Masters of Sex s2 ep 12

“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, the final episode in season 2, encapsulated the strengths and weaknesses of this excellent but inconsistent show. The main selling point continues to be the relationship between Bill and Ginny: as they worked towards curing Bill’s impotence, they grappled with the unpleasant possibility of being professionally bested by Dr Kaufman, author of the inferior ‘Man And Sex’, and of seeing a sanitised version of their own research broadcast on CBS. Even by Bill’s standards, his tactics to avoid the latter are breathtakingly selfish, earning him a rebuke from an old friend making a welcome return to the show. And they might cost Ginny her children, even if that’s a storyline I otherwise find it hard to get too worked up about.

The subplots, though, continued to disappoint. Libby’s continuing relationship with Robert still seemed as if it arose because of a desire to do something with Libby, and to do something about race. Hey presto: Libby and an African-American. (Although we did find out that Libby has known about Bill and Ginny for years.) And turning the tables so that Flo is reluctant to be seen publicly with Austin, because she thinks her family will regard him as a blond airhead, was a neat trick, but probably no more than that. (It also left unaddressed the potentially more interesting issue of whether Austin’s sudden willingness to hang with Flo was because of personal ambition, or because he likes her.) I’m probably being inconsistent, though, because even though the idea of Lester and Barbara fixing each other through love is melodramatic and manipulative, I found it sweet and touching.

So: overall, a good if mixed episode, ending a good if occasionally variable season. It’s that which stops Masters of Sex from being promoted to the TV premier league: the show didn’t quite make the leap that, say, The Americans made between its first two seasons. Still, the fact that we live in an age when something as daring, intelligent, thoughtful, and well-acted as Masters of Sex isn’t even close to being the best thing on TV is something to give thanks for, and “Fight” was one of the best episodes of anything I’m likely to see all year.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 11

So, last week’s violence-fuelled burst of activity was a blip. Bill is impotent again, just in time for the CBS crew to arrive at the office and film a documentary about the Masters/Johnson study. This presumably adds to his awkwardness in front of the camera, although in the present age when every academic talking head on TV looks as if they’ve had years of training in the art of appearing on screen – and for all I know they have – it’s refreshing to see a character who doesn’t know what to do. Libby watches Bill and Ginny being interviewed, though, at ease with each other if not necessarily with the situation, and a penny starts to drop.

Which leads to the first of two potentially problematic storylines. Libby is given a lift home from CORE by Robert, delivers a powerful monologue about what society expects – has always expected – of her, then they have sex. It’s a development which has looked inevitable for some weeks, even if – on one view – she’s an aristocratic blonde who can’t be satisfied by her whitey husband, but can be by the potent African-American. (And a man who hasn’t given the slightest hint that he likes her on any level.) On the other hand, it has to be good for Libby to make love with a man who possibly wants her. Hmm. Let’s see where it goes next week.

And in the second, Flo confides her sexual fantasy to Austin, then asks him to act it out. It amounts to something close to a “rape” fantasy, which is a minefield I’m not going to wander into. Except to say that (a) as the ensuing scene proves, if you’re going to do that sort of thing then, as Dan Savage says, you gotta storyboard that shit in advance and in detail; (b) the aftermath, in which it becomes clear that Flo’s confidence hides something of a lack of self-esteem, is actually quite moving. And suddenly I’m hoping that she and Austin have a proper relationship.

The final scenes, though, cut to the heart of the relationship between Ginny and Bill: Bill admits that he isn’t personable, he doesn’t smile, he’s uncomfortable in his own skin, and wonders aloud why on earth anyone – particularly Ginny – would find him attractive. Which, in fairness, is something one viewer at least has been troubled by for a while. But Bill’s self-loathing runs deep, and it may be that the only person who can fix him is Ginny with her magical powers; in fact, the final scene has her cradling him in what looks like a Pietà, and for a fleeting moment I genuinely wondered if I’d been watching this show too superficially: is it all metaphor? Is Ginny, in fact, not just supernatural, but divine? Probably not. An excellent episode, though.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 10

There probably isn’t any particularly good reason for it, but I thought ‘Below The Belt’ – in what has been a strong if uneven season – was the best episode since this one. Sexual dysfunction is now front and centre, with Bill’s impotence (“I’m broken. And you’re the only one who can fix me”) being treated by Ginny as a professional and personal challenge, even though it isn’t clear what’s triggered it. There’s a genuinely sexy scene about halfway through the episode in which she nearly succeeds in curing him, by using his personality against him: a man who needs to be in control, but who responds to having someone tell him what to do. And in the sweetest storyline of the week, troubled souls Lester (impotence again) and Barbara (vaginismus) seem to be hitting it off: yes, I know that for them to fall in love and thus cure each other would be far too neat, but if their problems are psychological rather than physiological, why the hell not? Even if the OTP is still Bill and Ginny, we can ship in Masters of Sex, right?

There are some great performances in minor roles this week as well: John Billingsley is excellent once again as Dr Madden, who adriotly takes Ginny’s admission that she was pretending to be someone else and uses it to start unpacking her affair. The always-reliable Adam Arkin (who also directed) is PR man Shep Tally, brought in by Bill to ensure that he and Ginny get credit for their work, although he very quickly divines that it’s the Bill and Ginny magic which will drive that: get them on TV and they’ll be stars. And Artemis Pebdani is both predatory and vulnerable as Langham’s boss. The weak link remains Libby’s voluntary work for CORE, although there are signs of life even there.

As, by the end of the episode, there are in Little Bill. First, though, he has to exhibit the worst side of his personality again, taunting Frank to the point of violence, inviting and receiving a beating, then meeting Ginny at their hotel room and allowing her to prove that she is indeed the person who can fix him. I’ve said more than once that Masters of Sex is perhaps too ready to treat Ginny as if she has superhuman powers, but on this occasion it felt right.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 9

Bill and Ginny are still working on their pet projects this week. Ginny’s therapy-by-proxy for Barbara starts to unravel when Ginny works details of her own life into her sessions; meantime Bill’s well-meaning but unsuccessful treatment of Barbara’s dysfunction amounts to introducing her to some carefully-chosen dildi, which is unlikely to work without treatment of the underlying psychological problem. The same goes for his treatment of Lester’s impotence, which is to prescribe an attractive sex worker to try and, um, light a fire downstairs. All of which proves, at some length, that they know less about sex than they think they do.

They may also know less about themselves than they think they do, and it’s only when the two of them are in their hotel room – again pretending to be other people – that they can start to confront these issues, with Ginny making the obvious point that their physical relationship hasn’t been about the study in a long time, and Bill finally admitting to his impotence. It was a strong ending – because Bill/Ginny scenes in the hotel room are always the purest televisual gold – but the episode as a whole felt ponderous, particularly because the ongoing arc about Libby’s civil rights awakening still feels bolted-on rather than organic.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 8

Dysfunction week: Bill and Ginny (mostly Ginny) have realised that sexual dysfunction is causing a huge amount of misery, that they already know quite a lot about it, and that they have a database of prospective volunteers who were rejected for the study precisely because of it, so they’re ideally placed to do something about it. Impotence is still at the top of Bill’s agenda, but putting lead in his own pencil seems to be beyond him at the moment; poor Lester, though, admits to similar troubles. More distressingly Barbara (Betsy Brandt), Bill’s former secretary, confronts a case of psychologically-induced vaginismus with Ginny’s assistance. Ginny’s strategy for addressing it is at first clumsy, then frankly dangerous, and were it anyone else but Ginny I’d say that it’s unlikely to end well; given, though, that the show has generally treated her as possessing supernatural powers it’ll probably turn out all right. Brandt, though, is terrific again.

Bill isn’t quite as unpleasant as normal this week, it has to be said: he does his best to play nice in order to recruit , and he manages to get through an episode without humiliating Ginny or Libby. But another part of his past catches up with him, as he treats a couple who are having difficulties in conceiving: the husband is an old college friend, apparently, but towards the end of the episode it’s revealed that he’s Bill’s brother, someone else Bill’s fallen out with. We don’t yet know why, which leaves open the possibility that he might be more sinned against, although my heart sank a bit at the likelihood of yet more angst from Bill. And the storyline featuring Libby and her racial awakening inches forward again: I’m still not sure where they’re going with it, mind you: if Libby is going to embrace the cultural, social, and political challenges raised by her growing concerns about the plight of African-Americans by, well, embracing an African-American, that might be problematic for the show. But we’ll see. All in all “Mirror, Mirror” was a decent episode; not one of the best of the season, perhaps, but entertaining.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 7

For long stretches of the first half of Asterion, Masters of Sex once again comes off like a show to be admired rather than enjoyed. It’s not much fun to watch: once again we’re drawn into the whirlwind of Bill Masters’s all-encompassing misanthropy, as he seems determined to make Libby and Ginny as miserable as he is, perhaps dragging the viewer down as well. The action has advanced a few months, and Bill has a clinic of his own, albeit one which barely pays its way. Ginny is still working with him, but they’re not “participating in the study” any more, and seem barely to be on speaking terms; she’s furious when he hires the now-divorced Betty as office manager without consulting her. In consequence he’s become impotent, and not even a BJ from a sex worker can cure him. He argues with Ginny, with Libby, with his mother; it gives the whole thing a sour taste, and even though he’s in pain there isn’t much excuse for his behaviour. As Libby tells him, he’s just “spreading the torment around”.

But the second half, when Bill seems to unbend a little, is much easier to watch: the study is properly under way, he and Ginny make it back to the hotel room, there’s détente with his mother, and Betty – inevitably – turns out to be a terrific office manager, starting to obtain qualifications in accountancy and real estate. Even the hapless hotel bellboy, Elliot, who has had dealings over the months with “Dr and Mrs Holden”, turns out to be not so hapless after all; he’s promoted, and knows exactly who Dr Holden is. (Which once again prompted me to wonder just how much Libby has worked out about her husband’s relationship with Ginny, if Elliot can spot what’s going on.)

In its way it’s quite a complicated episode; there are at least two major time-leaps – one flagged up on screen, one left to be inferred – and a few minor ones as well, such as when Betty shows prospective tenants round their office building. Masters of Sex continues to be rewarding, but it isn’t always a bundle of laughs.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 6

‘Blackbird’ – a potent brew of sex and race – was perhaps the best episode of the season so far, apart from ‘Fight’. The point, driven home over and over again, is just how dysfunctional these people are. Bill has now managed to talk his way out of yet another job, this time by running to an African-American journalist to lie about his study, hoping that he can leverage that into the study continuing at Buell Green, despite Dr Hendricks’s (reasonable) concerns about medical studies of “Negroes” carried out by white doctors with their eyes on a bigger prize. And he and Ginny kiss, this being the last barrier between the two of them, reminding us that when all’s said and done he’s cheating on his wife. If he’s supposed to be a hero, he’s a rum one.

Ginny continues to provide solace to DePaul – and some of their scenes together this week are extraordinarily touching – but acknowledges that De Paul isn’t actually all that nice, meaning that two of the people she’s drawn to (DePaul and Bill) are pretty unpleasant, and really only redeemed by her love for them. And she has a “beau”, who Bill only finds about accidentally. Libby, meantime, continues her borderline obsessive interest in the private life of Coral, following it to a frankly demented extreme when she chucks her baby into the car and follows Coral home, only to discover that the man she thought was Coral’s boyfriend is actually her brother. (This is treated as a revelation, but I kind of thought that we knew that already…? Maybe not.)

And on top of all that, the ongoing story of Betty and Gene reached the inevitable endpoint, when he found out the truth about Betty and Helen. It’s still not clear how their arc links into the overarching plot of the show any more, now that Betty isn’t looking for fertility treatment, and Gene isn’t funding Bill’s studies, but from a dramatic point of view, it’s great still having them around. The point, of course, might simply be that forcing people into sexual straitjackets leads to profound unhappiness, a point which might seem trite, but which in fact remains relevant today – if not quite as pressing as it was at the time of Masters of Sex – with even fairly standard sexual practices between consenting adults still treated as shameful, sinful, curable, even ideologically unsound. On sex and race, we still have a ways to go.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 5

There are power games going on this week: Bill and Ginny continue their curious courtship, if that’s what it is. Libby and Coral continue to go at it as well, with Coral hinting heavily that she knows how unsatisfactory Libby’s marriage is, and her boyfriend coming round to add to the pressure on Libby, a process which is accelerated by Bill unequivocally taking Coral’s side in respect of the hair-washing. DePaul and Ginny argue about the latter’s blurring of work and life boundaries.

The most erotic scene, of course, is a Bill and Ginny one: shortly after he’s confirmed that continuing their personal “research” is a part of her job, they head to their hotel room, where she gets out the stopwatch and orders him to strip and masturbate. What ensues is, inevitably, significantly hotter than his subsequent clothes-on make-up sex with poor Libby. It still baffles me, though, why Ginny – who has been presented throughout the show’s run as a woman ahead of her time – would have anything to do with Bill, romantically at least; he’s never been likeable, and in this episode he verges on the actively unpleasant.

As I suggested last week, racial politics are now playing a bigger role in Masters of Sex: as well as Libby and Coral, there’s the ongoing matter of Bill and Ginny at the African-American hospital Buell Green, where their Caucasian patients fear to tread. Dr Hendricks (Courtney B. Vance, excellent) is intent on racial integration, which means that Bill and Ginny need to get their patients back, which in turn means that Bill can no longer affect lofty disdain for the whole issue; he’s in or he’s out, and it looks as if he’s in.

And Sarah Silverman turns up as Betty’s former lover Helen. It looks like stunt-casting, but Silverman is actually very good indeed, and I hope we see her back, even if it’s now hard to see what relevance Betty and Gene have to the main plot. Anyway, Silverman’s presence means, if I’ve got this right, that Sheen is now acting opposite his current squeeze (Silverman) and her most recent predecessor (Caitlin FitzGerald). Hope they all get on. A decent episode, but missing a spark.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 4

The lack of forward movement in Masters of Sex, last week’s superlative episode aside, has become a little frustrating. (One of the problems with writing about this show is that every second sentence becomes innuendo-laden. Never mind.) The study is on again, then off again, when Bill finally realises that Dr Greathouse’s interest in it is entirely voyeuristic; the final straw being when Greathouse invites a few colleagues round to watch the action, whereupon Bill smacks him a few times. This, of course, obliquely raises the question of whether viewers of this show are in a position to take the moral high ground about voyeurism.

Bill and Ginny’s relationship took a step forward last week, then takes one step back this – Ginny wants to work for the study; Bill can’t get it sorted. Then Austin sees the two of them leaving their hotel room, and blabs to DePaul, who seems heartbroken. I think we need to put that down as a girlcrush at the very least.

So Bill’s jobless after his ruck with Greathouse, Libby’s jobless after DePaul finds out about her relationship with Bill, and Austin’s in a position to pull the rug out from under both of them. Then Bill rocks up at an African-American hospital, and is employed there. That, together with the ongoing battle between Libby and Coral, presumably means that race has now unequivocally become a theme. The most moving scene, though, was undoubtedly the one in which the Pretzel King admitted to Betty that he knew about her past, meaning that he loved Betty for who she was, and her deception was both unnecessary and potentially a relationship-killer. That pierced my heart.

Masters of Sex s2 ep 3

“Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying. One masturbatory act. Role-playing throughout. Am I forgetting anything?”

Well, yes. Advance word from America was that ‘Fight’ was one for the ages. Advance word was right. Much of the episode is set in the hotel suite shared by “the Holdens”, Bill and Ginny. There are a couple of framing devices – one is the Archie Moore – Yvon Durelle fight, on TV in the suite, and much like the fighters Bill and Ginny spend a fair amount of time circling each other warily. The second, much more distressing, involves a baby with ambiguous genitalia delivered by Bill. It’s a boy, and Bill’s recommendation to the father is that, in due course, his son has remedial surgery; the father, though, wants more immediate action to turn his son into his daughter. (It also introduced me to a piece of medical grotesquerie I hadn’t seen before: that glass jar in which the baby is x-rayed.)

With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that masculinity – what does it mean to be a man? – is one of the many themes of the episode. But there’s much more to ‘Fight’ than that. It’s our lengthiest exposure to Bill and Ginny as a couple, and even if for a lot of it they’re playing the parts of Dr and Mrs Holden the line between fantasy and reality is blurred at best: they’re playful, competitive, intense, and of course sexy as hell, as they unpack some of what their relationship is about. We find out more about Bill’s abusive father, which might explain why Bill grew up damaged, and we get a statement of Ginny’s then-radical views on sex: “Fine. Enjoy it if and when you can. It’s a biological function. But play it safe. Keep your heart out of it, locked away someplace safe like a bank vault.” She’s kidding herself, though; she can’t bring herself, as Ginny, to tell Bill that she loves him, but as Lydia she can hint at it.

It’s an astonishing episode. And, for UK viewers, it arrives at about the same time as the news that Masters of Sex has been renewed for a third season, which provides further proof, if it were needed, of just how remarkable our times are. Yes, nostalgia has its place; and, yes, we’ll all have examples of shows which we think were killed off too early. But we are living in an era when shows like Masters of Sex and The Americans and Breaking Bad and Girls and The Good Wife and Fargo and Hannibal and Utopia and True Blood and Louie and Scandal and Les Revenants and Veep and Justified and The Newsroom and Homeland and Orphan Black and Orange Is The New Black and True Detective and Mad Men and dozens of others are not only getting made, but renewed. It’s trite, but worth repeating over and over again: there has never, ever, been a better time to be a TV viewer than now. Right now.