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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 11, ‘Party of Four’: Fear and Trembling

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 11, 'Party of Four': Fear and Trembling

PREVIOUSLY: Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 10, ‘Through a Glass, Darkly’: Controls and Variables

The Syllabus

In the season’s pared-down penultimate episode,
Masters of Sex” reduces its shifting constellation of personal and
professional relationships to two quartets: Bill (Michael Sheen), Virginia
(Lizzy Caplan), Dan (Josh Charles), and Dan’s wife, Alice (an extraordinary
Judy Greer), dining at a four-star restaurant in New York, and Libby (Caitlin
FitzGerald) and Paul (Ben Koldyke) playing house with the Masters children back
in St. Louis.

The result, refracted through a series of brief scenes
unspooling over the course of a single night, is the most controlled episode of
this inconsistent season. Criss-crossing from the Big Apple to the Gateway City
and back again, “Party of Four” is full of cutting one-liners and
cool appraisals, but in effect its gambit is gentler, even melancholy. The
subject, as Paul explains to Johnny Masters (Jaeden Lieberher),
is fear: fears rational and inexplicable, immediate and existential, fears of
what might happen and, perhaps just as commonly, fears of what might not.

Culinary Arts

Bill and Virginia are in New York to meet with publisher
Little, Brown on the subject of their second book, and as the episode begins
it’s clear that their professional success has once again come at the cost of their
personal relationship. “Is this yet another thing you would like to
overrule me on?” she snarls, wanting to hold onto her coat — and her
dignity. Bill, we learn, has monopolized the meeting, offering the editors a
chapter on sex surrogates soon after agreeing, at Virginia’s behest, to end the
program; now he must rub salt in the wound by insisting on a fancy, five-course
meal with Dan and Alice.

At first, the occasion has a slight screwball aspect,
tumbling through one form of linguistic misdirection after another. Virginia
eyes the restaurant lobby around suspiciously, “[l]ooking for that bald
man on TV who pops out with his hidden camera.” Bill mutters a correction
to Dan’s grammatical error under his breath, having been upstaged by the
fragrance magnate’s connections. A table for two suddenly squeezes four, Alice
— unaware of the title of Masters and Johnson’s new work — wonders why
they’re toasting “Human Sexual Inadequacy,” and Virginia’s eyes
practically roll out of her head as Bill’s scheme becomes clear. By the time
Alice says, unapologetically, “I love your sense of humor, Virginia. It’s
very New York. Are you Jewish?” the first half of “Party of
Four” registers as a minor classic of acerbic comedy: “Duck
Soup” meets “Pillow Talk.”

The sour undercurrent in all this laughter becomes the
dominant force in the episode’s latter stages, as the various plots, ploys, and
ulterior motives collide. Overhearing Virginia discussing Dan with the daffy
washroom attendant, Alice, a recovering alcoholic, jumps head first off the
wagon, and the more tipsy she gets, the closer the evening edges toward
disaster. Virginia flees first, spitting with rage, and in the cloakroom she
explains that her worst fear has still come to pass despite her own best
efforts. “Either way, whether I tell you or not,” she says of her
affairs with Ethan and Dan, “I end up in the exact same place:
outside.”

If it’s apparent that next week’s season finale will either
calcify or reverse Bill and Virginia’s estrangement, it’s less clear where
“Party of Four” leaves her and Dan. Though he turns up at her door in
the final seconds, professing his love and saying he’d left Alice once and for
all, there’s a niggling sense that’s Alice’s final dig will prove fateful in
the long run. “Did you think you were different?” she asks Virginia
with an air of resignation, not even waiting for an answer. “They all
do.”

Home Economics

Events in St. Louis begin much more innocently, as Paul and
Libby nest in Bill’s absence. “However you want me to be, I’ll be,”
he says sweetly, bonding with Johnny and creating a sense of domestic stability
and contentment in the Masters home for the first time since the series
debuted. Though mundane by comparison with the four-star fireworks in New York,
Paul and Libby’s scenes together are lovely, affectionate little glimmers of
hope amid the series’ rather jaundiced view of romance, and her confession that
her worst fear — notably, much like Virginia’s — is not Bill’s annoyance or
anger, but his apathy, is quite moving. “What I am most afraid of is, what
if he doesn’t care?” she tells Paul. “What if when I tell him, I look
in his eyes, and all I see is relief?”

Had “Party of Four” continued in this vein, it
might have reached the heights of “Undue
Influence
” and “Matters
of Gravity
” — at this point I may be more desperate to see Libby
escape from her marriage than she is. Unfortunately, whether as a function of
loyalty to the real-life subjects of “Masters of Sex” or simply a
byproduct of narrative cowardice, writer Amy Lippman and company toss a wrench
into the works, in the form of a policeman knocking at the door. All I can say
of the tacit accusation that Bill’s some sort of child molester is that it’s an
icky, uncomfortable contrivance, seemingly designed to pry Libby and Paul
apart, and it can be said to “work” only insofar as it wipes clean a
season’s worth of character development in the course of a few minutes. (This
show can be completely infuriating.) “I am protecting them, from the false
impression that their father is a monster,” Libby says when Paul suggests
that she and the kids move out immediately, but of course the arc of this
season has focused on all the ways in which Bill is a monster — just not the kind of monster the policeman thinks.

Public Speaking

Of all the stellar, keen one-liners in “Party of
Four,” my favorite may be Virginia’s utterly exasperated response to
Bill’s attempt to pretend that the “Mosher” reservation is
“Masters” passed through a garbled telephone connection. “Bill,
that is entirely possible,” she says, so dryly I worried it might set off
a rash of forest fires. “If you were calling from a submarine.”

Head of the Class

“Party of Four” sees “Masters of Sex”
continue its tradition of women guest stars stealing the show (see also: Alison
Janney, Betsy Brandt, Julianne Nicholson and Frances Fisher), as Judy Greer
lends Alice Logan a soused, biting desperation to be loved — and the fear at
the root of every character’s machinations in tonight’s episode, which is that
they are not. Greer perfectly traces the boundary between the comic and the
melancholic along which “Party of Four” operates most successfully,
until her admission that she’s no longer a partner to Dan but a project
suddenly casts the entire season in sharp relief. It’s a beautiful,
tremendously sad scene, though in its own way liberating, too. It’s the moment
your worst fears are realized, and you survived it nonetheless.

Grade: B

READ MORE: Beau Bridges on ‘Masters of Sex,’ Technology, Sexuality, Podcasts and Love

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