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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 4: The Anxiety of ‘Undue Influence’

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 4: The Anxiety of 'Undue Influence'

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

The Syllabus

As Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) scans the “thimble-deep”
wisdom of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,”
his eyes dart toward the emblem of his own limited clout. Nearing the end of
its first print run, “Human Sexual Response” has sold a
“respectable” but unspectacular 15,000 copies, tucked into the dim
back aisles of bookstores where prying eyes can’t see, and Bill is willing to intervene
if it ensures his study’s read. He sidles up to a shamefaced customer and
berates the store’s snobbish owner, and if the suggestion that “winning
friends is not [Bill’s] strong suit” draws the connection rather too keenly, this week’s “Masters of
Sex” earns the chance to weave its tangled web nonetheless.

Written by Gina Fattore and directed by Christopher Manley,
“Undue Influence” finds strength in the simpler structure of
self-help, and then deploys that confidence to establish parallels and mirror
images, callbacks and prophecies, that throw the characters into sharp and
surprising relief. In short, the episode is vintage “Masters,” a
heady brew of subtext and supertext that counts as the season’s best yet.  

Required Reading

Carnegie, born
into
rural poverty in Marysville, Missouri in the late nineteenth century
and trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, first published “How
to Win Friends and Influence People” in 1936, after Simon & Schuster’s
Leon Shimkin completed
one of Carnegie’s courses and encouraged him to adapt the material into a book.
It is, in its promise of “Twelve Things” and “Six Ways” and
“Seven Rules” to transform social skills into personal and professional
success, a precursor of everything from the self-help boom to the ubiquity of
the listicle, and Bill’s unexpected embrace of its optimistic message creates
the central conflict of “Undue Influence.”

As the episode pauses, periodically, to listen in on Bill’s
voiceover narration of “How to Win Friends,” the text becomes a kind
of scaffolding for this season’s loose arrangement of narrative arcs, and the
result is a highly focused study of the anxiety of influence. Bill is as
embarrassed to be caught with Carnegie’s book as the general public is to be
caught with his, and yet he earnestly implements Carnegie’s advice —first with
a shop clerk and then with Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), who’s grown increasingly
distant as her family life spins out of control.

While he fails to apply theses lessons to his interactions
with Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman), and Betty (Annaleigh
Ashford), constantly slipping back into his usual cold, rough manner, Bill’s
awkward efforts to win back Virginia’s affection are sweet and funny and
ultimately quite sad. In a way, we’ve been waiting to see his gentler side as
long as she has, and though neither quite realizes it yet, we know by the
episode’s moving denouement that it’s too little, too late. As is its wont,
Masters of Sex” deploys the sunniness of Carnegie’s book to ambivalent
ends, and “Undue Influence,” as subtly as a whisper in your ear,
emerges as a wrenching portrait of regret. There is no self-help guide, after
all, to changing the course of the past.

Popular Science

It’s the unintended consequences of influence, then, that
constitute the episode’s central theme, one expressed as a series of
misinterpretations of popular science. Played for both humor (the astrological
“scientist” accompanying fragrance magnate Dan Logan) and pathos (Tessa’s
critique, rooted in her own painful experience, of the clinic’s correspondents,
who can’t “figure out the sex stuff on their own”), the search for magic
bullets, miracle cures and quick fixes serves only to convince those for whom
change is halting and difficult that they’ve failed. The danger of self-help,
with its up-by-the-bootstraps language, is that it often exacerbates the root
cause of our problems, which is the feeling that we’re in this alone. 

To this end, the reappearance of Margaret Scully (the
extraordinary Allison Janney) suggests the challenges of moving forward, and
the distinctly American pressure to do so—to light out for the territory, to
reach for the brass ring, to produce, as Carnegie writes, “new thoughts,
new visions, new ambitions.” Three years after leaving her ex-husband,
Barton (Beau Bridges), she and her new partner Graham (Tate Donovan) come to
Bill and Virginia for help reigniting their sex life, and the experience
exposes Margaret’s unhealed wounds. “My old self would be
scandalized,” she says of seeking treatment, but it turns out that her
personal reinvention remains incomplete.

READ MORE: Allison Janney’s Most Underappreciated Performances In Honor of Her Birthday

The encounter with Barton at the clinic sends her reeling,
tempering the pleasure of seeing her serviced by the strapping, bare-assed
Donovan, or laughing and smiling through the initial consultation. She wants to
reveal Barton’s sexuality to Graham, she explains to Bill, so he’ll know
“why I insist on face-to-face sex, why I can’t do anything to him orally,
why I need him to see me, my body!” It’s a heartbreaking moment, not least
because she and Graham view the world through the lens of Dr. William Glasser’s
reality
therapy
,” a counseling model that emphasizes present over past, internal
factors over external ones— yet another form of self-help.

The episode’s point is not that Carnegie and Glasser sell
snake oil, but that the reliance on any one system for navigating through life
necessarily proves inadequate to the endless complexity thereof. “Masters
of Sex,” as I’ve written elsewhere,
has always been a series in which all kinds of intelligence have value. It’s
the particular alchemy of Virginia’s intuition, Bill’s intellect, Betty’s
street smarts and Libby’s social ones — not any one of the above — that
transforms a late-night study of sex into the opening salvo of the sexual
revolution.  

Extracurricular
Activities

As you may have gathered by now, one reason I fell so hard
for “Undue Influence” is its impressive construction, balancing the
demands of ongoing stories against the self-containment of Bill’s interest in
“How to Win Friends,” and Virginia, Tessa, and Libby all find
themselves drawn further into relationships that originated in “The
Excitement of Release
.”

After her suspension from school and her discovery of her
mother’s affair with Bill, Tessa tries, in vain, to describe her “terrible
day” to her rapist, Matt (Kevin Fonteyne). Once again, “Masters of
Sex” approaches the subject of sexual assault with tremendous nuance,
recognizing that the operation of power and violence in intimate relationships
proceeds down no single path. Not only does patriarchal convention bolster
Matt’s cruel claims on Tessa’s body, but Tessa’s isolation, at school and at
home, drives her to seek connection where she can find it; she realizes Matt’s
a piece of shit who gets off on thoughts of Virginia playing with a dildo, and then
offers herself up to him anyway. (The visual allusions to “The Excitement
of Release,” with both the car and the bathroom mirror repurposed to
suggest the dimming of Tessa’s formerly fiery independence, are absolutely
devastating.)

Though Virginia’s apparent interest in Dan Logan, and
Libby’s sense of responsibility for Joy (Susan May Pratt), are obviously of a
very different character, they, too, serve to displace their heartache. To see
Libby lose it when Paul (Ben Koldyke) compares Joy to a corpse, or to hear
Virginia wonder aloud if the “dazzling girl” of Dan’s wartime
dalliance could ever “measure up,” is to understand that no number of
fur coats can paper over the fact that Bill has caused each woman so much pain.
Both moments, echoing Barton’s secret, Tessa’s suffering, and Margaret’s
self-doubt, underline the desperate desire hidden within the hope of self-help,
which is to be made visible.

Public Speaking

If there’s a thimble’s worth of wisdom in “How to Win
Friends and Influence People,” it’s Betty, of course, who finds it, and in
the process lays the crux of the episode bare. She may not be close with J.P.
Morgan, but she’s familiar enough with Carnegie to recite the key line of
“Undue Influence” from memory: “Three-fourths of the people that
you will meet are hungering and thirsting for sympathy. Give it to them, and
they will love you.”

Head of the Class

As the symbol of the white, male, heterosexual elite
responsible for constraining the women and gay men whose struggles are the
primary subject of “Undue Influence,” Bill is in some sense the
episode’s villain, but he’s the character of the week nonetheless. Buoyed by
Sheen’s remarkable comic performance, stuttering through niceties with the shop
clerk and sniping about the invention of knocking, his uneven adoption of
Carnegie’s advice is so sincere it becomes impossible to holds his mistakes
against him. Indeed, by the time Bill arrives at Virginia’s house in the
closing moments, the humor of “Undue Influence” shades into something
far more poignant: he, too, hungers for sympathy, but he’s hidden for his
feelings for so long that he’s become invisible, too.

Grade: A

READ MORE: The Best TV Episodes of 2014

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