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

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

PREVIOUSLY: Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ Season 3, Episode 9, ‘High Anxiety’: Placebo Effects

The Syllabus

When sex surrogate-in-training Lester Linden (Kevin Christy)
finally balks, confessing that he only volunteered for the program to make his
wife jealous, “Masters of Sex” once again finds itself at the
frontier beyond which science cannot reach. Virginia (Lizzy Caplan), an
opponent of the project from the start, complains to Bill (Michael Sheen) that
there’s no accounting for the emotional states or ulterior motives of their
subjects — and, by extension, of themselves, always papering over the true nature
of their relationship with allusions to “the work.” “We are
attempting to conduct an experiment with an infinite number of variables and
without any controls,” she says. “It’s chaos, Bill.”

Coming near the end of a season that’s occasionally been
lost in the wilderness, Virginia’s mention of method functions as a remarkably
succinct statement of purpose. In the invigorating “Through a Glass,
Darkly” — an episode given over to assuming (and losing) control —
“Masters of Sex” begins to articulate the season’s through-line,
which has been to examine the chaos that life tends to create, even among those
who seem to grasp its reins firmly.

Biblical Studies

The title, famously explored in Ingmar Bergman’s 1961
portrait of psychological trauma on a remote Swedish isle, comes from Paul’s
First Epistle to the Corinthians, in a passage that defines charity as a far
more expansive virtue than mere generosity.

It’s this, as much as the title’s suggestion of blurred
self-reflection, which lends the episode a certain confidence of construction. The
question of emotional states and ulterior motives returns again and again, as
Bill placates Virginia, Nora (Emily Kinney) comes on to him, or Tessa (Isabelle
Fuhrman) urges Matt (Kevin Fonteyne) to take her virginity in her mother’s bed.
In each case, what’s pitched in the terms of selflessness — this is what you wanted, right? — is not so
charitable after all, and as Paul understood this is dangerous territory for
giver and recipient alike. “And though I have the gift of prophecy, and
understand all mysteries, and all knowledge,” the second verse reads, “and
though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not
charity, I am nothing.”

To be something rather than nothing is, to use Paul’s
phrase, to “know even as also I am known”; charity, as defined in
both First Corinthians and “Masters of Sex,” is a two-way street.
“Giving that part of yourself to another person, it’s as close to a sacred
act as there is,” Virginia advises Tessa the night Dan (Josh Charles)
discovers the two teens getting hot and heavy in the living room. “Make
sure that he deserves you.”

The Scientific

Tracking Bill’s descent into a sort of madness, this
season’s made it increasingly difficult to believe that he deserves Virginia,
or indeed that this is even the proper way to describe the maintenance of
mutual affection. Given Virginia’s central criticism of the surrogacy program,
it’s worth noting that Bill’s worst instincts — in the form of his father —
suggest that their failing relationship is a function of entropy. “You’ve
gotta pull yourself together. If you can’t control yourself, how are you going
to get control of her?” the ghostly vision in the parking garage says.
“You set the trap, she’ll walk right into it. She always does.” Bill
and Virginia’s dual, and dueling, interpretations of the word are at the heart
of the disconnection. For him, “control” means dominance. For her, it
means regulation, a baseline against which to measure change.

That they arrive at the season’s sexiest moment through
negotiation rather than force is more than enough to indicate where the series
stands on the matter. Despite Bill’s ham-handed “patients first”
segue into asking that they once again become subjects of their own experiment,
he and Virginia retreat to the observation room to develop an effective
treatment for dyspareunia, and the result is a frankly brilliant interlude of
pleasure and pain. “When I open my eyes, I’m suddenly aware of the other
person,” Virginia says, by way of identifying the problem. “His
needs. His desires –” “His scars,” Bill interjects, with
surprising honesty.

The scene features vanishingly little skin, with our
protagonists wrapped in matching blue bathrobes, and the wan, fluorescent light
of the laboratory setting resisting romance. Yet writers Steven Levenson and
Esta Spaulding and director Jeremy Webb use the clarity of the moment as a
wedge, briefly reopening the affair to remind us why it worked in the first
place. Framed together in an extended two-shot, Virginia sighs as she leans
into the crook of his neck and Bill, smelling her hair, basks in the relief of
their tenderness, but in the end they rediscover their desire by acting in
unison, on equal terms once more. “What if we gave her the sense of control?”
Bill suggests. “What if we let her guide his hand, allow her to show him
what feels good?”   

Before Stonewall

Though the series’ interest in homosexuality has often come
across as no more than a brief diversion from the brunt of the narrative,
“Through a Glass, Darkly” pursues the politics of gay rights before
the Stonewall riots with admirable vigor — if not necessarily the ideological
nuance, the light touch, it (periodically) devotes to straight folks.

In part, this is the consequence of shaky foundations. Only
last week did Jonathan (Rob Benedict), the clinic’s new
ultrasound technician, come out as a fellow, ahem, “classical music
lover” to Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), and already tonight’s
post-“Parsifal” attack on “queers,” “faggots,”
and “pink ladies” debating the contours of gay identity. As much as I
appreciate the useful attempt to point out that men sleeping with men — and
courting them in public — didn’t suddenly start in New York in 1969, there’s
an unearned didacticism to the whole subplot that pales in comparison to the
rich veins of love and grief that Barton and Margaret discuss in “Matters
of Gravity

The fact that Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) swoops in with a bit
of heartfelt, homespun wisdom near the episode’s end, asking to be included in
Helen’s prenatal care, only underlines the rather tiresome sense that the whole
ordeal is less invested in the hard work of (re)discovering oneself after
admitting the truth than in the tut-tut of disapproval the series aims at
Barton for impugning Jonathan’s “fancy friends.” In the chronology of
the series, it’s taken Barton ten years to inch out of the closet, and now
“Masters of Sex” demands he get with the program in the course of a
few weeks. This is politically satisfying, perhaps, but it’s pretty thin as
characterization goes. What’s the rush? 

Public Speaking

Against Virginia’s rather too explicit allusion to the
episode’s title, in which she tells Dan that seeing her extramarital activities
through Tessa’s eyes is like “seeing myself clearly for the very first
time,” Bill tacitly returns us to the central idea of First Corinthians with
a gasping cry in the dark. Briefly ensnared by Nora, who now appears to be part
of the Bible thumper’s plan to discredit the clinic, Bill catches himself before
committing a grievous error. His lament is of a piece with Virginia’s notion
that true charity, which grows out of love, is an act of sharing the self, not
of erasing it. “The only thing I’ve done right is loving someone so
completely, with as much of my broken soul as I can muster, and if I give up on
that –” Bill begins, before interrupting himself to echo Paul’s epistle.
“I can’t give up on that, or I’ll have nothing. I’ll be nothing.”

Head of the Class

Without warning, “Through a Glass, Darkly”
witnesses Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and Paul (Ben Koldyke) emerge as the most
successful couple of the bunch. Though she bristles when he seems to want a
surrogate wife, one who’ll run his errands while he speeds off to work, it
turns out that Paul’s demands are a ploy to distract her from a delightful
surprise: a birthday gift that includes her children’s performance of
“Princess Libby” and ultimately a marriage proposal, both of which
suggest that they’re in it together in a way that Bill’s horrid
“gift” of a solo vacation to Chicago surely does not. In this sense,
Paul is the episode’s best character because he proves worthy of his Biblical
namesake, promising to “Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth
all things, endureth all things,” not alone but in tandem.

Grade: A-

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

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