In “Asterion,” the seventh episode of the rather stellar Season 2 of “Masters of Sex,” we are gifted with a series of time shifts, ones that finally push the drama into the 1960s.
The show, which was beginning to lose steam in its past few episodes (extraneous subplots, repeated themes), went out on a limb and essentially revitalized the slowing period piece. Last week’s episode was loaded with ambiguity. Dr. William Masters once again left his job, his wife Libby fired their nurse and Betty DiMello’s past continued to destroy her marriage. Now, most of these events don’t matter. It’s a different year — and a different show.
First Time Jump
“Asterion” begins with a small time jump, five months after the events in last week’s “Blackbird.” It’s late 1958. After getting fired from Buell Green, Dr. Masters (Michael Sheen) decides to open his own clinic, a place he could work on his sex study without any obstacles or dissent. He brings along his research assistant Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and the twosome open the Masters and Johnson clinic. Joining them are Lester, the hilarious Hitchcock wannabe who had no luck in Hollywood and has returned to film ejaculate, and Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), who is now divorced and was hired by Dr. Masters to look after the books. After all, she ran a brothel before, a pretty daunting task.
It’s refreshing to see Betty this way: independent, free from her pathetic husband (the pretzel king) and in charge. So far there’s no sign of Sarah Silverman’s Helen, Betty’s lover.
Meanwhile, Dr. Masters faces a few new burdens. Operating a clinic has taken a financial toll and, with only 23 of his fertility cases following him to the clinic, he is forced to take out a loan and put up his home, savings and whole life as collateral. His relationship with Johnson is also on the rocks after he discovered she had been seeing other people while they were having sex “for research.” They now don’t “work together” and Dr. Masters spends his time getting back alley fellatio and denying his love for Johnson. We don’t pity him though. After all, he’s married and doesn’t see how unfair it is to demand monogamy from Johnson. Also, he’s MARRIED.
In this jump we are also given a look at our favorite adulter, Dr. Austin Langham, who relishes being single and has started dating a hand model. Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), on the other hand, has grown more dissatisfied with her life and marriage. She becomes increasingly aggressive towards her husband and demands to have more kids.
Second Time Jump
At some point we shift to the future, about year forward. The hairstyles and clothing are slightly different, but the passage of time is most noticeable when Libby comes in carrying her son and another baby. It’s 1959, something we learn after looking at Lester’s clipboard (his scenes always seem to signify the jump).
Libby has discovered how her husband put up their comfortable life for collateral. Angry and afraid, she phones his estranged mother (“The Leftovers” Ann Dowd), who arrives, tries to make up and offers her son money. She reveals she’s been keeping in contact with Libby and her grandchildren for a while and also, in a beautiful scene, tells her son that she doesn’t want to judge him, but love him. What he does with Johnson and his career is his own business.
Nevertheless, Dr. Masters is angry and, in a wonderfully performed fight scene with Libby (once again, kudos to FitzGerald), we get one of the episode’s best moments. She tells her husband everyone has pain. The difference is that he drags everyone down with him instead of moving on. Boom.
Things between Dr. Masters and Johnson are more contentious than ever. The twosome barely speak and at Dr. Langham’s birthday party, he drunkenly tries to destroy her relationship with a man she’s dating by telling him intimate details about the study. Johnson seeks refuge in the bathroom, where she shares a moment with Libby, which is only awkward to us. They both complain about men even if Libby doesn’t know they are talking about the same guy. Later that night Masters and Johnson find themselves alone. In a half-assed apology he tries to seduce her, but he ends up demeaning her and she walks away.
Third Time Jump
DiMello, now a real-estate maven, is introducing possible tenants to the space. She’s a go-getter and has also been put in charge of making sure the current tenants pay their rent. Dr. Masters, still anxious about his business, is comforted by DiMello, who tells him that they are seeing an increase in profits. We also get a glimpse at Lester’s clipboard and find out another passage of time has occurred. It’s late 1960. We’ve made it.
Johnson runs into an older lover and we find out that she’s once again single. Feeling nostalgic, she decides to make up with Dr. Masters and requests to meet up in their old hotel. He shows up, but instead of having sex, he tells her to remove all of her clothes so that he can watch her and reacquaint himself with her body. It’s a little laughable, but Sheen delivers this monotone monologue in a perfectly-toned sexy voice. The two also realize they cannot continue to have their affair at the hotel. It’s just too expensive. This leads Dr. Masters, who had previously gone under the identity of a radiologist, to offer his services as an on-call hotel doctor in exchange for a room. He’s using his real identity at the hotel now. Things between him and Johnson are real.
Also at the hotel is Dr. Langham, who is celebrating a bachelor party for a friend. There he discovers that his hand model girlfriend has now turned to porn, a move which leads him to reconsider his life and beg his wife to take him back. Unfortunately, she has moved on.
The whirlwind episode finally closes at the birthday of one of Dr. Masters’ kids. Dr. Masters and Johnson are chatting about a patient who they must exclude from the study due to a sexual dysfunction and are interrupted by Libby, who wants the two to take a break from the work talk. She once again chats with Johnson, cheerily inviting her to their lake house.
We then get a look at Dr. Masters, who has invited his mother over. He tells her knows that the increase in profits for his business is a sham and tells her he knows she put in the money. The last part of the episode, which captures the closing conversation between Dr. Masters and his mother, is filmed by Lester.
Although a bit confusing and showcasing a whole new pace, “Asterion” is a masterful “Masters” episode, a window (through Lester’s camera?) into a new age.