'Masters of Sex' Recap: Less a Show About Sex and More a Show About Women
Masters of Sex and Mad Men might have more in common than just the period costumes and mid-modern interior designs. While both series have central male characters, they're also largely about the transformation of the role of women in the 1950s and 60s, the undercurrents of which we still feel today.
Episode two of Masters of Sex opens with a reminder that last week's episode ended with William Masters asking Virginia Johnson for sex, or, "research" as he calls it.
Flash forward to Johnson's rejection. "I have come to the conclusion that it was an unreasonable request on your part," she says. "Such an unconventional arrangement could jeopardize my position here." And he smiles fondly upon her clear-sighted response.
But wait, the study never got that far. That was just a dream (the show is still filled with corny touches like these).
After the provost hears that the study has moved to couples copulating, it gets shut down. Masters says it is scorned lover Ethan Haas who tattled, and therefore, Johnson is fired.
So, no speech necessary.
The show continues to belabor on about the dangers of the study, going so far as to get Masters busted by police while "studying" in a brothel. Which is all good and well an attempt to make Masters seem heroic and dedicated, but the stakes feel really low when you know the study is going to happen since that's the entire premise of the show.
What doesn't help Masters in becoming more human, warm, or relatable is his relationship with his wife. "In a strange way, it's romantic," poor Libby says as he talks about getting her pumped full of progestin. But Masters is about as romantic as a snail, having a nurse come in just as he's beginning to joke and flirt with her.
While driving home with his wife, after being picked up from the hospital for being in a brothel, Masters can only muster, "I wasn't in that brothel as a customer" as consolation.
"People were having sex in front of you," she says.
"Not the prostitutes, the prostitutes only masturbate in front of me." Masters is a master of words, clearly.
Later, she tries to masturbate in front of him in hopes of enticing him to see her as a sexual creature (though you're never quite sure if she's aroused or crying during the scene, maybe both?), but he says, "Don't. Don't. I love you too much. You don't have to do this," and she goes to her separate bed.
And then there's Betty the hooker with a heart of gold and (metaphorical) brass knuckles of steal. While her accent seems ripped more from the Jersey Shore than any unlearned corner of St. Louis, she's as sassy as they come and while she might not know about cardiograms, she doesn't need them to get what she wants. She negotiates the women in the brothel to get double their usual rates and free healthcare if they participate in Masters' study and gets herself a position at the hospital as well.
Finally, Virginia is facing the very 2013 problem of "having it all"—or, at least, balancing kids with work. Her son gets suspended for spitting on the teacher and so she must find someone (or some way) to watch over him. One night, she leaves home in the hopes of winning back her job with Masters, but her son desperately wants to read a comic book. "We will read it together. Tonight just got a little complicated," she promises. And her disappointment is palpable when the babysitter — who she hired after sabotaging her chances of becoming Masters' new secretary — later reads the book with him after she returns home late on another night.
Even without the worries of a job or children, the women of Masters of Sex's lives are deep and complex. On the other hand, the central male characters' inner lives are mostly only illuminated so far as to show that they are sexually attracted to Virginia Johnson (both Masters and that dog Ethan Haas).
Ethan runs around having sex with girls trying to rub Virginia from his mind including a suspiciously naive girl who is willing to sleep with him, but when negotiating oral sex says, "Mother always said never put anything in your mouth when you don't know where it's been."
And Masters is unsympathetically cold.
Perhaps this is the fault of poor writing — to create male characters without nearly the life or dimension of the women. Ethan Haas wants to get his rocks off, and might still have a little sentimental attachment to Virginia. Masters' ego is so big that he subjects his wife to, most likely, unnecessary shots of hormones because the best women's doctor in the Midwest shoots blanks, but can't admit it to his wife who thinks she's deficient and barren.
Or, perhaps, it's smarter than that. The women we're presented with are more intelligent, more empathetic and tougher than the men by strides. Betty and Virginia claw out livings from very little, not even a college degree to lend them credibility.
It is the dawn of the new sexual world as symbolized by the pill and sex in the backseat of a car. But is it so free? Jane can read The Second Sex over lunch, but Beauvoir's words say that as long as relations between the sexes are the way it stands (at least upon its publication in 1949), love is not fair to and can be "mortal peril" for women. (She's acutely unaware that she's being propositioned by a married doctor.)
Even the indelibly scrappy prostitute-lesbian (as Masters chooses to see her), Betty acknowledges that a marriage to (and potentially children with) a wealthy man "is a shot at something good, normal, maybe even happy." Though, we'd like to think that in a meritocracy, a woman so full of street smarts and ability would be able to get ahead without needing a man. Hell, she's not even sexually attracted to men and is in love with a woman.
At the same time, Masters of Sex is a show in which fertility and child-rearing is a central theme, and it reminds us constantly of the necessities of creating children and the realities (both good and bad) of them. ("They are the only thing I could truly love," Virginia says to Betty.)
In this way, perhaps the show is brutally clever in that we're supposed to feel a tinge of disappointment when these vivacious women get swept up into fancy cars and taken to nice dinners by men unworthy of them because society and biology demand it. Only time will tell if that's just wishful thinking.