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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 2: If ‘Three’s a Crowd,” Four Spells Trouble

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 2: If 'Three's a Crowd," Four Spells Trouble

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

The Syllabus

Picking up exactly where the season premiere left off, in
the bathroom of the Boston Ritz-Carlton where Bill (Michael Sheen) discovers
that Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) is pregnant, “Three’s a Crowd” squeezes
the remaining five months of her term into a single episode. With the bounding,
sometimes heedless approach to time’s passage that’s become a trademark of
Masters of Sex,” it’s an hour both eventful and mundane, featuring a
marriage, a birth, and Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) in a paisley tie
alongside borrowed cars and broken televisions. Racing through another swath of
the 1960s, “Three’s a Crowd” occasionally stumbles, only to be lifted
by a series of stirring moments in which the delicate balance at the heart of
Bill and Virginia’s relationship once again becomes crystal clear.

International
Relations

Briefly reprising the case-of-the-week structure that marked
the early stages of Season 1, “Three’s a Crowd” features a pair of
famous patients, the Shah of Iran (Waleed Zuaiter) and his wife (Necar Zadegan).
The subplot is loosely based on actual events: after resuming power from
democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 following a
CIA-backed coup d’état, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and
his second wife, Soraya, sought fertility treatments from the real-life William
Masters, only
to divorce in 1958
, when it became clear that she could not produce an heir.
 

Shoehorning this narrative into an episode set seven years
after the fact, “Masters of Sex” perhaps pushes the parallel between
the Iranian line of succession and Virginia’s unplanned pregnancy a little too
hard. At first, the sight of the impeccable foreign queen placing her hands of
Virginia’s stomach to feel the fetus kick suggests the acute social pressures
women face when it comes to sex and reproduction. Virginia, Bill argues, can’t
be both “a pregnant, unwed woman” and the “the standard bearer
for the cause of sexual enlightenment,” at least not in LBJ’s America; the
Shah’s wife must become pregnant if
she’s to remain married. Rather than pursue this thread to its logical
conclusion, however, “Three’s a Crowd” reverts instead to a rather
ham-handed discussion of love triangles and other halves—a problem of the
sexes’ unequal power becomes a problem of personal affection, couched in
all-too-familiar terms.

Elementary
Geometry

The Shah’s wife’s comment that all love triangles eventually
topple to one side is the most forthright example of the episode’s interest in
the shape of romance, the complications of its trios and quartets periodically
interrupted by the startling simplicity of Bill and Virginia’s exchanges. In
addition to the specter of the Shah’s next wife, “Three’s a Crowd”
repeatedly emphasizes that there are no equilateral forms in the geometry of
love. When Bill accompanies Virginia to pitch the idea of a marriage of
convenience to George (Mather Zickel), for instance, the professional partners
sit side-by-side while the odd man out hangs at a slight distance; in the
episode’s finest frame, the camera captures Bill and Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald)
watching George and Virginia from the kitchen window, the four corners of an
awkward arrangement.

But making the triangle a rectangle does not, despite
Libby’s fervent hope, “solve everything.” If three’s a crowd, four
spells trouble. Indeed, George and Virginia’s backyard toast soon devolves into
a disagreement. “It has made you someone you have always wanted to be, but
it has ruined you, too,” he says of her meteoric career, and if the remark
smacks of a former breadwinner’s wounded pride, he eventually arrives at a
salient point. Virginia, planning her divorce on the morning of the wedding,
with a reception thrown by her lover’s wife, has contorted herself in
unimaginable ways to maintain appearances—a far cry from the free-spirited
woman we met in Season 1. At what point might Virginia’s pursuit of who she
wants to be begin to compromise who she is?

Home Economics

Of course, Virginia’s not the only character fooling
herself. Libby can barely get Bill to look up from the mail, much less the
bottom of his whiskey glass, when she tries to engage him in conversation about
life on the home front, yet she’s convinced that the Johnsons’ remarriage will
bring him back into the family fold. This is a pretty jarring volte-face from her stance in
“Parliament of Owls,” in which she seemed to make peace with the fact
that her own marriage is a sham, but it’s clear that the news of Virginia’s
pregnancy throws her for a loop. Silently pulling on her cigarette as Bill,
distracted by TV repairs, feigns surprise, Libby’s more fearsome than ever—and
yes, that includes last week’s meltdown at the hospital. It’s high time for the
blond bombshell of “Masters” to start throwing some Betty
Draper-level shade.

Advanced Feminist
Thought

At the heart of “Three’s a Crowd” is an ongoing
conversation between Bill and Virginia that crackles with political and
personal urgency, illuminating subjects still relevant today—reproductive
choice, workplace discrimination—by situating them in the particulars of the
protagonists’ lives. Though the episode asks, “Can women really have it
all?” it seeks no easy answers. With the exception of Virginia’s clumsily
insistent “I don’t feel anything,” further evidence that the series’
greatest challenge at the moment is its tendency to the maudlin, the arc of the
narrative slowly marshals the many factors weighing on Virginia until
“Three’s a Crowd” hits pay dirt in the climactic sequence.

Criticized, in turn, by Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman), Bill, and
George, Virginia’s fear that she’s failed as a mother, a researcher, and a wife
shadows the birth of her third child to the point that she seems half-ready to
throw in the towel on her career. “The truth is, I wasn’t there even when
I was,” she laments. “I need to take all the qualities that make me
good at my job and apply them to being a mother.” A singular pleasure of
“Masters of Sex” even at its most uneven, however, is its unstinting
belief that Bill and Virginia are equal partners in work and in love, both
essential to the functioning of the whole, and for all his ugly dithering about
her “impulsivity” earlier in the episode, Bill comes through in the
clutch.

Leavened with a bit of humor—a rendition of “O Danny
Boy” more painful than childbirth—his message to Virginia is insightful
and inspiring, though he admittedly ignores his own advice when it comes to
Libby. Having a stay-at-home mom is no guarantee of happiness, Bill notes, and
apologizing to her children for loving her work will only reproduce the set of
unjust gendered expectations against which Virginia’s struggled all her life.
It turns out the question provoked by George’s claim that she’s changed misstates
the case: Virginia can only become who she wants to be by finally accepting who
she’s been from the start. 

Public Speaking

“Three’s a Crowd” finds Bill suffering through yet
another flare-up of foot-in-mouth disease, shaming Virginia for her
“impulsivity” and mucking up an interview with a reporter from the
New York Times, but the episode’s best quote at least suggests he’s aware of
the problem. As he justifies his unilateral decision to hire Dr. Christine Wesh
(Maggie Grace) to replace Virginia during her prospective leave of absence,
Bill foreshadows his disastrous stab at speaking in “layman’s
terms”—an inexplicable example featuring a woman who “gives as good
as she gets” from three separate men and a housewife fantasizing about a
man who’s not her husband. “I need a competent woman at my side,” he
cries, “to counteract the perception that I’m a pervert!”

Head of the Class

With boldface features and unembarrassed intelligence,
Caplan has always been the defining presence in “Masters of Sex,” and
Virginia emerges as the MVP of “Three’s a Crowd” as soon as she
swallows the word “abortion” in the opening minutes. Moving
seamlessly from vulnerability to strength and back again, Caplan uncovers the
stubborn truth hidden within Virginia’s ideological conviction, which is that
even that most ardent progressive can begin to doubt her beliefs when faced
with the harsh consequences of refusing to conform. Straightening her spine
against Bill’s unthinkingly cruel suggestion that she kept the child on a whim,
Virginia is the character of the week because she so coolly states the
episode’s credo, which is that “the cause of sexual enlightenment” is
not the establishment of new rules but the freedom to break the old ones.
“Conceiving the baby was a mistake,” she says. “Keeping it was a
deliberate decision.”

Grade: B

READ MORE: ‘Masters of Sex’ Creator Michelle Ashford On Why Time May Pass, But They’ll Never Recast

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