And with some compelling client cases and interpersonal drama for the characters, “The Pleasure Protocol” is, to me, one of the better episodes of the series so far, only three episodes into the season. As we head in, ask yourself: is it possible to pair pleasure with pain? Love and torture? Let’s find out.
The episode begins with Hugh Hefner welcoming us into the Playboy mansion and introducing us to Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson, telling us that they’re the sexual revolution. The two explain the volunteer process and how they conduct their study, though as far as personal lives go, Virginia makes a point of saying that she is married. Though it would make a great story that two sex researchers found love.
Also at this party is Sammy Davis Jr., played by Andre Royo, who takes the mic and breaks into song. He messes up a bit, so that’s a cut. Hugh brings Bill and Virginia over to get some publicity stills of the two dancing.
They both agree that Hugh should stop trying to promote the two as an item, even though it’s a marketable message. It still looks unprofessional from a personal level. But apparently Dan understands that this is part of the job. Sure.
Later, Virginia tells Dan’s answering machine about being kissed by Sammy Davis Jr. and a study she read about remorse. She regrets the pain she caused. At the same time, Bill tells Nancy that he wants her to be present at the meeting with the attorney for the pandering case.
Also, going forward, she will attend every meeting or function that Bill attends, more so since Virginia will be there with her husband and Bill doesn’t want to be a third wheel.
When the call ends, Art tells Nancy that he thinks Bill is making a pass at her and believes that the two of them should tell Bill and Virginia the truth soon before this blows up, but Nancy wants to become indispensable first.
Next morning at the diner, a man compliments Libby on her look. This is attorney Bram Keller, played by David Walton, and he tells her that divorce lawyers like to hear these four words that guarantee a big settlement: Indignities, Cruelties, Desertion, and Infidelity. He extends an invitation to get into trouble at the Plaza Hotel.
Upstairs, Lester shows Herb his new camera and, in light of his moonlighting with private agency, what constitutes as incriminating evidence to prove someone has been cheating. He will need four clear frames, but Lester assures Herb that Jane isn’t cheating on him. Herb gives Libby a quick rundown of her job responsibilities. They aren’t all that exciting, but at least she gets a desk.
Bill, Virginia, and Nancy all convene to meet with the legal team, though Virginia is less than pleased about Nancy’s presence. Doesn’t matter, though. They sit down with their attorney, Bram Keller, who draws comparisons between this matter and the Scopes trial. In this case, it’s science conflicting with religious prejudice.
Winning in the court of public opinion will be difficult, even with book sales in mind. One of the attorneys is smitten with Betty, by the way. The prosecution will look for damning evidence, so Keller wants access to all files. Virginia won’t get that information since she’s a partner, not a secretary, so she heads off.
Bill follows and learns that Virginia has already destroyed the files. That’s even worse! All sessions, protocol, everything they’ve done is permanently gone. Now it’s Bill’s turn to look surprised.
Virginia joins Art, who was explaining that the clinic may be unable to help their patient, Ms. Dawn Jackson, played by Rachelle Dimaria. She wants to be multi-orgasmic since the book says women can have as many as 10 orgasms in quick succession. She even offered to be the guinea pig. If it worked for her, all of her girlfriends would sign up.
So of course Virginia smells opportunity with this, even though there’s nothing wrong with Ms. Jackson. The clinic fixes dysfunction, but is there room for people like Ms. Jackson, who want to have better sex? Well, the work could always expand beyond dysfunction. Why not consider improving sex lives?
That one attorney, Scotty, played by Gabriel Tigerman, who was smitten with Betty, gets another shot when he asks if she recognizes him. The two met at Betty’s previous job. The brief hesitation on Betty’s face indicates that yes, she knows what he’s talking about, but she says that she doesn’t remember.
Scotty doesn’t blame Betty for forgetting since he was a wreck. Even as he recounts the entire incident, noting Betty’s kindness, Betty tells him that he’s mistaking her for someone else. Betty does say that if Scotty was talking to this person, she would say that first-timers tend to get nervous, so it’s no problem. Scotty then tells Betty that he’s open to trying again. Mate, quit while you’re ahead.
Bill and Nancy meet with a patient, Gary, who can’t remember the last time he satisfied his wife, Fran, played by Amanda Quaid. He does things like bring flowers and dim the lights, but instead of asking what she wants, he just asks for permission instead of taking control, as his wife wants.
Bill says being a gentleman may also mean feeling uncomfortable about expressing sexual needs. The couple talk of a movie that could have given innocent Gary here some ideas.
But then Gary stormed out of the movie in disgust. The film is called The Defilers, and Lester has seen it because of course he has. It’s a roughie: a B movie with lots of sex. Nancy wants to see the film to see what this couple has in mind, and in now, even though it’s during work hours. Bill is on board with the idea. It could be…fun, even.
Okay, so they’re watching the movie and it’s sort of tame, at least I think it is, even for 1960s standards. The man in the film gets to spanking the woman he’s after, and this seems to get a reaction from Bill to the point that he leaves for some air.
Back at the clinic, Virginia talks of the ways women can have multiple orgasms. Art asks a pretty good question: how do you go about creating a protocol for this? The impotence one that Bill and Virginia made, for example, struck Art as visionary. Virginia tells Art that it came through hours of recorded data. She offers to go through the research this evening to develop a protocol, and the two can start with Ms. Jackson tomorrow.
Bill and Nancy then enjoy drinks at a bar. He tells Nancy that they missed something with Fran, maybe a past history of violence causes her to pair sexual pleasure with pain. Or, Nancy wonders, maybe Fran needs some excitement. For example, Nancy dated a guy who blindfolded and tied her to the bed.
And yet, she has no past trauma. Bill disagrees, saying that everyone has trauma, but Nancy asks whether pain and pleasure are two parts of the same coin. Both get similar physiological responses. Not everyone can tell the difference. It can feel erotic to get pain as punishment. After all, haven’t you ever pursued something that you knew would hurt you because it felt good?
Virginia asks a man at a different bar what he knows about orgasms. He likes them, which I suppose is an apt response. For that, Virginia has a proposal. Nay, a challenge.
So later, the two fuck, though Virginia is taking notes at the same fucking time. When the man’s hard-on dissipates, Virginia decides to do it on her own. Well, why not? Later, Bill, now on his own, re-watches the footage of Virginia pleasuring herself.
Libby calls Keller, who invites her over to the hotel for a drink, since she’s already drinking. She’s calling as a political act, as she’s in a group that considers calling an unknown man as an act of rebelling against the system.
This group has some weird-ass rules. Libby admits she’s never done things like this before, and while she won’t come over, that doesn’t mean the two can’t get to know each other. Keller starts by asking Libby what she’s wearing, though she lies.
Virginia again gets Dan’s answering machine, still hoping that he will call back. She’s been having trouble sleeping and thinks that it may have to do with how things ended with them. Closure, Virginia feels, would help both of them. At the very least, Virginia wants to hear Dan’s voice.
The next day, Scotty expresses his admiration for the cases and how he’s a sucker for a happy ending. He asks Betty if she was one of the surrogates, though Betty is eager to put her past work behind her. Lester, meanwhile, takes pictures when something catches his attention.
Virginia gives Art her update: some women can have multiple orgasms due to stimulation in places except for the vaginal or clitoral areas, which are too sensitive following orgasm. Focus could come away from hot spots. Problem is that Ms. Jackson now doesn’t have a partner. Each man found it hard to get a man to provide multiple orgasms. Well, Virginia wants her in anyway since a woman doesn’t need a partner to experience pleasure.
So Virginia and Art walk Ms. Jackson through the process, all while providing her with Ulysses to stimulate herself. Dawn finds it sad that she’s doing this alone, though Virginia suggests that she think of herself as a pioneer instead.
Betty arrives and informs Virginia that there’s an insistent visitor who wants to be seen. Dawn laments to Betty that she hoped this experience would be with a partner. She thinks she should wait until she can find an actual person.
Naturally, Betty talks to Scotty, telling him that there’s a woman who is struggling in the same way that he did. He doesn’t want to have sex with a stranger, even though Betty was a stranger and she won’t be doing it with him. At the very least, he wants her to watch. Dude, what the fuck?
Out in the lobby, Virginia finds the person waiting is none other than Judy Greer. Alice is back to tell Virginia that she understands what Virginia is going through and knows that she’s tried to contact Dan. How? Well, Alice heard the messages on the machine. Turns out that Dan and Alice have reconciled.
Odd that Alice came from New York to say this, but Dan has a habit of leaving behind messes. When he’s finished with his distraction, Alice cleans it up and kills chances for reconciliation. Virginia, though, says that she left Dan because she broke his heart.
And that’s not a story- it’s the truth. Virginia didn’t show up at the wedding chapel. Instead, she let Dan discover her with another man. Alice correctly points out how shitty it is to do such a thing on your wedding day.
Alice was touched by the messages. She knows the sound of a lonely woman, but she’s also hopeful that Virginia will find someone. From what Dan has said, Virginia never had a problem attracting men. And with that, Alice leaves. Well, it was fine while it lasted. Later, Judy Greer.
So Virginia joins Art and Betty in observing the pair having successful sex. Art instructs Scotty to touch Dawn’s breasts, which results in multiple, pleasurable orgasms without any intimacy. It’s just a physiological response. Art figures that the clinic is on its way to a new protocol.
Bill and Nancy talk with the couple about The Defiler and how Fran found so stimulating that she hoped it could bring some excitement to her marriage. Bill and Nancy figure that maybe Fran wants Gary to hurt her. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but patients with this kind of profile often have abusive childhood episodes.
The most that Fran can think of is her father tapping her on the bottom once when she was a child. What Fran wants is to feel desired. Women want to feel desires, and in Fran’s case, she just wants it a little rough.
So Bill and Nancy observe the couple, with Fran insisting that Gary start softly. She wants something that feels a little dangerous. Gary begins slapping Fran’s ass, with Fran telling him to stop asking and just do it. He does, and it starts out well, but then things go wrong.
He hits her harder and harder until he goes straight from zero to 60 in seconds, even slapping Fran in the face and choking her while asking what she wants from him. Bill and Nancy intervene, and Gary is a sobbing wreck now.
Bill goes to Virginia and tells her about the case, as well as his suspicion of past trauma on the wife’s term. However, Bill misjudged the situation. There’s something very wrong with the husband, possibly childhood abuse. Given Bill’s history, he has trouble assessing this situation. Virginia agrees to help.
In a comedy of errors, Keller learns that Libby is Libby Masters, asking her to put the divorce on hold until Bill’s trial is over. It’s a small world after all, isn’t it? Keller doesn’t want anything to change, even though nothing happened, but there is one small thing: the defense team wants Libby to testify at the trial. She’d be a great witness to Bill’s character. Libby scoffs at having to talk about what kind of man he is.
And this lets Libby bring back the four words before flat out telling Libby that she doesn’t have to mull a fucking thing. Hot damn. I fucking love Libby right now.
In another indication of how small the world is, Bill sees a familiar face at his A.A. meeting: Alice, who shares that it’s been a month since she last drank, but also, her husband has returned, so that’s a reason to stay sober.
Virginia tells a different man at the bar about her woeful story. He remembers seeing her leave with three different guys and wants to be the fourth. Virginia doesn’t exactly turn him down.
As she leaves, Art enters- seriously, small world- and wants to get Virginia a drink. The man gets a tad belligerent when Virginia then shoots him down, prompting him to blurt out just how much Virginia sleeps around, yet gives this guy the sob story. She leaves.
So why is Alice attending this particular A.A. meeting? Well, she tells Bill that she tries to attend meetings when she travels, but this is the first one where she recognized someone. Alice figured that Dan wouldn’t Virginia who, in turn, would go back to her work. The two know their people, but Virginia isn’t with Bill, either.
Bill doesn’t get why Alice would clean up Dan’s mess, given how he treats her. Sometimes, Alice hates herself, but sometimes, she doesn’t. People like them deserve a certain punishment or these things wouldn’t keep happening. What matters is that Dan loves Alice, and she him. However, Bill sees that as torture, not love.
We now see just what Lester captured on his camera: photos of Art kissing Nancy, who is now looking at the pictures. So much for being discrete. Lester was practicing his long-lens technique when they barged into frame. Lester doesn’t want to tell, but if Nancy won’t, he won’t have any choice since Bill and Virginia could find out that Lester is keeping secrets.
Following this, Bill and Virginia discuss the pictures. Nancy even confessed to Bill that she and Art are married. Bill wants to let the two go since there’s no telling when else they could lie. Virginia wants to give them a chance since they must have a reason. People can’t live with a lie forever, she says. Virginia will tell Art that he and Nancy are on notice.
Virginia isn’t interested in Art’s explanation. Given how Virginia has a more compassionate nature, she will fight for the couple, but Art and Nancy can’t lie again. The two should understand the importance of discretion. As in, she doesn’t want Art to mention his late night encounter with Virginia. She and her husband have an arrangement, and that’s no one’s business but their own.
But Art is also in an open marriage, so he doesn’t judge when it comes to these things. So the two understand each other. Virginia does remember that she had Lester install recording equipment, right?
Bill again finds himself watching the footage of Virginia pleasuring herself, but once it ends, he rolls the film into the trash.
Damn. Just…damn. This was a great episode and of the three presented, my favorite of the season thus far. It presented complex scenarios for our researchers, showcased challenges in the personal and professional lives of the characters, and posed an interesting question: where do you draw the line between pleasure and pain? Or torture and love? Do the lines blur?
More than that, many of the characters put up a front to disguise what’s going on beneath the surface. Sometimes you can hide that no problem, but in others, the truth comes out one way or another. The best way to handle it, I feel, is to confront it head on instead of deny what’s already been exposed.
Betty, for example, finds herself doing both. I liked the callback to the brothel, as that was a location from Season One that I enjoyed, but also appreciate that she doesn’t always deny where she started. Not that she is ashamed of her work or now living a lie, but she’s moved past that life. And, to her credit, she doesn’t shut out Scotty altogether just because he recognizes her.
In a way, she ends up being a benefactor when she’s able to pair him with Dawn. In effect, she aids in Virginia’s research into multiple orgasms. Again, like the last two episodes, I’m glad that Betty is becoming more involved with the clinic and is proving her worth as more than the secretary. Not too shabby for a woman who we first met as the owner of a brothel.
Bill also finds himself still holding onto the past. Not just from the childhood trauma he relives when watching Fran and Gary attempt to spice things up, but in his relationship with Virginia. Holding onto the footage of her masturbating and still watching it by himself feels more sad than anything else. But getting rid of it could be another step in distancing himself from Virginia on a personal level.
I get the sense that listening to Alice defend Dan had something to do with that. Here you have a woman who has been betrayed by her husband many times, but she welcomes him back with open arms. It’s madness and does feel more like torture instead of love. But part of Bill has wanted Virginia to come back to him in the past.
By comparison, Libby has known that Bill for some time that Bill cheated on her, but she endured for the longest time. Now she’s independent. Perhaps Bill’s learned for the best. He’s seeing the damaging effects unfaithfulness have on another person’s psyche. He pities Alice, even though he’s tried to mend things between Libby and make up his past mistakes with Virginia.
Alice’s rationale is that people like her deserve punishment for the things they’ve done. She may hate herself at times, but it’s hate she feels that she deserves. Same applies to Bill who, despite slowly piecing his life together, still has troubles in his personal and professional life.
It is convenient for Alice to run into Bill at apparently the only A.A. meeting in the area, and it does feel like a stretch for her to come all the way to St. Louis just to tell Virginia that it’s over with Dan, but like Dr. Madden, she’s saying things that Virginia ought to hear. Trying to hold onto Dan, more so after sabotaging her own wedding, feels as desperate as Bill holding onto the footage of Virginia masturbating. That part of her life is done.
In addition, Alice is spot on when she points out how alone Virginia is, best exemplified in that scene of her drinking in the darkness of her home while talking to Dan’s answering machine. Virginia wants to pretend her life is peachy keen, but things are crumbling around her. Tessa is gone, Dan isn’t coming back, and her reputation, while intact, is hampered by her actions.
Credit where it’s due, Virginia is as proactive as ever by experimenting with multiple orgasms to help a client, but based on her interactions at the bar, it looks like she’s just sleeping around, and she is. At one point, Virginia’s sexuality was indicative of her independence, and while she’s still doing work for the sake of the study, her leaving with random men at the bar paints a less flattering picture of her.
Maybe Virginia ought to take a page from Elise and remove herself from Dan altogether. But like Alice told Bill, this could be her punishment for the people she’s wronged. While she at times as hoped Bill, for example, would still cling to her, she’s also getting rid of their past life by destroying their files.
However, even though Bill and Virgnia’s lives are spiraling downward, the work is still critical. They open the door for exploration into multiple orgasms, and when Bill can’t bring himself to help Gary due to his own traumatic past, Virginia agrees to help instead. It’s one of the warmer moments the two have had, as Virginia realizes that Bill handling this couple could be difficult.
Masters of Sex isn’t a violent show, so seeing this couple try to spark up their marriage and turn dark in a matter of seconds was shocking to see. And it showed the darker undertones of blurring pleasure with pain. Some find it casual to talk about being whipped, gagged, or abused by their lovers, but that shit can be downright terrifying for those who have suffered abuse in their pasts.
And the show didn’t paint Gary to be any sort of villain or wife-beater. He’s just a man trying to be respectful to his wife, who just wanted more in her love life. It’s another example of this show crafting a couple that feels real, has an issue that’s as much contemporary as it is appropriate for the time period of the show, and provided a challenge for Bill and Nancy.
Libby had more time to flex her independence by calling up a man she barely knew, but then shutting him down the moment she realized Keller’s connection to Bill. Though she isn’t in the episode that much, I still love this assertive Libby and hope she’s here to stay. Her telling Keller about not having to mull a fucking thing was one of the most satisfying things I’ve heard her say, even if Keller was just doing his job.
The one part of this episode I didn’t like was how soon Art and Nancy’s marriage was discovered. Okay, so they ended up in Lester’s frame, but given that we just learned about this at the end of the previous episode, I thought it would have remained a secret for awhile longer. But now it’s out there, so Bill and Virginia have to deal with it as such.
Given the conversations, though, I have to wonder if anyone besides Bill, Virginia, and Lester know that the clinic is bugged. Because you don’t introduce that without any payoff down the line.
“The Pleasure Protocol” was a fantastic episode and, no word of a lie, one of my favorite episodes of the series right now. It’s weird: the third episode of most seasons tend to be my favorite, with “Standard Deviation” in Season 1, “Fight” in Season 2, and now this. Don’t get me wrong- I liked “The Excitement of Release” in Season 3, but I don’t know if I’d consider it one of my top five. At least not now.
It challenged the characters with complex scenarios, made good use of Judy Greer’s return as Alice, and left me wondering how Bill and Virginia will move forward in light of what’s happened in this episode. They’re at a low point and still struggling to rebound. And with Bill now knowing that Virginia is no longer with Dan, it’s only a matter of time before that spills out as well.