If episode one of Masters of Sex was about establishing tone and tempo; setting up the major characters; and creating momentum for the season-long plot arc; then episode two was about drilling down into the nuances of the characters and highlighting the finer points of the show’s agenda. This episode had far less nudity and actual intercourse, but was just as riveting and provocative; it is becoming evident that this show is far less about sex and more about the role sexuality plays in an individual’s identity and our collective psyche.
The show picks up after the proposition presented to Ginny by Dr. Masters suggesting they ‘participate in the research’ together, which means sleep together. The opening scenes find Ginny grappling with her decision about sleeping with Dr. Masters. She imagines different scenarios in which she might decline his overture and the varying ways he might react. As Ginny’s integrity starts to stiffen (so to speak), we get a glimpse into her life at home; something that was missing entirely from the pilot. Her struggle starts to emerge as her children act out in her absence and her nanny/housekeeper quits. This contributes to the feminist narrative introduced in the previous episode illustrating the judgment working women faced, even from other women. As much as this show is about the study of human sexuality, it is about the study of humans in their own time, and Ginny’s character, without collapsing into an abstract, functions to reflect the gender protocols women had to sort through. We care about her, not just what she represents.
Dr. Masters’ character is a reflection of his own time as well as he fires Ginny for “defying” his directive to break things off with Ethan. His study is discovered and reported to Scully, and he consequently blames, then dismisses Ginny unceremoniously. His misdirected anger rears its head, and I have a feeling this is something we are going to contend with all season long. He is grappling to assert his control over all the women in his life, yet he is failing to maintain authority. His relationship with the female characters, including the prostitute Betty, illustrates this imbalance and we see him scrabbling to dominate the relationships but failing again and again. This turns cruel as he keeps his infertility issues a secret from his wife and allows her to believe she is barren and failing him as a wife and as a woman. As Olivia drives him home after he was arrested in Betty’s brothel, we see the fabric of their relationship begin to tear and then further disintegrate as she asks him to watch her masterbate later in their bedroom; this is easily the most awkward and hard-to-watch scene of the episode. He stops her, and tells her he loves her too much and that she doesn’t have to do this. Her rejection is so poignant, and her embarrassment so sharp that we start to see Bill through her eyes and our sympathy shifts from him onto everyone else. We don’t soften to him again until later when he is treating another one of the prostitutes who thinks she has a brain tumor. He is so tender with her as he diagnoses her bad eye sight instead of a tumor, that we see traces of the man we are supposed to root for.
There is a cast of supporting characters that help to give context to the cultural and sexual conventions. Betty meets a man at church and begins to envision a future that she conceives as normal, which can only be achieved if she hitches her star to a man; especially a man with money. Ethan acts out his obsession with Ginny through a series of relationships with women of varying sexual experience. The stark contrast between the woman of very little sexual wisdom who cries when he asks her for oral sex, and the promiscuous woman with too much sexual wisdom is meant to place Ginny outside these female stereotypes and demonstrate her extraordinariness — like we needed more evidence of that. Austin and Jane suggest a repressed sexual hunger that is often associated with this time and exists to quench our need for dramatic plot necessities.
I find this show endlessly fascinating because it continues to peel back layers. I am invested in the juiciness of the relationship between Bill and Ginny, yet I am drawn to the message it’s sending about our cultural mythologies. As long as the momentum stays at this throttle, Showtime has my endorsement.