inside the body. Lester himself is a candid and fun addition to the cast. Even the update of the "watch out for the dildo" joke was a nice touch. Even if it was more for the sake of technicality, I like the idea of exploring the mechanics that also go into recording the research and wonder if there's any other "advancements" along these lines that will be explored as time goes on.
I think another reason that this episode works is because while Masters is doing a lot, he isn't the center of attention. I have nothing against him, but it seems like when he is at the center of the story, the moments drag a little. His repression towards female sexuality is endearing, but he seems more of an introverted character who is having revelations through these studies. Those moments when sex becomes something more for him seem to bring out the best moments. In this episode, very little of Masters' story is personal, and it makes him stronger as he is just doing business and allowing everyone else's story to unfold in intriguing and fascinating ways. Virginia is also excellent as always, though it is also just interesting that in the science world, she has to earn the respect of her peers through getting a degree from, of all people, a woman.
The episode as a whole works because we now understand who these characters are and what their happy states are. "Love and Marriage" is an accurate title simply because at times those two concepts seem isolated. Where Haas and Vivian are getting married for being in love, it feels like the other loves aren't tied to marriage. Barton tries to rekindle love with his wife, but it doesn't work. Libby shows love towards a widowed man. There's even this sense that everyone is on the verge of divorce. Still, the overlying themes that love and marriage aren't mutually exclusive are explored in brilliant detail here and reflect a show that should only be getting better at allowing their characters to tread into unknown territory more often in shocking and fresh new ways.

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