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‘Masters of Sex’ Recap: For Virginia, Work = Love

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By KATE PHILLIPS  JULY 13, 2014 11:01 PM  |  ArtsBeat/The New York Times

 

Season 2, Episode 1 Let it rain.

 

In the darkness of a nighttime downpour, Dr. William Masters tells his research partner Virginia Johnson: “I finally realize there is one thing I cannot live without. It’s you.”

 

His arrival on her doorstep ended Showtime’s first season of “Masters of Sex,” and the start of the second returns us to that very scene. But once Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) opens her door and her bed to Bill (Michael Sheen), his words prove much simpler than finding a path for the legendary sex researchers to continue what had already become a complicated, co-dependent relationship.

 

This episode keeps drawing us back to their coupling that night, far from the laboratory at Washington University in St. Louis where the two spent last season exploring the physical reactions of men and women during and after sex – including hooking themselves up to machines as test subjects. Their attraction toward each other last season offered a thread of sexual tension that bursts into the open in this first episode.

 

Now they’re “flying blind,” as Bill says to her in bed, taking her wrist and feeling for a pulse in his obtuse way and remarking “there are no instruments, no points on a graph.” Although Virginia asks in a soft pillow-talk voice (with those wide, dark pools of eyes) what measurements could possibly interpret this moment of passion, it’s a safe bet that especially for Bill, the masquerade of working together in the future will provide better cover for emotional attachment than any set of sheets.

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in “Masters of Sex.” © Michael Desmond /Showtime ©

As TV critic Alessandra Stanley observed, “Masters of Sex,” like “Mad Men” and “Boardwalk Empire,” is “a drama that rakes through earlier times looking for new forms of heroism — not the bravery forged in combat, but the kind that mostly arises in peacetime, namely in the battle of the sexes.”

 

And that battle has barely begun in the series setting of the late 1950s. First Bill and Virginia have to pick up their lives and figure out a way to resume the research, which was canceled abruptly in last season’s finale after Dr. Masters made a grievous miscalculation by showing to a roomful of medical colleagues a film of a naked woman (without her face showing) masturbating. They considered the scenes “smut” and beneath the dignity of academic study.

 

This season’s first episode deals with the aftermath of his clinically inclined blind spots, in scenes offering amusing and sometimes disturbing results. Work drives both Bill and Virginia’s lives, and entanglements between the professional and the personal hover as a threat to their shared purpose.

 

Fired from his post, Bill sits at home, unemployed and ignoring the wails of the new baby, John, crying desperately from his crib. Virginia, a single mother of two children, is still working at the hospital but at a lower salary in a secretarial pool. Resorting to selling diet pills to try to augment her income, she is also dogged by lechy doctors who chase her around the hospital (even into the women’s restroom). (They assume the film showed her naked body. We know it’s hers from glimpses last season of Bill dreamily watching the footage in his office. She recognized herself on the screen during his presentation. Oddly in this episode, she – the junior partner without a medical degree — thanks him adoringly for adding her name to the study’s booklet but never confronts him about whether he exposed her without her permission.)

 

And it’s not just Bill’s former colleagues who put a face to that body. His wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), may be as hyper-coiffed and stylish as a Grace Kelly, but she’s also an inquisitive, perceptive spouse who senses from the get-go that Virginia and her husband share something palpably sensuous. Something she rarely, perhaps never, enjoys in their stilted marriage.

 

Libby, too, faces repercussions from her husband’s ill-conceived presentation. The hospital pediatrician expresses astonishment at her bravery for showing up for the baby’s three-week checkup after Bill’s “debacle.” After defending her husband’s “beloved” reputation, she discovers Virginia in the cafeteria selling those diet pills and relates the scorn she suffered.

 

“One study like a nuclear rainfall on us all,” Virginia says.

 

Of all people, Libby seeks Virginia’s advice in trying to get Bill back to work.

 

“When does trying to make Bill do anything work?” Virginia asks rather knowingly, while cuddling Baby Johnny, who she says smells like milkshake.

 

“But say you were me,” Libby goes on, as they exchange awkward glances.

 

“If I were you, I would take care of little milkshake here first off, right?” Virginia replies. “Most of all, I would take care of myself. It’s all you can do.”

 

If anything, this episode delves into all the troubled relationships of incredibly nuanced characters, familial, patient to doctor, and those in academe. While the Masters and Johnson research developed a body of work that was intended to explain the physiological reactions of human sexuality, the series itself surfaces the tingles, shivers and currents of bonds and mores – and lack thereof — between couples and friends. With Bill, what’s left unsaid is most often reality. With Virginia, more is spoken albeit in a guarded way.

 

And the series unerringly magnifies the difficulties women faced trying to work in the predominantly male medical fields, showcased by Virginia’s latest boss, Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), the cancer-ridden OB-GYN who has committed her remaining days to ensuring that women nationwide receive Pap smears to detect cervical anomalies.

 

But in this episode, like the entire series, work and love can often be one and the same – at least for Virginia. This episode marks perhaps the last of a rival suitor, Dr. Ethan Haas.

 

Virginia ends their relationship over the telephone while Bill listens from the pillow. “Do you love someone else,” Ethan asks. “My God, don’t say you love Bill.”

 

When she basically doesn’t address the issue, Ethan implores: “Do not let Bill manipulate you like this,” and promises to give her and her children a future that Bill can’t. “What is it that Bill can offer you? WORK?” Ethan continues. “This cannot be because of work, because of the study. It cannot be.”

 

“But it is,” Virginia says. “It’s where I belong.”

 

In the Masters household, relationships are fraying to the breakpoint. In her continuing effort to prod Bill toward a new job, Libby, dressed in a beautiful vintage blue evening outfit with matching pearl strands, drags him to a fund-raiser for Gateway Memorial Hospital to combat rubella and whooping cough. She wants to corner Dr. Doug Greathouse, who is played by Danny Huston, son of the icon director John and most recently, the creepy Axeman on “American Horror Story: Coven.” Dr. Greathouse tells the audience he doesn’t usually act as M.C. for such events, “but as my wife says, there’s more to life than the problems between a shapely pair of knees.”

 

Sometimes not. Surprisingly, Mr. Pretzel King (Greg Grunberg) and one of Bill’s early test subjects, Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) from the brothel where the experiments began, buttonhole Bill. Mr. Pretzel’s worried that they can’t get in a “family way.” (In an earlier episode, Bill discovered during surgery on Betty that she was sterile but she’s withheld that from her new spouse.) Mr. Pretzel King turns out to be a generous donor, who not only wants to further Bill’s “birds and bees study,” but land him a job at Memorial with the primary motive, of course, of getting Betty pregnant.

 

Despondent that Mr. Pretzel monopolized Dr. Greathouse’s time at the fund-raiser, Libby pursues another avenue, and goes for a visit with the doctor’s wife. When Bill doesn’t want to be left alone with the baby, Libby delivers: “Nobody knows more about babies than you do. There is nothing that could happen with Johnny that you couldn’t handle.”

 

Right. Except that we don’t even know if Bill is the father, because in the last season Gini disclosed his low sperm count to Libby, setting her on a mission to get pregnant again after a devastating fetal death. When the baby cries endlessly, Bill walks toward the nursery but then stops. Instead, he blots out the wails by playing The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” only to have it silenced by his imposing mother, Essie, holding the baby.

 

However cringe-worthy Bill’s neglect of the baby seems, this scene gives us another window into his upbringing. Essie (Ann Dowd) reminds him that they’re family, that they have to find a way to move beyond their past. He rejects her plea, acknowledging her disapproval, but says that she finds him intolerable, like his father, because of his behavior with Virginia. “I have sex with Virginia regularly,” he admits, “and no plans to stop.”

 

Essie turns her back on him, but he keeps at it. “I am my father. You know it,” he tells her, adding that now his son knows it. “You know the real magic here on some malevolent sleight of hand is I have also turned into you.”

 

With that, he banishes her back to Ohio, later advising Libby that they’ll now need a nanny.

 

Somehow, Bill’s tortured, twisted relationships with his mother, his wife and his obfuscations with Virginia don’t affect his abiding friendship with Dr. Barton Scully, whose closeted homosexuality in the last season has become desperate and moving. I’ve left this for almost last in recapping, because of its troublesome heart-stopping exposition of an era that time can’t forget, or forgive.

 

Barton, Bill’s longtime mentor and colleague for 20 or more years, decides to undergo controversial electroshock therapy in an effort to change his sexual orientation. Although Bill expressed his doubts about such treatment, he comforts Barton and cares for him, watching horrified as Barton convulses in agony.

 

Later, Barton tests the treatment’s results, approaching his wife, Margaret (Allison Janney), while she’s reading “Lolita” in bed. (Some of the last season’s most powerful moments occurred when Margaret discovered her husband’s secret life and then her own sexuality through an affair.) In the Scully bedroom, Margaret resists being positioned like a boy for sex and wants Barton to look at her, to face her. “There’s a shred of me left that feels like I’m a woman,” she says, as he painfully begs her to help him.

 

Not long afterward, Margaret and their daughter thwart his attempted suicide by cutting the rope from which he’s hanged himself in the basement. Later, when when Bill visits Barton’s home to tell him about his new job, Margaret puts him off at the door and hides the truth that lies within their house.

 

And so the charades go on, accompanied by another rainstorm. For Bill and Virginia, they begin anew at a hotel in Alton, Ill. where they dance around the terms of what, for a normal couple, would be an affair. But that’s too pedestrian.

 

Virginia forges ahead without blinking. “It is a rare man that could understand how a woman chooses work over love,” she asserts.

 

It cannot be an affair, Bill notes, because “I’m a happily married man.”

 

Positing that something was indeed different the other night, Bill suggests “perhaps there is an immeasurable psychological component that can bear directly on the body.”

 

That’s a whole separate line of inquiry, he adds.

 

And then they get a room, signing in as Dr. Francis Holden and wife.

 

Notes and Questions: What do you think of the new arrangements between Bill and Gini? Were you surprised or dismayed by Bill’s attitude toward the baby?

 

For background, the series is based on a book of the same title, by Thomas Maier, who wrote a new essay about the relationship between Masters & Johnson that accompanied photographs of the couple by Life magazine.

 

The author also questioned later work on gay conversion therapy by Masters and Johnson.

 

I’m in awe of the wardrobes, especially the women’s clothes, in this series. Showtime has posted an interview with the costume designer, Ane Crabtree.

 

Lizzy Caplan, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney all received Emmy nominations last week for their work in the series.

 

Correction: July 14, 2014

An earlier version of this recap misstated the surname of the costume designer. She is Ane Crabtree, not Campbell.

 

Reference:  ArtsBeat/The New York Times By KATE PHILLIPS  JULY 13, 2014 11:01 PM

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