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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 5: ‘Matters of Gravity’ Is Out of This World

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 5: 'Matters of Gravity' Is Out of This World

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

The Syllabus

Midway through “Matters of Gravity” — funny,
poignant, sexy, poetic “Matters of Gravity” — Virginia Johnson
(Lizzy Caplan) and Dan Logan (Josh Charles) conduct an experiment with Betty
DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) and Lester Linden (Kevin Christy). As electrodes
measure the beat of Lester’s heart, he identifies in one fragrance hints of
attraction, memories of rejection, notes of defeat. “Is failure an
emotion?” Lester asks, when tasked with describing how the scent makes him
feel. “That would be my emotional response to this.”

It’s a tossed-off line from a secondary character, petering
out before the period in an attempt at comic relief, but Lester’s response to
the scent echoes the central thrust of tonight’s tightly focused episode. “Matters
of Gravity,” to wit, is a chronicle of failure: failure in our own eyes
and the eyes of others; failures of courage and failures of commitment;
failures borne, overcome, or halfway forgotten; even failures that turn out not
to be failures at all.

Child Psychology

With Virginia’s mother (Frances Fisher) and father (Michael
O’Keefe) in town for an impromptu visit, plus the scheming Tessa (Isabelle
Fuhrman) itching to confirm her suspicions about Virginia and Bill (Michael
Sheen), “Masters of Sex” turns once again to the pressure of parental
expectations. So much for killing Freud.

Prim and passive aggressive, the elder Mrs. Johnson doesn’t
exactly reject her daughter’s choices, but her disapproval is plain enough.
Virginia’s sham marriage, her childrearing techniques, and her success in
“sex work” all come in for chilly, hidebound criticism, only to be
swept under the rug when Virginia’s self-defense gains traction. Though there’s
novelty in using “marmalade” as a mic drop, the tension between
withholding mothers and their adult children is familiar terrain for the series
(see Bill’s mother, Essie, played by Ann Dowd), and “Matters of Gravity”
develops the theme further by pausing to consider the parent’s point of view.

Though she’ll leave Virginia severely wounded by episode’s
end, expressing pride at the prospect of marriage rather than the prestige of
the work, Virginia’s mother is not the only headstrong woman in the family. As Virginia’s
father gently reminds her, it was she who entered herself in a beauty pageant at the age of eight. Her mother’s badgering
has always been a protective measure, designed to save Virginia from disappointment.
Therein lies the rub, of course: no parent can entirely shield her child from regret,
sorrow, or pain, and no child can entirely live up to her mother’s dreams for
her future. At the core of kinship, along with deep and abiding love, is the
terrible fact that the moment we strive for such perfection we’ve already
failed to achieve it, and “Matters of Gravity” tries to understand
this phenomenon from both sides of the generational divide.

In far more troubling fashion, Bill and Johnny Masters (Jaeden
Lieberher) exhibit this dynamic as well, dredging up the doctor’s unhappy
childhood in the process. Raised by an abusive, alcoholic father, Bill
recognizes the need to stand up to bullies, but cannot seem to see that he’s
become one; his disturbing confrontation with Johnny’s 13-year-old tormentor,
so needlessly cruel it segues into psychological violence, reflects Bill’s
lifelong obsession with status and respect more than it does a schoolyard spat.
(It’s telling that Johnny, hoping to please his father, lies that he started the fight, for Bill, despite his
demure bow ties and professorial countenance, ultimately appreciates force.)

Notably, the episode also pays heed to the consequences of
Bill’s actions. Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) may witness her protestations fall
on deaf ears, but Johnny’s response is weighty indeed. The problem with
cultivating relationships based on fear, as Bill well knows, is that such
tactics preclude the possibility of love, and his vain effort to bond with his
son in the closing scene effectively suggests as much. As Johnny retreats to
his bedroom, the camera pulls back from Bill in a manner reminiscent of
“Mad Men,” revealing all the material comforts of success but none of
the emotional ones. He is, as “Matters of Gravity” fades to black, as
profoundly isolated as Don Draper — an expert in human connection who can’t
seem to achieve it himself.

READ MORE: Distinguish ‘Masters of Sex’ Fact from Fiction With This Infographic

The History of
Sexuality

As Margaret (Alison Janney) and Graham (Tate Donovan)
continue treatment at the clinic, it’s the complications of that connection,
sexual and otherwise, that come under consideration. Jo (Julie Ann Emery),
Graham’s travel agent-turned-friend-turned-lover, may be the root cause of the
discontent or merely a symptom, but it’s clear from the outset that neither
Margaret nor Graham is as capable of dealing with “what’s real” as
their references to Dr. William Glasser would suggest. Repeating the claim that
“monogamy is the exception, not the rule” as if it were an
incantation, their very modern arrangement assumes the quality of a mirage.

In fact, it’s their most intimate moment — following
Virginia’s drolly straight-faced advice to insert “just the tip” — that
brings the conflict with Jo to, um, a head. “Let yourself dissolve into
me,” Margaret says, and the resulting union of body and mind not only
produces steamy, loud, mutually satisfying sex, but also serves as a reminder
that the act is often only as good as the emotions behind it. When the
triangular affair unravels, after all, the question at hand isn’t simultaneous
orgasm or premature ejaculation. It’s love. (Margaret still lands a brilliant
jab at Graham for hiding behind “truth,” “reality,” and
“open-mindedness,” though: “We
didn’t invite your travel agent over for fondue and two bottles of rosé
because we wanted to fuck her!”)

Janney is simply astounding here, sketching Margaret’s
metamorphosis from game participant to odd woman out in bold, compelling
strokes, and by the time she confesses her feelings of brokenness to Barton
(Beau Bridges), the productive uses of failure swiftly come into focus. She is,
by her definition, a failed woman; her ex-husband is, by society’s definition,
a failed man; and yet, together, they craft a moving sequence that affirms the
individual potential for change — something the series, as I wrote in my review
of “Parliament of Owls,” has too often lost sight of. The image of
her hand clasping his as he prepares to come out to their daughter is a lovely
counterpoint to Bill’s frightening hold on Johnny’s bully. In “Masters of
Sex,” whatever its other flaws, it’s always empathy that takes courage.

Newton’s Law of
Universal Gravitation

The climax of “Matters of Gravity” features the
most explicit of several plays on the title, as Bill responds to a cutting
question after his speech at Washington University. The episode leaves the
testy relationship between Bill and the chancellor dangling, at least for now,
and slides briefly into clumsiness with the interlocutor’s phrasing.
(“Where is the love?” C’mon.) Bill’s response, however, is one of
several graceful, gorgeous uses of language in Esta Spalding’s script, an
emblem of the distance between word and action, between reason and instinct. “Love
cannot be rendered into columns and graphs as if it were the same as blood pressure,
or heart rate,” he says, alluding to Newton’s discovery of gravity:

“Love is not a force exerted by one body onto another;
it is the very fabric of those bodies. Love is that which carves the lines and
grooves, the curvature of our desire.”

In the end, the failure each character confronts in
“Matters of Gravity” is a failure of force, resisting the necessarily
mutual coordinates of bodies joined in space and time. Whether marked by the
mores of the present (Barton), the traumas of the past (Bill, Margaret), or the
expectations for the future (Virginia), each allows their personal lines and
grooves to define their sense of what’s possible, until either the rut hardens
or, in Margaret and Barton’s case, a hand reaches in to pull them out. In this
sense, the episode succeeds so brilliantly because “Masters of Sex”
at its best attends to the physiology of intercourse only insofar as it traces
the curvature of desire — even, or perhaps especially, when that desire goes
unmet.

Public Speaking

In an hour that features more than one incisive turn of
phrase, my single favorite interlude is one that acknowledges the importance of
the guttural, the sublingual, as a mode of conversation. As if it weren’t
enough to watch Betty lift Bill off the floor, to pop the misaligned vertebrae
of his escape from Virginia’s parents back into place, their whooping and
sighing — he in relief, she in sympathy — deepens the jocular affect of the
episode’s lightest moment. I’d watch a sitcom spinoff with Betty DiMello as a
no-nonsense chiropractor in a second.

Head of the Class

Margaret, of course, is the episode’s MVP, for all of the
reasons cited above — the incomparable Alison Janney foremost among them. Few
performers are as comfortable testing such a wide range of emotional registers,
warily clasping a circumcised dildo and shattering into “a million messy
pieces” without sacrificing the sense of wholeness, of goodness, that’s
accompanied Margaret from the start. She is, despite her intermittent presence,
the secret heroine of “Masters of Sex,” the woman for whom failure
really is an emotion, yet who never
quite spins out of orbit.

Grade: A

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

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