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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 3: After ‘The Excitement of Release,’ the Sweet Smell of Success

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 3: After 'The Excitement of Release,' the Sweet Smell of Success

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

The Syllabus

“From now on, the best of everything is good enough for
me,” man-on-the-make Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) boasts in Alexander
Mackendrick’s acidly beautiful portrait of the Manhattan media elite, “Sweet
Smell of Success” (1957), and though Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) may lack
Falco’s flashy manner, he expresses his ambition in much the same terms.

“It’s not enough,” he tells Virginia (Lizzy
Caplan) near the end of “The Excitement of Release,” balking at
Playboy founder Hugh Hefner’s offer to fund the pair’s future research in
return for their “seal of approval.” With glowing reviews, strong
sales, and several prospective investors—in addition to mountains of hate mail
and a member of the Committee for Decency’s warning that “Hell is a real
place”—”Human Sexual Response” has struck a chord, though the
measure of “enough,” quite tellingly, remains unclear. For Bill
Masters, as for Sidney Falco, it’s the constant striving that matters, and
“The Excitement of Release” understands the smell of success to be of
the sickly sweet variety, a fragrance with base notes of rot.

Principles of
Marketing

Among Bill and Virginia’s corporate suitors are a
euphemistic vibrator salesman and dashing perfumier Dan Logan, played by Josh
Charles as a honey-tongued midcentury cousin to the impish Dan Rydell
(“Sports Night”) and the pugnacious Will Gardner (“The Good
Wife”). While eager to manufacture the smell of sex, Logan reserves his
most assertive pitch for Virginia herself. “I’m not interested in
nice,” he says at one point, his shifting gaze underlining his subtext.
“I’m interested in a fragrance that says, ‘I want you. Go to bed with me.
You can’t live without me.'”

Though it’s Logan’s involvement that promises to sustain the
study’s next phase, Bill’s interests lay elsewhere, with the pursuit of
prestige, and he throws himself headlong into promoting “Human Sexual
Response” as a medical school textbook. “Masters of Sex” has
always recognized that money is not the only currency in circulation—Dr. Austin
Langham (Teddy Sears) skated by on his looks, Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford)
once traded in pleasure, and changing mores influence the characters’ sense of
self-worth at every turn—but in “The Excitement of Release,” the
series focuses on the social economy more intently than ever.

The result is a rare episode in which the notoriously
stubborn Dr. Masters could be said to change his mind. He’s desperate, at first, to win the
approval of his peers at Washington University, from which he was summarily
dismissed when the subject of his research became too hot to handle. But Bill
soon realizes, watching closeted gay man and former provost Barton Scully (Beau
Bridges) treated as a pariah, that academia is no more meritocratic than
Playboy or the “flavors and fragrances” industry. Even in a
subculture driven by the accumulation of credentials, keeping up appearances is
the core prerequisite.

Of course, Bill understood the power of marketing all along,
claiming that “Virginia could sell an airplane to the Amish” and
repurposing his offhand double entendre about “aroused interest” as
the closing line of his telephone pitch; it’s simply a measure of how much he admires
Barton that it’s the chancellor’s sneer that goads Bill to action. Marketing
isn’t about the product, after all, it’s about the presentation—and everyone’s
selling something.

Sexual Education

The most ruthless social marketplace of all is the American
high school, and it’s there that “The Excitement of Release” situates
its center of gravity. The episode is the first to suggest that Tessa (Isabelle
Fuhrman) will not be relegated to the role of thorn in her mother’s side, and
its depiction of the mercurial adolescent temperament is as precise as any
character development so far this season.

Dwarfed by the length of a corridor, or swarmed by students
passing between classes, Tessa and Virginia seem but one small front in a much
broader generational battle; as the nun’s evident disapproval suggests, the
social ostracism Tessa fears is not only the result of her mother being a sex
researcher, but of her mother being a working woman, a divorcee, an
unapologetic presence in a world dominated by men. In fact, “Human Sexual
Response” is more necessary than ever when purloined copies of “The
Story of O”—”It’s French, so all the characters are going all the way
all the time”—come with rumors of nymphomania and false boasts of prior experience.
In the era of “Masters of Sex” as in our own, the sexual revolution
remains unfinished.

If “The Excitement of Release” expends more than
its fair share of energy on the constant bickering between Tessa and Virginia,
its unsettling climax counts among the most powerful treatments of sexual
assault in recent memory. Unlike “Game of Thrones,” for instance, in
which rape serves to underline the viciousness of villains while the
consequences for the survivors are swept under the rug, “Masters of
Sex” understands that 80
percent of such crimes are committed by someone known to the victim
, and
that rape occurs within a
culture
that, sickeningly, lionizes male aggression and punishes women’s
sexual expression.

Without a single exploitative of titillating frame, the scene
in the car outside the school dance strikes at the heart of the matter, the
sweet flirtation souring into coercion and physical force. “You can’t just
leave me like this. You have to do something,” Tessa’s erstwhile
“friend” says, with the assurance of a young man whose culture has
already taught him to expect control over women’s bodies. “It’s in your
mom’s book. Jesus, don’t be such a prick tease.”

Turning its attention to the aftermath, as Tessa cleans the vomit
from her dress and cries in the bathroom mirror, the episode suggests the shame
and fear that accompanies sexual assault; it touches on the hideous
“justifications” perpetrators offers for their crimes (“Sorry
for the Schnapps”) and the social pressure on victims to remain silent.
Riding home from the dance with Virginia, Tessa stares blankly into the rain,
her face intermittently illuminated by streetlamps before being engulfed by the
shadows once more, as if to remind us that the darkness of the night’s terrible
events will follow her for the rest of her life. 

Advanced Feminist
Thought

Perhaps because “The Excitement of Release”
handles Tessa’s assault so deftly, the moments in which it turns to the subtler
consequences of sexism—”the problem that has no name,” as it were—come
off rather graceless by comparison. Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), name-dropping
“The Feminine Mystique” and Cesar Chavez, is practically a radical
among the PTA set, yet she tut-tuts when her friend and neighbor, Joy (Susan
May Pratt), makes plans to rent an apartment and leave her husband. Still
clinging to the traditionalist’s view of a proper home even as she accepts the
unconventional arrangements that mark her marriage to Bill and Virginia’s to
George, Libby is once again left with little to do, only now she seems resigned
to it.

We know very little about either Joy or her husband, Paul
(Ben Koldyke), except that the former’s dissatisfied and the latter’s polite
enough to sit through Bill’s tedious discussion of trading cards. As a result,
the episode’s denouement, in which Paul tells Libby that Joy’s suffered a
“catastrophic” brain aneurysm, amounts to little more than a
“YOLO” metaphor. I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure Betty Friedan was
aiming higher than that.

Public Speaking/Head
of the Class

Combining this week’s best quote and best character is easy,
not only because “The Excitement of Release” features a classic
zinger from “student of human nature” Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford),
but also because hers is the only clear-eyed assessment of the complications
that accompany success.

“While you cogitate, we’re hearing from every John
Birch nut job with a library card and a stamp,” she says, suggesting the
pursuit of private investors—in other words, strike while the iron is hot,
because the backlash has already begun. Presaging the rise of “family
values” conservatism and Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” Betty has
the hard-won wisdom of a woman who’s been through the wringer, and her words
function as a kind of warning. To reach the top is to find that everyone below
is gunning for you, and the only direction left is down.

Grade: B+

READ MORE: The 11 Most Romantic Moments on Television’s Darkest Shows

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