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‘Masters of Sex’ Has Some Great Female Characters — Will Its Men Catch Up?

'Masters of Sex' Has Some Great Female Characters -- Will Its Men Catch Up?

The article below contains spoilers through the first season of “Masters of Sex.”

“Masters of Sex” ended its first season on Sunday with Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) showing up at the door of his former assistant and lover Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), saying “I finally realized there is one thing I can’t live without — it’s you.” It was a confession the series, which is the creation of Michelle Ashford, had been foreshadowing for quite some time, with a character observing Bill was in love with Virginia even before they started bumping uglies in the name of science. The 12-episode initial arc of the series made clear the ways in which Virginia has been good for Bill and the groundbreaking study of human sexuality he initiated — she’s warm where he’s clinical, smart about people while he’s smart about scientific process, and has a dedication to and viewpoint on the research that complements his.

Aside from being poised to break up his marriage to the sweet Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald), who just gave birth to his baby (while he wasn’t around to pick up the phone to find out about it), Virginia’s presence has benefited Bill. But he doesn’t seem all that great for her, which is why that late night visit, the stuff of romantic movies, actually ended the season on a note of queasy dread. Virginia’s in a stable relationship with Bill’s former protege Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto), who has won his way back into her graces after a rough start, who adores her, loves her children and proposed to support her in whichever way she wished, even if that meant quitting her job to go back to school — “I want us to be a team.” “Haas and Johnson,” she mused as the two talked in bed. “It’s got a ring to it,” he replied.

It’s not one of familiarity, though — Masters and Johnson is the famous pairing in the annals of science, and in 1971 the real Virginia Johnson married her research partner William Masters, though that’s some way down the line for a show that started in 1956. There’s never been any doubt that, even after she quit in episode 10, “Fallout,” Virginia would eventually make her way back to Bill’s side, professionally and romantically. Which makes the dilemma of this show, which is smart, well-made and yet strangely leaden, not whether the two will come together but whether they should — and the first season does nothing to reassure that Virginia should do anything other than say yes to Ethan’s proposal (even though early in the season he hit her in a pique of drunken jealousy), take her children and head to sunny California, never looking back. Bill’s been practicing his own form of emotional abuse all season.

It’s easy to compare “Masters of Sex” to “Mad Men,” two period dramas set just a decade apart, both centered on workplaces and fraught with gorgeous costuming and repressed emotion. Like “Mad Men,” “Masters of Sex” is frequently about gender and the era’s treatment of it, though the chauvinism and casual sexism of its male characters is less ostentatious than Roger Sterling riding an underwear-clad girl like a pony and yet more pervasive, its women all more evidently long-suffering. 

The series presents a set of complex woman who defy norms and who seem able to accommodate and understand the men in their lives better than the men themselves do — like Margaret Scully (the wonderful Allison Janney), who after years of a nonsexual but loving marriage first susses out that her husband, Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), is gay, and then confronts him and his plans to “fix” the problem medically with amazing emotional generosity.

Libby gently nudges at her spouse, who seems intent on compartmentalizing her into an idealized and limited role for her own protection, trying to understand his work and how his professional interest in sex might translate to their domestic lives. The severe Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) battles to bring attention to the life-saving potential of the pap smear despite a lack of interest from her male colleagues at the hospital.

And even the show is willing to allow that Virginia is a rare bird, clever, confident, curious and unhampered by societal baggage when it comes to how women should behave, either in the workplace or in bed. She’s ahead of her time, while her fellow lead character is very much of his time in everything other than work. Bill is complicated in his own right, but it’s a darker sort of complication, his abusive childhood only somewhat explains the man he became — in a flashback to earlier in his career, even, he’s more open, more expressive. But by the time in which the show is set, Bill is a powerful, respected doctor whose actions are frequently less than admirable — to keep his study going, he blackmails his old friend and champion Barton. He lies to his wife Libby about the reasons they have difficulty conceiving — his low sperm count, not a problem on her end — and then refuses to allow her to continue fertility treatments after she miscarries, punishing Ethan when the younger doctor helps her anyway.

Bill refuses to help out a girl who gets pregnant by participating in his study when her diaphragm fails. He proposes to Virginia that, as scientists, they should participate in their own study, and then feels guilty about the sex and pays her for her participation, leading her to quit because he made her feel so “small.”

Fiercely imperfect characters are the center of our “golden age of television,” and certainly Virginia isn’t perfect, but Bill as he’s been presented in this first season of the show, offers so little to latch onto beyond his clenched inability to open to other people. Despite fine work from both Sheen and Caplan, it’s a hinderance on a series with so many other fine aspects — it’s difficult to want to spend time with this prickly, uptight person who’s quick to use his position of power to protect himself or punish others for his own feelings. In the season finale, “Manhigh,” we saw Bill manage a few acts of redemption, saving Barton when the Chancellor was prepared to fire both of them for research he deemed pornographic, and putting Virginia’s name alongside his on the study when he could have easily taken sole credit.

But Bill’s finest quality remains his work — his willingness to accept conclusions based on the data that his colleagues were clearly uncomfortable about. When he presented his findings, they were willing to laugh about the throwaway bit he did regarding penis size not mattering, an inconclusive survey he put together to sooth ego and quickly garner attention from the mostly male room, but when it came to female sexuality they rebelled, confronted with a woman’s actual physiological response in orgasm. “That so-called work is obscene,” the Chancellor said, and the very idea that discussions of women and sex equal “smut,” that they can only be looked at as pornographic and not as documentation of experience for the other half of the population, speaks to why Bill’s study and his rigorousness in actually analyzing the information that comes from it is important. It’s just the rest of his life that’s a chilly wreck, a difficult thing to come back to, week after week. “Masters of Sex” has presented some wonderful female characters — here’s hoping in its second season its men manage to catch up with them.

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