“Since when can’t we joke about some worn out hooker?”
When that worn out hooker is a friend of Dr. William Masters, that’s when. Three episodes in and we get not just the obligatory flashback episode, but some revealing character moments on this episode of Masters of Sex.
We flash back to 1945, where a younger, more idealistic William Masters, then at Rochester, shows Scully an experiment with two rabbits copulating. After his giddy fit dies down, Masters explains that he wants to take this study to the next level by studying human sexual relations. As he tells Scully, neither of them, nor a lot of people in the world, knows the first thing about sex. Therefore, someone should try and answer some of the questions people have.
Flash forward to the present, where Masters consults a college student, played by Mae Whitman, unfamiliar with her cervix. Again, given that it’s 1957, these unknowns about sex and the human body don’t come off as out of left field or strange for people to not know. That said, it is unfortunate that you bring in Mae Whitman, better known to some as Ann from Arrested Development, and then do nothing else with her in the opening scene. But then, it’s just another day in the hospital for Dr. Masters.
Virginia Johnson, meanwhile, is tired of playing second fiddle. More to the point, she is irritated by the fact that Masters, still seeing this mostly as science, refers to her as a secretary as opposed to assistant. Masters, however, is already preoccupied with Betty, who badgers him about reversing her tubal ligation so she can have children. He’s still against the idea, but he concedes.
At the brothel, Masters and Johnson get to work with several prostitutes in one of the show’s humorous, but not out of place, moments. And I will admit this got a laugh out of me not just for the premise, but for watching Masters and Johnson react to the women masturbating for their study.
-Ginger, played by Ellen Wroe, holds no bars and admits to having plenty of sex, as much as five times a day if she’s in a good mood. Normal masturbation is no good for her, so she assumes the missionary position and requires Dr. Masters’ help- by spanking her.
-Maureen, played by Nicholle Tom, takes Ulysses (the name of the vibrator Dr. Masters concocted), and goes to town with screams loud enough to give the male johns competition. But no, she faked the whole thing. Hey, at least she got paid. All in the name of science, she says, as she curtseys after her performance.
-Another, a glasses wearing blonde, tries for twenty minutes before giving up. She admits that she has not had an orgasm in years and forgets what it feels like.
And the last admits that her first sexual experience came from her uncle, who found a use for her when she filled out.
So the prostitute life is not too glamorous. Masters explains to Johnson that they will need male participants for the study, so he asks Betty, en route to surgery, if she can deliver on that.
Dr. Haas, meanwhile, has his storyline of the day play out in the form of quadruplets. A very pregnant woman passes him in the hospital and he comes to her aid. He tells Libby that the woman will be having not one, but four children. Libby brings up the Badgett quadruplets and how both the family and hospital that delivered the babies received much publicity. Still looking to step out of Masters’ shadow? Haas goes to Scully and asks that he be the one to deliver the babies. Scully eventually agrees, but since Haas is still a rookie, he requests that Masters come on as Haas’ second.
Masters and a few scrubs perform on Betty, but due to a complication, the surgery must be discontinued. After the surgery, he informs her that she has chronic salpingitis. Too much damage has left her scarred and even if he untied her tubes, she would still be unable to conceive. In one of Masters’ more human moments, he comes off as genuinely upset and remorseful about Betty’s results. Despite not wanting to go through with the procedure, he still respected Betty’s wishes and it’s a crushing blow to them both when it’s revealed that Betty will never be able to have a child, but more on this moment later.
Betty, not one to be spiteful and attempt to push Masters’ equipment out of her brothel again, does indeed hold up her end of the bargain and supplies the men for the study. However, hence the episode’s title, they deviate from the standard equation: they’re homosexuals. Figured this would pop up eventually, just not three episodes in. After he and Johnson go through the routine question and answer with the recruits, Masters watches two of the men have sex. For science. He then tells Virginia that using outliers will skew their data because homosexuals fall outside the curve. Even though one of the men offers to bring in more, Masters won’t allow outliers into his study because the scientific community would never accept it, the same way Scully told him that people would think of his work as smut.
Speaking of Scully, let’s have another flashback. Back to the 1940s, Masters asks Scully that if someone wanted to study human sexuality, what steps would they have to take? Scully responds that they would want to start off with obstetrics at a teaching hospital, as well as have the perfect family image: wife, two kids, a white picket fence and a nice home in suburbia. You know, pretty much the poster White family during the 1950s. To lead an unconventional life, Scully says, you have to know how to hide in plain sight.
Libby’s storyline advances this week through her conversations with Virginia, who sees her when Bill is too busy with Betty’s surgery. Libby is overworked due to having to prepare for a Trinity Deacon’s lunch. She wishes she knew how to say no more often, in comparison to Virginia, who is a free bird that can do as she pleases. Bill is still busy when Virginia comes to the Masters’ home to bring Libby some food. In her sadness and frustration, Libby asks Virginia to get a box from her closet. In the box are baby clothes that Libby asks Virginia to give to the woman having quadruplets. She blames herself for not being able to give Bill the family he deserves. Virginia, unwilling to let Libby shoulder any more blame, admits that it is, in fact, Bill’s low sperm count that is preventing them from having a child.
Going back to the quadruplets, a newspaper reporter comes by the hospital to ask Masters some questions about the quadruplets, something he did not know about until that very moment. Masters goes to Scully and demands he be let in on the procedure not because of fame, but because of his experience in comparison to Dr. Haas. Not to mention the possibility of infant mortality if something goes wrong. It’s revealed that Haas never told Masters that he was to be present as Haas’ second, but Haas defends himself, stating that Masters is busy enough. Not wanting to give him more stress on top of everything else, he decided to take the task himself. As it is, Scully has Masters take over, which he does. The procedure is successful and both Scully and Masters pose for the press, while Haas watches and seethes at a robbed opportunity.
Virginia catches up with some secretaries as they discuss the new woman at the hospital, Dr. Lillian DePaul, played by Julianne Nicholson. Who, by the way, treats Virginia as an assistant as much as Masters does. Virginia admires DePaul’s sense of self-reliance. She’s inspired by the fact that DePaul made a life for herself on her own steam without a man’s help, but the secretaries don’t want any woman looking up their skirt. Huh. You know, I never knew how fierce competition amongst the secretarial branch could be.
Later on, Virginia catches up to Betty before she leaves. Virginia is dismayed by the results as well, but Betty’s not concerned: she’s not going to tell her fiancé, Gene, played by Greg Grunberg, about the results. She’s going to put on that white dress, walk down the aisle and take his hand in marriage, just as planned. She wants to have that life, even if it turns out to be an illusion. For a woman to get somewhere, she has to hitch her wagon to a man. And if Virginia knew what was good for her, she’d just hitch hers to Dr. Masters and admit her feelings for him. Virginia denies this assertion, but before the conversation can go further, Gene arrives and takes Betty home.
Bill, meanwhile, is heading back to the university when one of the men from the study approaches him, apparently familiar with the area. He shares Masters’ enthusiasm for the project and promises he can supply more males. He also wants to be a part of something he knows is bigger than both of them can imagine. Masters, again, shoots him down because they deviate from the norm. Not that they’re deviants, as the man implies, but just deviate. As Masters walks off, the man remarks that Masters is not the first person in the medical field to fuck him. Do tell.
Masters returns to his office, but not before Johnson confronts him and demands that she be treated as if they were equals, not just doctor and secretary. Masters, however, has to meet with Scully. In the final flashback, a party is held in Scully’s honor as he accepts a position as provost of Washington University of St. Louis’ hospital. Though the hospital rejected Bill’s application for a fellowship, Scully says nuts to St. Louis unless both he and Bill come as a package deal.
Back in the present, Bill entertains Scully with the idea of adding homosexuals to the study. He mentions that the men who pay for gay sex are family men who live double lives. They live in the shadows. He asks, rather, he pleads with Scully that the study continues because they have a responsibility to all of those involved, including those in shadows. When that’s all said and done, he tells Virginia that the study will continue. At the hospital.
Back at home, Libby has gone full Betty Draper with her demeanor when Bill arrives. Repeating the good news that Haas told her earlier, Libby shares the delightful announcement that she is, indeed, pregnant.
Three episodes in and we’ve got our most character driven episode of the show so far. Everyone is in top form here and the actors do a great job selling their performances. The themes of this episode appear to be growth and acceptance: changing what you can and trying to make the most of what cannot be changed.
It’s interesting to watch Masters as a young idealist, the free bird that Johnson strives to be, and how hardened he becomes by the time his study begins. He’s younger here, full of optimism and wonder for the future. It’s set up, but it is a nice contrast watching the happy Masters juxtaposed against the cold, by the book Masters. Also, is it just me, or does young William Masters look a little too much like how Sean Penn portrayed Harvey Milk in Milk?
Masters’ transformation from idealistic to hard is unexplained. Even in the final flashback when he and Scully are accepted at Washington University, we still see a man who looks forward to the future. How he went from that to clinical is a mystery, because I can’t imagine he woke up one day and lost all that optimism he had. His cold and clinical behavior is in character, to be fair, but it can come off as a bit cruel. When Betty confronts him about having the operation, he continues to berate her for wanting a life she can’t realistically have because of her night profession. He warns her about the dangers and tells her to let the procedure go. I kept thinking “Give the lady a break.” It’s hard enough just being a woman in the 1950s that, as Betty says later, can only get ahead if she’s with a man. Again, Masters is in character with this reaction, but it is a bit much.
Despite Bill’s stony demeanor, beneath that is a great respect for both his profession and the women around him. During Betty’s operation, two scrubs make a joke about her and Bill sends them out. And when Masters gives Betty the unfortunate news about her unable to become pregnant, there’s a genuine sense of dismay and disappointment in his voice. Even though Bill was not in favor of the procedure, his openness shows that he wanted, wanted to give Betty what she wanted. Combined with Betty’s fiancé confessing that she thinks Bill is a great doctor, I find that the two have a mutual respect for one another. Despite the fact that Betty, at one point, was willing to push Masters’ equipment out of her brothel to get what she wanted, she does respect what he does to help her out and make a difference with his work. Very much a love hate relationship and I very much want to see more of this friendship.
Speaking of Betty, she comes off as very sympathetic and it’s understandable why she wants to keep the reality of her operation a secret from her fiancé. Betty runs a brothel. The women who work there have a profession seen as tasteless by many. To get along, you hitch your wagon to a man. She lives a double life, but she also wants the life she’s always craved: putting on the white dress and taking the vows. Even if this means lying, Betty won’t allow the reality of the situation to ruin a chance she has at happiness. Her motivation is looking toward her future. It shows that behind Betty’s tough exterior, she has the shades of a softer, more compassionate woman. When in her state of vulnerability before and during her operation, she still agrees to supply Bill with the male subjects he needs. It shows that she consider Bill at least an acquaintance, if not a friend, and that she’s willing to lend him a hand in a time of need, just as he [eventually] did for her.
The character growth we see in Betty cannot also be said for Virginia Johnson, who sort of plays second fiddle this episode. Virginia is mostly here for conversations with other women and trying to get Masters to treat her as an equal. We get some insight into the type of woman Johnson would like to be when she compliments Dr. DePaul on making it on her own steam- the type of life Johnson craves. Other than that, she’s here to chat it up with secretaries, deny to Betty any feelings she may have for Masters, and relieve Caitlin of bearing blame for any inability to have a child.
Dr. Haas is a tricky situation here. It’s difficult to tell whether he is just jealous of Masters or wants to step out of his shadow and be taken seriously. He seems to want it both ways. When he talks to Scully about how much he learned from Masters and is ready to do more, it comes off as a bit arrogant. He still lacks the years of experience Masters has, though we aren’t given a look into Haas’ backstory the way we are with Masters, so maybe that’s coming later. Either way, Haas comes off as petty when he does not tell Masters that Scully wants him in on the quadruplets operation as his second. He claims it’s to relieve Masters of an already full plate of work, but given how quickly Masters insists on being involved with the operation, it’s clear that he could have made time. Nicholas D’Agosto is great in his scenes. The anger and jealousy displayed on his face as Masters performs the operation he wanted just shows his frustration. When Masters holds up one of the babies during the press briefing, Haas watches amongst the cameramen, seething in silent frustration. His motivation is self-improvement, but he’s going about it the long way and it feels more like he’s out to compete with Masters.
We also get a look into the life that Libby would like to have if she had a child which, according to this episode, seems to be the case. We aren’t given much time with her, but her scenes with Virginia are well directed, painting the picture of a woman who just wants to make her husband happy. Whether her slight transformation into Betty Draper at the end of the episode is a harbinger of things to come is unknown, but it was nice to see her happy for a change, rather than continue to blame herself for something that was not her fault.
This episode also had a good balance of drama and comedy, the humor coming through the study with the men and women at the brothel. Watching Masters try to gingerly spank Ginger, who retorts that she is not made of glass, is a nice break from the seriousness the show has offered so far. Nicholle Tom as Maureen steals the show with her earth shattering fake orgasm, but, as she explains, it’s all done in the name of science. Johnson, the more down the earth between herself and Masters, is visibly awkward during the female masturbation scenes. Masters, however, sees it as science. Even when one confesses about her uncle abusing her, Masters does not flinch, just going along with the motions, but Johnson is disturbed by the story. It’s another example of how well these two fit, but how great of a job Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan put into their performances.
It doesn’t look like Masters and Johnson will remain at the brothel, with Masters telling Johnson that the study will continue at the hospital. I do hope that we get to see these characters again, and now that both male and homosexual subjects have been introduced, we’ll get a further look into this deviates from the curve. And given what we learn about Masters and Scully by the end of the episode, it will be interesting to see how far this necessary evil goes.
Another good week for Masters of Sex. Great character development, fine balance of humor and drama and some revelations make for an enjoyable watch from start to finish. And hopefully Dr. DePaul finds more use of Johnson other than fetching her coffee.