After its strong debut last year, Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” has consistently been among the best of what TV has to offer. But after last week’s episode (Episode 3, “Fight”), the sexy period drama took things to a whole new level of greatness. As a result of its continuing critical success, we’ve decided to take a closer look at the Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan-starring show — beginning with last night’s episode “Dirty Jobs.”
Following in the footsteps of “The Fight” would be difficult for any show to undertake. With its clear-cut focus on the series’ two protagonists and its symbolically rich setting (taking place during the pivotal Archie Moore vs. Yvon Durelle fight), the episode structurally parallels “Mad Men’s” unparalleled “The Suitcase.” And although the episode was a highlight for the relatively young drama, “Dirty Jobs” proved to be a more than worthy follow-up. It was a(nother) reminder “Masters” is more than just a one hit wonder.
The episode begins with the aftermath of Dr. William Masters’ heartbreaking reveal, which occurred during an intense role-playing session with research assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). The two, who bask in self-denial and continue to insist that their sexual relationship is a necessary component to their groundbreaking work, took a step in a direction they’ll be unable to back away from. The same could be said for the series.
Dr. Masters, an insecure and rather unlikeable character, tells Johnson that he was physically abused by his father as a child and how he would always defend himself through passive resignation. His father would hit him, and he’d just take it. After such a big reveal, “Dirty Jobs” takes a step back, serving as a reminder of the only person we can count on at the end of the day: ourselves.
Before we get to the Masters and Johnson storyline, it’s important to look at another burgeoning plot point that has been oh-so captivating these few past episodes, the relationship between Masters’ wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) and nanny Coral (Keke Palmer). It’s a dynamic fueled by latent racism and subconscious insecurity. Libby, frustrated by her husband’s indifference to their newborn boy, seems to think that his attitude stems from the changes around the house. She insists that the only way things can be good is if she maintains the illusion that nothing is different in the two’s lives. She remains unaware of the abuse her husband has faced and the possible effect this has on his child-rearing skills. So she hires Coral, a young, but experienced black woman played by the always-wonderful Palmer.
Libby, extremely anxious at this point, projects her nerves in Coral’s direction. She corrects the girl for saying “aks” instead of “ask,” insisting it’s best for her child to be around somebody who speaks properly. “Dirty Jobs” takes this aggression even further. After her child gets lice, Libby automatically assumes it’s Coral’s fault, even after Coral assures her she’s not blame and that black people don’t even really get lice. Nevertheless, Libby aggressively hands her a bottle of medicated shampoo and ends up washing Coral’s hair herself after she discovers Coral never did. It’s the dirty job Libby believes she is forced to do, but for the audience (and Coral) it’s clearly another type of dirty. (Note: FitzGerald continues to be one of the best parts about the show.)
Meanwhile, Johnson is caught between her job and friendship with the cancer-stricken Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) and her desire to continue her work with Masters at his new hospital. To complicate things even more, our favorite goodnatured serial adulter Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) believes Johnson and Masters are having an affair after he spots them leaving the hotel in which they are “working.” He accidentally reveals these suspicions to DePaul, who feels betrayed by Johnson, the woman she had believed could continue her work with the pap smear after she passes. As a result, DePaul, ambitious, but uninterested in notoriety, decides to hand her life’s work to another doctor. Her name won’t be on the study, but she’s assured her work will continue in this way. It seems that Johnson’s decision has been made for her.
At the same time, Johnson must remind Dr. Masters she’s short on cash. In a brilliant scene in which he playfully makes fun of her for selling diet pills, Johnson reminds him that without the study she is barely making her rent. They are not equals and even with his attempts to bring her back on the study, it’s clear she has relatively little power. So, this is her makeshift dirty job, selling pills to insecure women.
At his new hospital, Dr. Masters pressures his boss to confer with the board to bring Johnson onboard. His boss, although seemingly more interested in his sex study than Dr. Masters’ former colleagues, sees Johnson as nothing more than an overpaid secretary. Eventually, towards the end of the episode, we discover Dr. Masters’ new coworkers want to use his study as an excuse to watch women masturbate. It’s an insult to his work, further exacerbated by his boss’ acknowledgment that he never even approached the board about Johnson.
The episode ends with an intense physical brawl, a fight that leaves Dr. Masters unemployed (once again). Nevertheless, the episode concludes with a glimmer of hope. Dr. Masters takes a job at an all-black hospital, where he is allowed to work on his study with Johnson as his assistant. Things are looking up.
(Final Note: As great as Annaleigh Ashford is in her role as Betty DiMello, we are glad her increasingly superfluous storyline seems to be coming to close.)