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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 1: ‘Parliament of Owls,’ Perched on the Cusp of the Sexual Revolution

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 1: 'Parliament of Owls,' Perched on the Cusp of the Sexual Revolution

The Syllabus

On “Masters of Sex,” the blink of an eye can
herald a whole new era. “Parliament of Owls” opens in 1965, four
years after the conclusion of Season 2. But longtime lovers and professional collaborators
Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), in Boston to
publicize their forthcoming book, “Human Sexual Response,” have
barely opened the floor to questions when the series fires up the time machine
once more. Though not nearly as delicate as last season’s gorgeous, regretful
triptych “Asterion,” the episode transports us to a weekend at the
lake four months earlier, amidst the chaos that erupts when Virginia, Bill, his
wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), and a gaggle of fast-growing children navigate
the shoals of human sexual response in all its forms.

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3 Trailer Takes the Revolution on the Road

Introduction to
Intimacy with Bill Masters

From the new season’s very first moments, Bill’s ongoing
apprenticeship in emotional intimacy hits the same old snag — namely, that he
tends to confront the slightest display of vulnerability as though it were an
advancing illness. “You should stop talking so I can fuck you properly
before we try to sleep,” he says, as Virginia, nervously frisky on the eve
of the press conference, worries over the caterer and the photographer.

Though the moment initially registers as just another entry
in the series’ continuing play on the phrase “bedside manner,” with Bill’s
gruff professionalism transposed from clinic to coitus, “Parliament of
Owls” pursues a much more frustrating gambit, which is to argue that no
one ever changes, not really. Nearly ten years, a career change, an affair, two
children, and the publication of a landmark study later, Bill is more or less
the same severe, intelligent, blinkered, obsessive man he was in 1956,
preferring to swat mosquitoes on the chaise outside rather than share a bed
with his wife. “Two career cards for your father, naturally,” Libby jokes
as she takes Bill’s turn in a family board game. “‘Life’ imitating
life.”

Remedial Parenting

In part, the emotional stasis “Masters of Sex” sees
in the march of time is an outgrowth of the old adage that we all eventually
become our parents, and with its alternately funny and unsettling treatment of
childrearing, “Parliament of Owls” depicts both Bill and Virginia
struggling to escape this pattern.

The former, like his own father, is a disciplinarian, and
the most powerful moment in the episode comes as the camera pauses at the end
of his clenched fist. Bill handles the climactic sequence of events — including
the drunken come-on from Virginia’s 15-year-old daughter, Tessa (Isabelle
Fuhrman), and the sight of his son, Johnny (Jaeden Lieberher), tossing the
galleys of “Human Sexual Response” in the lake — as poorly as you’d
expect. The man is to conflict management as the Hindenberg was to flying. As
addicted to his work as his own father was to alcohol, Bill may recoil at the
last moment from perpetuating the cycle of abuse, but the moment unearths in
him a frightening undercurrent of wrath. It turns out that the worst thing you
can call a guy once ostracized from the scientific community for studying sex
is a “fucker” and a “freak.”

By contrast, Virginia’s parenting motto, according to her
son, Henry (Noah Robbins), is “anything goes.” This assessment isn’t exactly
accurate, though she does choose to avoid embarrassment with her hilarious
stomping and yelling in the hallway after she catches Henry and a young woman in flagrante. (As an aside, let me
stipulate that the very notion of Lizzy Caplan having a 17-year-old child is absurd.)
Rather, Virginia clearly recognizes her own independent streak in her
children’s choices, whether it’s Tessa’s drag of a cigarette or Henry’s desire
to enlist, and yet she must balance this against the protective impulse. In a
way, it’s the same dilemma she faces in her research. Does being a mother, or a
mentor, also require one to be a role model? Is it even fair to ask?

Advanced Feminist
Thought

The stitching together of the two narrative threads in
“Parliament of Owls” would indicate that the answer is
“no.” Shortly after Libby, the consummate housewife, admits to
Virginia that she’s been suffering from anxiety and depression, the episode
cuts to an interlude in the press conference focused on sexual double
standards.

Indeed, “Parliament of Owls” finds “Masters
of Sex” as committed as ever to examining the consequences of sexism.
Particularly in light of an earlier montage, weaving together Bill and Virginia’s
respective preparations for the press conference, it’s striking that she must
hide her pregnancy, defend her scientific bona
fides
, and explain the value of sexual education for women to the almost
exclusively male press corps. Similarly, as Libby confides at the lake house,
maintaining the domestic ideal means medicating, rather than mending, her
broken heart. (In neither case is Bill expected to sacrifice much of anything
to achieve success.) For the women of “Masters of Sex,” navigating
the double standard means leading a double life.

Seminar in Postwar
American History

“Parliament of Owls” is probably best described as
an episode on the cusp. Toggling between two moments in time, it inhabits a
period of transition from the optimism of “The American Century” to
the looming disasters of the late 1960s. Director Jeremy Webb and writer
Michelle Ashford, the series creator, straddle this middle ground somewhat
uncomfortably when it comes to the lives of the characters, but a pair of
historical details expresses this sense of flux with confidence. In the first,
we catch a glimpse of Eero Saarinen’s gleaming Gateway Arch, a monument to
Thomas Jefferson and westward expansion, which was nearing nearing completion;
in the second, an overheard radio dispatch from Vietnam gestures at the dark
side of American empire, and crystallizes the gravity of Henry’s enlistment.

Extracurricular
Activities

In an episode that portrays the many uses of sex — for
pleasure, distraction, comfort, rebellion, and reproduction — the most telling
moment may be one in which sex comes to seem an intrusion. “Is there not
one square inch of my life you haven’t insinuated yourself into?” Virginia
accuses Bill during a break in the press conference, as they bicker over the
final examination for her degree. “My work. My home. My bed. Can I not
even have a bathroom stall to myself?”

Public Speaking

Though it deserves to be docked a few points for fitting
into Showtime’s promos a little too
perfectly, I still can’t resist Virginia’s piquant retort to the suggestion
that “Human Sexual Response” is no more than the midcentury version
of clickbait. Accompanied by a knowing shot of the assembled journalists
scribbling this potent quotable in their notebooks, the episode’s best quote
also marks Virginia’s most confident moment in an hour that sees her uncommonly
shaken by both personal and professional challenges. “We are the sexual revolution” is a
promise of sorts, and it’s one I hope the series keeps.

Head of the Class

Of the major characters, Libby Masters has always left the
least memorable impression—a Betty Draper figure without the ice in her veins (or
Kiernan Shipka to spar with), she’s regularly been overshadowed by tremendous
guest arcs, including those of Alison Janney, Julianne Nicholson and Betsy
Brandt. Though last season’s steamy kitchen-floor dalliance with civil rights
activist Robert Franklin (Jocko Sims) offered a glimpse of the loosened-up
Libby, it’s here that she finally seems liberated from the character’s
narrative shackles. Popping the antidepressant Serax like candy, landing a wet
one on Virginia, and going absolutely HAM in the hospital waiting room, she may
be a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and she’s all the more
fascinating for it.

Additional Remarks

Much like the latter stages of season two, “Parliament
of Owls” is an unwieldy piece of work, exchanging the streamlined
brilliance of the series’ finest hours for more rudimentary pleasures. “Masters
of Sex” is, and to some extent always has been, a broader, soapier period
piece than its kissing cousin, “Mad Men,” and this more melodramatic tack
certainly has its delights. But the season premiere fails to solve the
attendant problems, especially the series’ intermittent penchant for
on-the-nose developments.

Rather than use the four-year leap forward to wipe the slate
of thin subplots clean, Ashford and company simply introduce new ones, and for
all the interest Bill and Virginia’s contrast in style generates, the episode
does little to establish the children as characters in their own right. Johnny,
Tessa and Henry all exist primarily as foils for their parents, rebels without
a cause. (In fact, the episode concludes with a title-card disclaimer that says
the kids are entirely fictional.) “Masters of Sex” may well have
potential as a potboiler of the sexual revolution, and it’s already proven its
merit in the more tightly controlled, darker vein of last season’s exceptional
“Fight.” The series runs into trouble when it tries to be both — always
on the cusp of something that never quite arrives.

Grade: B

READ MORE: Showtime’s Smart New Series ‘Masters of Sex’ Looks at the Dramas and Mysteries of Researching Human Sexuality

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