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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 8 ‘Surrogates’: Replacement Therapies

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 8 'Surrogates': Replacement Therapies

PREVIOUSLY: Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 7, ‘Monkey Business’: No Use to Man or Beast

The Syllabus

Tonight’s episode of “Masters of Sex” begins with
two sleights of hand. As Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) feigns flu to secure a few
days in Las Vegas with Dan Logan (Josh Charles), Bill (Michael Sheen) expresses
concern with an eye to launching the clinic’s sex surrogacy program, despite
her objections. It’s a moment of mutual dissembling that suggests, with far
more subtlety than last week’s dreadful “Monkey Business,” the gulf
that’s opened between Bill and Virginia this season — and the steps each has
taken to fill it.

In medicine, replacement therapies attack absence — of
clotting factors in the hemophiliac, of nicotine in the smoker attempting to
quit, of estrogen and progesterone in the menopausal woman. In
“Surrogates,” an hour of substitutes and stand-ins that runs much deeper
than the physiological, the question is whether the premise of such treatments
is transferable to human emotions. When we try to replace what we’ve lost, is
it ever really the same?

Field Work

Virginia’s impressive performance on the telephone depends,
after all, on understanding her longtime collaborator and now-former lover:
“It’s important for Bill to think that it was his idea,” she explains.
What’s interesting, in this context, is that Dan doesn’t quite understand her:
he schedules Virginia a Swedish massage, a shopping trip, and an appointment at
the beauty parlor, all of which she cancels the moment he leaves the room. (I’m
reminded here of Ginny’s polar opposite, Betty Draper, who relishes the chance
to get dolled up in a sexy black dress and practice her Italian on a couple of
flirts in the “Mad Men” entry “Souvenir.”) Whereas Bill
accepts and indeed appreciates the fact that Virginia’s an inveterate
workaholic, Dan occasionally tries to shoehorn her into a role she’s unwilling
to play — the happy housewife.

The woman Virginia meets in the casino a little later is
just that, and her assumption that Virginia’s in the same boat provokes a
certain discomfort. “We do our part, don’t we?” the woman ventures.
“In exchange, we get to live a life most women can only dream of.” Of
course, waiting around for some man is Virginia’s nightmare, and her almost
unconscious “field work” in this moment — determining through
observation that “the physiological response to winning money is virtually
identical to the body’s response to sex” — may be a sort of defense
mechanism. The scariest part of falling for Dan, in Virginia’s eyes, is the
danger that a “proper courtship,” as he calls it in “Two
Scents
,” requires adherence to “proper” gender dynamics. As
always, her career is her escape hatch. 

War Games

Dan nonetheless bends to Virginia’s will when a
knife-wielding bellhop cuts off Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of
Love” mid-verse. Encouraged by her compassion, he relents to her demand to
leave the police out of it, and even offers to pay for the young man — recently
discharged from the army after serving in Vietnam — to seek treatment for drug
addiction. (As if more proof were necessary that Dan’s smitten with her, we
learn near the episode’s end that he’s turned down a contract with the casino
because it will force him to relocate to Vegas.)

Still, there’s something awfully slipshod about the decision
to displace Virginia’s anxiety over Henry’s deployment onto the 19-year-old
intruder. With the crude, psychoanalytical contours of a dream sequence, the
subplot appears even cheaper when one considers just how little attention
“Masters of Sex” has paid to Henry’s enlistment since “Parliament
of Owls
.” Rather than build step-by-step to Virginia’s confrontation
with this surrogate son, and the fear it dredges up within her, the writers
seem to have decided that the sudden appearance of a damaged private is
effective shorthand for a whole host of conflicting emotions. It’s not.

Clinical Trials

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the series indulges in yet another
episode devoted mainly to setting the table for the season’s denouement. If
last week’s dabbling in office intrigue at least distracted from the business
with the gorilla, “Surrogates” features several developments that
echo the episode’s theme, and yet fail to advance the narrative.

Jane (Heléne Yorke) and Lester (Kevin Christy) once again
use their participation in the surrogacy program as a proxy for their marital
spat, and though Lester lands a clever riposte when Jane slanders his sexual
prowess in public — “You were singing a different tune last night”
— I’ve forgotten why they started fighting in the first place.

In a similar vein, Libby’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) aloofness
with Paul (Ben Koldyke) quickly becomes grating, even if it’s clear that each
sees the other as a paltry “stand-in” for the lovers they’ve suddenly
lost. There’s just not much to chew on here, except the fact that Paul’s a
total DILF: all the promise of Libby’s swashbuckling start to the season has
since evaporated, and both FitzGerald and the writers strike a single, sullen
note.

Indeed, the season seems to have lost the forward thrust it
briefly achieved in “Undue
Influence
” and “Matters
of Gravity
,” such that even the most effective gestures — the sweet
“classical music” euphemism by which Barton (Beau Bridges) forges the
beginnings of a new friendship; the image of Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) clasping
hands with Helen (Sarah Silverman) while Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) serves as
their surrogate — are nearly lost in the shuffle. I suspect that the
rearrangement of the characters will eventually pay off, but in the meantime
it’s hard to deny that “Masters of Sex” is sliding into an old pattern:
two or three corker episodes in a season, surrounded mainly by fluff.

Head of the Class

Though “Head of the Class” usually refers to the
episode’s best character — in this case it’s obviously Virginia — the top
student among the new surrogates is Bill’s former neighbor, Nora Everett (Emily
Kinney). A fast study, unafraid of frank discussions of sex, she’s not unlike
the younger Mrs. Johnson, winsome and direct. Indeed, the metaphor with which
she wins Bill over, long before he discovers that she’s homeless and decides to
help her out, nicely mirrors Virginia’s triumphant moment in
“Surrogates.” “On the outside, it looks simple,” Nora says,
comparing sex to a watch. “But once you see all the gears, and the
springs, how each tiny piece clicks together just like so… Well, it’s
remarkable, isn’t it?”

Public Speaking

On more than one occasion so far this season, Bill has saved
face with a poetic monologue, and it’s nice to see Virginia display her own
facility with language this week. To see Caplan’s eyes brighten as she explains
the potential benefits of Dan’s fragrances, which he wants the owner to pipe
into the casino to keep customers playing (and paying), is to be reminded that
she is seduced first and foremost by the science. “Going into a casino is
much like going to bed with someone,” she notes, cycling through the
stages of sexual response. As her voice deepens, she thrills to the notion that
her expertise — not a new dress or a fresh haircut — is more than enough, and
indeed the moment might be seen as a surrogate of its own, for what the series
is still capable of. When “Masters of Sex” clicks together just like
so, it can be quite remarkable.

Grade: B-

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