By KATE PHILLIPS JULY 20, 2014 11:01 PM | ArtsBeat/The New York Times
Teddy Sears and Rose McIver in the latest episode of “Masters of Sex.” Michael Desmond/Showtime
Season 2, Episode 2
“I’m not my worst part,” a young, promiscuous woman declares, beaming after Dr. William Masters defied her parents’ demands that she be sterilized.
It’s an uplifting moment in what is otherwise a foreboding episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Sex.” Human flaws, from suggestions of nymphomania to adultery, are discussed and picked over like scabs. Surely, as the second season continues, Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) seems inclined to explore the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, both scientifically and sexually, in the late 1950s. And that behavior, like it or not, is more often all about women — just like this episode, which explores the consequences of the choices women make or cannot make.
Bill Masters begins his very first day at Gateway Memorial Hospital with the case of an 18-year-old woman, Rose Palmateer (Ana Valentine Walczak), who lands in the hospital with a botched abortion, at a time when such procedures were illegal. Her parents, V.I.D.s or very important donors to the hospital, believe that she is beyond redemption and want Bill to perform a hysterectomy.
His new boss, Dr. Doug Greathouse (Danny Huston), orders Bill to perform the surgery. Greathouse, whom I will now refer to as Dr. Creepy because of his prurient interests in the sex research, doesn’t approve of Bill’s efforts to treat humanely those society has labeled sexually deviant.
From Rose, to Betty the reformed, sterile prostitute, to Barton Scully (Bill’s mentor and a closeted, married gay man who attempted suicide in the last episode) and yes, Bill himself (an adulterer under the guise of science), sexual appetites and orientation evoked societal shunning if not outright exile from families and colleagues.
Even Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) is still ostracized and harassed at Washington University’s hospital because of her masturbation scene in Bill’s laboratory film.
But the women in Bill’s life don’t let up. At nearly every turn, Bill looks perplexed and ponderous (great lingering camera on his expressions) as he encounters the increasingly assertive women in his life. Virginia plots to get rid of his new secretary so she can finagle her way into that job when he resumes his research; Libby maps out her domain at home with their new baby; and Betty, armed with her new husband’s sizable donation to the hospital, orders him to find some miracle way for her to have a baby. So much for Bill thinking he’d banished the most domineering woman in his life: his mother. Ha!
The rebellion starts with the very first scene, where Rose and her parents discuss Cotillion, her debut into society. The gloves are too tight, she says, her arms can’t breathe – an apt metaphor for Rose’s life as she discovers under her table napkin that she’s bleeding.
At the hospital where Bill is assigned by Dr. Creepy to treat Rose, her mother describes Rose’s aberrant behavior from the time they discovered her naked with a boy when she was 14. “We did everything but chain her to the bed,” Rose’s mother said. “She still snuck out every night. It’s the second termination that we know of. Today she almost bled to death. Next time she could die. My husband is so sickened by this he can’t even be near her anymore. The option left is sterilization.”
Dr. Masters balks, vociferously. I found the scenes where Rose describes her behavior to her doctor painful. She’s but a child, ashamed, and worried that the surgery must be done before Cotillion because of the “fortune” her mother paid for her dress. She begs him to cut out the worst part of her.
“It’s like there’s this dark thing inside of me starving and every time I think about a boy or a man I can’t stop till I have it,” she tells Bill. “It’s like no matter what my brain says, this other part. It’s like it’s against me. It just wants and when it wants everything else just goes away.”
Bill reminds her she won’t ever be a mother if he performs the surgery.
“What good a mother would I be anyway?” Rose asks. “I don’t want these sick thoughts anymore. I don’t want to feel ashamed. So if taking out a part of me would make it go away?”
It’s rough to remember that in this time capsule, motherhood was everything.
Several scenes later, Bill returns to Rose in her hospital room, demonstrating an incredible compassionate bedside manner, given how he keeps growing more distant from his wife and baby, Johnny. Showing Rose an intrauterine device, he explains that implanting it will be the first step toward keeping her safe. He likens the revolutionary birth control method to Jonas Salk’s conquering of polio, which Rose doesn’t really comprehend.
Quietly, Bill explains: “There is such promise of hope ahead. You’re not going to have to suffer like this forever, but while we wait for the answers that surely will come, at least we can make sure you don’t get pregnant again.”
(The birth control pill was not readily available on the market as such; a version was in development as Virginia exclaimed to Dr. Lillian DePaul a while back. And the Supreme Court decision, Griswold vs. Connecticut, establishing the privacy of a couple’s bedroom and which became the underlying foundation for Roe v. Wade, was still a few years away.)
Other plot lines are just as riveting.
Leave it to Betty: First, Betty DiMello Moretti (Annaleigh Ashford) lends wonderful comic relief. She chases Bill through the hallways and elevator, intent on finding a way to get pregnant despite her sterility. (At one point, she brushes off a chance encounter with a former client though it clearly upsets her.) Hearing Rose’s mother argue with Bill, she poses as a worker for “Doc Masters” to give Rose a life lesson, and discloses that she poked her own mother’s eye out (with the spiky heel of a pump) for disapproving of her as a tramp and worse. It’s all about standing up for yourself, she tells Rose, only to learn that Bill has already instilled a sense of self-worth in the young woman: “He said something useful?” Betty wonders, astonished.
“He said that I’m just somebody who needs help like all of us. And then he said, ‘I tell you what you’re not, Rose, you’re not your worst part.’ I’m not my worst part,” Rose says, emboldened with her new I.U.D.
Barton and Bill: Virginia and Bill keep meeting up at the hotel in Alton, Ill., over martinis in the lounge, and they try to figure out how Bill’s dear friend Provost Scully has disappeared from Washington University. When Bill finally learns from Scully’s daughter Vivian, that she had broken her arm when she and her mother cut Barton down from hanging, Bill literally collapses outside his car, dropping his keys.
(Barton’s and Margaret’s trip to Venice also probably accommodates the actors Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, who have roles in other TV series. Mr. Bridges is a regular on “The Millers,” while Ms. Janney is performing in “Mom.” I miss them already.)
The Budding Sisterhood: Didn’t you adore then worry about the interaction between Virginia and Lillian, as Virginia realizes that her boss’s language miscues represent spreading cancer?
The makeup scene cracked me up, and said so much about their different upbringings.
Lillian finally listens to Virginia’s advice, and decides to wear makeup for a medical film that she’s narrating about Pap smears. She tells Virginia to apply it.
“Your mother didn’t teach you about makeup?” Virginia asks.
Lillian scoffs: “That would imply my mother had a child. My mother’s passion was bridge.”
“As in cards?” Virginia asks.
“No as in a structure over the Missouri.”
Lillian pokes fun, asking if Virginia’s mom clapped when they ate their vegetables, but Virginia says rather vaguely that her mother had dreams for both of them.
That conversation is a prelude to a later scene, where it’s determined that Lillian’s cancer – with an eye bruise evident last week – has metastasized. Pizza is Lillian’s answer to news of her oncoming death.
And that leads Virginia to tell Bill that she’s lost her “appetite” for getting rid of Bill’s secretary, Barbara Sanderson (Betsy Brandt), chosen and ogled by Dr. Creepy.
Libby and Coral: Keke Palmer arrives as Coral, the new nanny, complete with ways to soothe the Masters’ crying baby with a tight swaddle, as her auntie taught her. Libby strives to establish their bond, but she corrects Coral’s pronunciation of “ask,” not “axe,” because, as Libby says in a prescient moment, the two of them will essentially be the ones raising the child. In other words, not Bill.
Libby also launches into a near soliloquy about the essential benefits of “chat” between a husband and wife, something absent from her marriage.
“I knew my husband was reticent about children,” Libby confides in Coral. “I know Bill didn’t have a happy childhood. But again, no chit chat, so I’m vague on the details, if you can believe that after all these years.
“I was just so sure that once Bill had his own child, all that worried him and hurt him would all just melt away. But instead it’s like he’s worse, more cut off like he’s scared of that perfect innocent beautiful boy.
“Whoever heard of a grown man being afraid of his own child?”
Questions and Notes: Did you notice that the consummate philanderer, Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), mentioned to Vivian Scully that his wife has moved with their kids to a relative’s house in Alton, Ill., the town where Virginia and Bill now visit for repeat rendezvous?
Do you agree with Langham’s description while dancing with Virginia that they’re lone wolves, who are shunned because they don’t conform?
Where will Dr. Creepy, quoting from Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du mal,” take Bill’s study? Do you find his queries into the extremes that Bill could study rather uncomfortable?
P.S. I don’t want to get into the politics of abortion or birth control, but doesn’t it seem evident that this series takes us in that direction?
Reference: ArtsBeat/The New York Times By KATE PHILLIPS JULY 20, 2014 11:01 PM