“Masters of Sex” ranked as one of my favorite new shows last year thanks to smart writing, great performances and upholding a fascinating look at sexuality, feminism and gender norms that still rings true today for a show that takes place in the late 50s. And I’m thrilled to be recapping season two of Showtime’s series with /bent. Hopefully my writing (convincing) here will get more people hooked and watching because this is a show that deserves the attention.
When we last left Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and Bill Masters (Michael Sheen), the latter was standing in the pouring rain on the former’s porch saying he can’t live without her. We open on Bill thinking back to that very moment and then flashing back to see that it, probably as no surprise, led to sex. It’s a critical moment for the two of them now that Bill is in limbo having been suspended from the university, and Virginia now spends her days at the hospital going by Ginny and selling a diet pill called Cal-o-Metric — aside from her ongoing support to Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) who’s sporting a mysterious black eye. As for the sex study? Officially dead in the water.
That is, until a medical fundraiser where Bill bumps into ex-prostitute Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) with her new hubby, the pretzel king himself, who grants a donation which gets the study back into action and Bill into a new job at Memorial Hospital.
Meanwhile, Barton (Beau Bridges) is going through with his electroshock treatment to cure himself of homosexuality, and in an upsetting scene, Bill watches from the sideline as the man writhes in pain. Barton then wakes up confused, scared, disoriented and vomits on Bill’s suit. Back home, Barton gets in bed with wife Margaret (Allison Janney), and as excited as she is, it quickly fades the second he rolls her over to face away from him. “There’s only a shred of me left that feels like a woman,” she pleads. “You can’t take that. I won’t let you.” Heartbreaking. And even more heartbreaking when both Margaret and her daughter find Barton in the basement trying to hang himself. This subplot, though as dark it is, continues to give way to beautiful performances from Bridges and Janney, who both received guest actor Emmy nods last week for their work.
We’re also shown that Bill is about as bad a father as “Mad Men”‘s Betty Draper is a mother. When Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) leaves him in charge of their baby for just an afternoon, he can’t handle the crying for one second and instead of tending to his son, he cranks up music to drown him out. And such a cruel act couldn’t even go unseen when his mother (Ann Dowd) shows up to save the day. They quarrel for one last time before he banishes her back to Ohio from where she came from before Libby’s pregnancy.
Throughout the episode, both Virginia and Bill reflect back on that fateful, rain-drenched evening. What’s seemingly disconcerting at first is to see how much Virginia gives up to be with him. She immediately rings Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto) with an answer to his proposal — the answer is “no” — but then tells him it’s her work that’s keeping her from becoming his wife and moving to California with him. Later, at a hotel a half hour outside of town where Virginia and Bill have disguised themselves as the Holdens, she reveals to him her decision to deny Ethan was choosing work over love. To her, Bill is still just work. “An affair is a pedestrian thing,” she tells Bill. “What we have is so much more than that. We have the work.” And with that, Bill does a complete reversal and puts the kibosh on the thought of it ever being an affair to begin with, further burying his real feelings for her. It’s classic Bill, who always wants the upper-hand in any situation.
The season two premiere episode is aptly titled “Parallax,” which is defined as the position of something appearing different when viewed from different positions. Virginia Johnson and Bill Masters kick off season two with their double- and triple-layered relationship working as its own parallax, occupying a grey area between love, friendship and work.