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

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

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

The Syllabus

In Howard Hawks’ antic comedy, “Monkey Business”
(1952), buttoned-up chemist Barnaby Fulton (Cary Grant) ingests an elixir of
youth and spends a freewheeling afternoon with buxom secretary Lois Laurel
(Marilyn Monroe). The experience, he relates later, is one of
“maladjustment, idiocy and a series of low-comedy disasters,” but
this screwball spirit unfortunately fails to translate to tonight’s “Masters
of Sex.”

Culminating with a scene in which Bill Masters (Michael
Sheen) aims his recent cruelty at erstwhile partner Virginia Johnson (Lizzy
Caplan), the episode fails to make hay from its droll premise, preferring
instead a bewildering blend of squeamish humor, strange secrets, and slight
camp. “Monkey Business” may be designed as a mischievous double
entendre, but it blares its tired understanding of the battle of the sexes as
if through a bullhorn. “I suppose the only difference between you and
every other man,” Virginia suggests to Dan Logan (Josh Charles) as the
hour comes to a close, “is that you wear your ape on the outside.”

Primate Science

The focal point of “Monkey Business” is the
patient of the week, a low-libido gorilla named Gil. Cooped up at the St. Louis
Zoo, Gil’s been, uh, underperforming, and Masters and Johnson are on the case:
“Don’t I help sexually dysfunctional and sometimes inarticulate men in our
office every day?” Virginia asks. The unorthodox client offers
Masters of Sex” an opportunity to explore just how close we are to
our evolutionary forebears. Is attraction simply an instinct, a side effect of
procreation? Or is there, within the usual pleasures and frustrations of the
act, a glimpse of the psyche, the soul?

Although it’s not exactly surprising that the episode lands
on the more sentimental end of the spectrum, what is notable is the baffling route it takes to get there. The
insinuation that Gil and his former handler forged an intimate, even sexual,
relationship, for instance, cannot have come off as intended, because it
doesn’t come off at all. If Bill and Virginia’s visit to the stout woman’s home
is meant to play as comedy, there’s an unkindness to it that’s out of character
for the series, as if Bill’s bully tactics had finally seeped back into the
writers’ room. Since when is this show in the business of poking fun at the
lonely, the isolated, the weak? And if meant to be taken seriously, the
sequence prompts another question: What the fuck, “Masters of Sex”?
Bestiality? Really?

The problem is not simply that the conversation is an unsuccessful
narrative detour, but that it establishes the sour, unsubtle sexual politics
that mar the rest of the episode. Gil needs “someone who can stroke his
ego and let him know he’s the king,” just
like a man, y’all
. I’m all for a little misandry to pass the time, but
“Masters of Sex” is at its best when it disrupts the conventional
wisdom — when the successful, single woman decides to forgo an abortion, when
the icy clinician falls in love with his secretary, when the former housewife
holds her ex-husband’s hand as he comes out to their only daughter.

By the time “Monkey Business” arrives at its
unsettling climax, as Virginia strips down for Gil and Bill looks on with
relish, the humiliation that accompanies the moment illustrates what, exactly?
That men are animals? That love is cruel? For all the discomfort it risks, the
episode’s understanding of the human heart is little more complex than the
inscription on a throw pillow, and sadly, that’s no joke.

Sex and the Single

While Bill and Virginia are coaxing Gil to spread his seed,
the women of the Masters and Johnson clinic buck Helen Gurley Brown’s advice as
if it had never been published. (Thank goodness for small mercies.) Rather than
chase bachelors, Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) and her old lady Helen
(Sarah Silverman) sneak into the office one night and attempt to improvise
artificial insemination; Jane (Heléne Yorke) seeks to become a sex surrogate
for a fellow cast member of “Oliver!”; Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman)
tricks Dan by posing as the office gossip, rather than revealing that she’s
Virginia’s daughter.

Though there’s nothing especially remarkable about any of
this, the specificity with which the episode sketches each subplot is a
reprieve from the broad central narrative — Jane’s Cockney rendition of
Nancy’s lines from “Oliver!” being the obvious highlight. Indeed,
despite the lighter mood, it’s here, and not with Bill and Virginia, that
“Monkey Business” treats the issue of shame with the most delicacy.
As Tessa criticizes her mother’s “messy life,” practically accusing
her of sleeping her way to the top, or Jane’s friend Keith (Joe Tapper) begs
Bill to take him on as a patient, it becomes clear that society’s expectations
don’t stop at the four walls of the most open-minded workplace in St. Louis.

Betty’s hedging, as she tries to explain to BIll why a
(hypothetical) single woman might want a child, is therefore quite poignant:
even the impossibly frank former sex worker can’t tell the truth of the matter.
“I know how precious illusions can be,” Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald)
tells Paul (Ben Koldyke) to this end. “It has been so long since I had any
about my own life.”

Media Relations

“Monkey Business,” like “Matters
of Gravity
,” concludes with Bill waxing eloquent, but this time, I
fear, his poetic summation is too little, too late. After Isabella Ricci and
her husband sing Masters and Johnson’s praises to Newsweek — having been
caught by a paparazzo leaving the clinic — the magazine asks to profile the
sex researchers, and the pair agrees to an interview.

Though he seems, at first, to violate Virginia’s express
wish that he not discuss their treatment of Gil, he ultimately abides by her
request: his explanation of the psychological aspect of sexual health is also a
heartfelt apology. As Bill explains to the Newsweek correspondent, “If you
take that ape and damage it, in ways that only humans can inflict damage — watch
it turn itself into something it’s not — then our job is to take those
shattered parts and bring them together and allow, through a successful
coupling, those wounds to finally heal.”

The question is, how many more times can Bill inflict such
damage on those he loves before successful coupling, whether Platonic or
romantic, is no longer possible? When Bill is out of external targets for his
fits of pique, will he finally realize that he’s the shattered one?

Public Speaking

Building an insurmountable lead in the best quote
department, Betty benefits this week from my feeling about her subject, Dr.
Austin Langham (Teddy Sears). His return, as the in-house orthopedist at a
local burlesque joint, amounts to little more than a smile and hug, but he
remains as slap-you-across-the-face beautiful as ever. Betty’s right, as usual:
“He’s a doctor, with a face like a movie star and a body that looks like
it should be throwing thunderbolts from a cloud.” She and Helen could do

Head of the Class

The most singularly satisfying moment in “Monkey
Business” comes as Libby departs to “check on the Edleys,” and
the camera closes in on Johnny Masters (Jaeden Lieberher) with a fleet-footed
zoom. As he dips one of his father’s beloved trading cards into the flames of
the gas range, “Masters of Sex” cultivates a fine sense of the
spiraling offenses and mutual recriminations that can transform a testy
relationship into no relationship at all. Indeed, Johnny, the episode’s best
character on the basis of this single scene, whispers “Goodbye, Ernie
Nevers” with such rapture it’s hard not to feel that Bill deserves this
comeuppance. At home and at work, Dr. Masters may not be an animal, exactly,
but he’s not a man in full, either.

Grade: C+

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

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