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Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 6: The Trial and Error of ‘Two Scents’

Review: 'Masters of Sex' Season 3, Episode 6: The Trial and Error of 'Two Scents'

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

The Syllabus

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

A fitting companion to last week’s chronicle
of failure
, “Two Scents” hangs together on the multiple meanings
of “try”: to attempt, to test, to challenge. In matters of kinship,
sex, romance and science, tonight’s episode of “Masters of Sex
recognizes that effort alone is in fact no guarantee of the desired
outcome—that tricks of timing, of fortune and fate, often conspire against
us—and yet the characters strive, still, to write a different ending. As the
season passes the midway point, the slightly ragged “Two Scents” establishes
the state of play for the remaining episodes: dissatisfaction becomes action,
and the proverb attributed
British educator W.E. Hickson becomes the catalyst for change.


Stymied in their research by the deeply personal connection
between reminiscence emotion and olfaction—it’s impossible to mass-produce
memories, after all—Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) and Dan (Josh Charles) finally have
a breakthrough. Drawing a rather brilliant connection, Virginia glosses a
recent study, published in Nature, which found that the common gypsy moth,
known to entomologists as Lymantia dispar, secretes pheromones to attract a mate.

Before you can say “climax,” the perfumier and the
scientist are collecting sweat samples from Lester (Kevin Christy) and
investigating their effect on female subjects, reopening the series’ longtime
fascination with the rules of attraction. Is the evidence that pheromones
create a sexual response even when the scent evokes unpleasant
associations—”Her mouth says no, but her vagina says yes,” as
Virginia so succinctly puts it—proof that allure is simply a collision of
molecules? Or, as the consummation of Virginia and Dan’s flirtation may
suggest, is part of the equation beyond the realm of empirical evidence?

As I read it, “Two Scents” tends toward the latter
interpretation even as the study of pheromones pays off. We are not, after all,
mere gypsy moths flying toward every flame. Virginia’s interest in Dan is, to a
significant extent, a reaction to the feeling that her relationship with Bill
has stalled, “forced back to Ground Zero.” This brutally honest
assessment comes as they retreat to the clinic’s observation room after being
recognized at their old haunt, the Chancery Park Plaza Hotel, the camera
peering in through the two-way mirror. Like the striking image of Bill (Michael
Sheen) watching Dan and Virginia earlier with the microphone turned off, the
scene uses the series’ impeccable
set design
to reflect the growing gulf between them. “What we
had,” Virginia says from behind the glass, “was about as natural at
two amoeba in a Petri dish.”

A Room of One’s

Though I initially
Libby’s (Caitlin FitzGerald) outspokenness this season, the
limitations of her role as hectoring wife, fruitlessly (if rightfully)
criticizing Bill’s every decision, become clear once more in “Two
Scents.” She’s not unsympathetic, at least at first, describing her
miscarriage and the terms of her disastrous marriage to Joy (Susan May Pratt),
but the episode underlines the plight of the housewife by transforming her into
a miserable shrew. (For a series interested in the many faces of feminism, it’s
not a good look.) As if it weren’t enough for a fellow football mom to explain
the purpose of spectatorship and snack duty—”Your job is to be invisible,
while cheering them on”—Libby reacts to Paul’s (Ben Koldyke) accusation of
“mollycoddling” Johnny (Jaeden Lieberher) by revealing Joy’s plan to
leave. It’s as needlessly cruel as Bill’s treatment of Johnny’s bully, Dennis (Blake
Morgan Ferris), in “Matters of Gravity,” reducing her discontentment
to a few wild swings of mood. Maybe she and Bill deserve each other.

Too bad, because the magnetic pull of Joy’s empty apartment
held some promise, at least as a midcentury reimagining of Virginia Woolf’s
“A Room of One’s Own.” Libby has spent much of her time in the
decade-or-so covered by “Masters of Sex” thus far casting about for a
purpose, primarily in the realm of politics, and Woolf understood firsthand
that work requires time and space away from the demands of domestic life. More
than anything else, Libby requires a room of her own, if only to begin building
the life raft she needs to leave her husband. It’s disappointing that
“Masters of Sex” should sabotage this instinct for nuance, just so
Libby can engage in another screaming match.

Celebrity Studies

Speaking of disappointments, any potential humor or pathos
“Two Scents” might have dredged from Bill and Virginia’s new
patients, movie star Isabella Ricci (Kristen Hager) and her strapping husband,
plays so broad I can’t even tell you the man’s name. (Lurch? Asshole? Philanderer?
He’s an archetype, and not a particularly engaging one.) The notion of
celebrities as unrepentant narcissists desperate for affirmation or coasting
through life without consequence is all too familiar, and “Masters of
Sex” invests surprisingly little energy in complicating the stereotype.

At the very least, the episode does seem willing to poke fun
at its own excesses. Despite her treatment at the clinic being a
“secret,” Ricci turns up at the clinic in a less-than-inconspicuous
get-up—wide-brimmed maroon hat, bug-eye sunglasses, leggy dress, white fur
coat—and I couldn’t help but laugh at the smash cut to Virginia in the break
room after Ricci rips open her blouse: “The problem is… She’s

Remedial Parenting

Boy, is Bill Masters insufferable sometimes.
Explaining the quarterback sneak to Johnny using salt and pepper shakers,
calling the members of the youth football team by their jersey numbers, and
befriending his son’s bully, he hits a new low on the likability index here.
Unsurprisingly, however, “Masters of Sex”—never shy about turning our
frustration with Bill to useful ends—twists his extraordinary selfishness in
the final act, framing him as a man with the stunted emotional intelligence of
a child. Replicating the image that concluded “Matters of Gravity,”
the camera pulls back from Bill and Dennis discussing trading cards on the
couch to reveal Johnny hidden in the dark, watching as Bill watched Dan and
Virginia, with a mixture of fear and longing. “Sometimes people just seem
to be slipping away,” Bill says to Paul earlier in the episode, yet he’s
too immature to realize that he’s visiting the same sorrow on his son.

If Bill seems to have failed in his attempt to avoid the
mistakes his father made, Virginia at least continues to try, with mixed
results, to oppose her mother’s fantasy of “someplace better.”
“You don’t take care of me!” Virginia yells at Edna (Frances Fisher)
as Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman) eavesdrops through the door. “You belittle me!
And you criticize me!” While she discourages Tessa from taking seriously
Edna’s interest in husbands and beehive hairdos, Virginia begins to believe in
fairy tales herself—she’s suddenly taken by Dan’s idea of “proper
courtship,” something she’s never evinced much interest in before. The
unifying action in “Two Scents” may be the characters’ attempt to
escape from the expectations of their parents, and it’s telling, in the end,
that none manage the feat.

“If at first
you don’t succeed, try, try again,” goes the revised proverb (wrongly)
attributed to W.C. Fields. “Then quit.”

Public Speaking

Stealing the best quote from right under Betty DiMello’s
(Annaleigh Ashford) nose, it’s Lester’s wife, Jane (Heléne Yorke): “Can I
just say that I have to pee?” she asks, hoping to catch a closer look at
Isabella Ricci. “I’ve had two kids! By the time I get out there, it’ll be

Head of the Class

Way to go, Tessa! Your grandmother may not give two craps,
and your mother’s brilliant career may have made you too shy to share the news,
but I’m proud of you. I don’t read Teen Society, but I’m sure “Life and
Love” is great.

Grade: B

READ MORE: ‘Masters of Sex’ Creator Michelle Ashford on Season 4 Plans and Beyond

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