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In its second season premiere, Masters of Sex takes on the hardest questions of love

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Sex and intimacy and love are three different things. We tend to think of them as all bound up in each other, and ideally, they are. But it's possible to have one or two of the three, without the others. On Masters of Sex, Showtime's excellent TV series version of the story of sex researchers William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), Bill and Virginia have sex and something very like love (even if Bill would not phrase it that way), but it's hard to argue they have true intimacy.

Meanwhile, Barton (Beau Bridges) and Margaret Scully (Allison Janney) have a deep, abiding love, but their sex life and whatever intimacy they have is hurt by Barton's closeted homosexuality. Is it possible to have true intimacy while keeping a part of oneself hidden? Maybe. But in the aftermath of his wife finding out his long-held secret, both seem more distraught by the possibility of that honesty and openness than anything.

Masters of Sex is obsessed with these sorts of Venn diagrams, with the ways that people look for some sort of state where they find a true companion or partner, then struggle with the fact that even if you find that person, it might be for only a moment. By their very nature, human beings shift and change, and someone with whom you are in focus one day might be someone you can't connect with on another.

One reason so many have tried to repress their sexual desires or legislate them away throughout human history is because when it comes to sex, we're reduced to our most basic selves. There's a moment where we are uncontrolled, and our true face appears, even if only for a second. To "fix" this, we try to introduce a rigidity, a script to stick to. We try to set up carefully delineated divisions between that true self and the version of ourselves we present to the world. Yet the fear is always there that in a moment of weakness, that face will appear, and we'll finally be seen for who we truly are, even if no one would blink for a second.

Lines of Sight

The second season premiere of Masters is named "Parallax," and it's a fitting title for the episode. A parallax is the seeming difference in the position of an object when you view it from two different positions. It's measured, then, by calculating the angle between the two separate lines of sight, and from there, it's possible to determine the true position of the object. What this gets at is the fact that in science, as in life, it's often the act of observation, the act of perception, that is the most important thing. Indeed, the act of observation can sometimes change what's happening, even very slightly, which may mean that perception is ultimately all that matters in human existence. The object we're looking at exists outside of our ability to perceive it; it's the fact that we're looking at it that matters, and the line of sight we have on it.

This notion of a parallax applies most easily to the relationship of Bill and Virginia, who ended last season with Bill at Virginia's door, making as naked a declaration of love as he could possibly muster. Throughout the episode, writer Michelle Ashford (the series's showrunner) and director Michael Apted offer flashbacks to the immediate aftermath of that moment, flashbacks that spiral out from the initial moment of contact to all that happened afterward. Virginia invited Bill in. They had sex. He took her pulse, almost as a mechanism to maintain the illusion they were still participating in "the study." And then Ethan (Nicholas D'Agosto), the man who had just proposed marriage to her, called, and she had to turn him down. But not for Bill. She turned him down for the work, something that Virginia understands exists outside of, and will outlast, all of them.

For a moment, I wondered why the episode revisited the phone call from Virginia's perspective, even after we'd heard it from Bill's and could reasonably fill in everything Ethan was saying on our own. Yet keep this notion of perspective in mind, and things make more sense. Bill might have reasonably intuited what Ethan was saying, but only Virginia had to hear it, had to deal with the fact that she was turning down the certainty of marrying a doctor whom her kids were crazy about for the uncertainty of hoping a study that had been officially killed would somehow resurrect itself. From one point of view (particularly compared to the expectations of women at the time), Virginia's decision is completely crazy. But from her point of view, and probably from Bill's, it's the only decision that makes any sense.

One of the great things about this episode is the way that it keeps Bill and Virginia's renewed relationship almost a secret from itself. We're smart enough to know what the brief scenes where first Bill and then Virginia check into a hotel under assumed names must mean. This series is so driven by the terrific chemistry between Michael Sheen and newly anointed Emmy nominee Lizzy Caplan that keeping the two apart in this fashion can seem almost cruel. Yet Ashford's script understands the value of withholding, of teasing us with one of the many things we watch the show for, and that makes the few times the two are on screen together all the more combustible.


Virginia runs into harassment at work.

Finding Definition Outside of Work

The rest of the hour, then, is about whether these two people can define themselves outside of their work, outside of the study that brought them together. And the answer there is... less conclusive. Virginia is constantly harassed about the presence of the naked young woman in the film from the study, which everybody simply assumes is her. And her actual work in Dr. DePaul's (Julianne Nicholson) office is made more difficult by the fact that Dr. DePaul seems to be slowly succumbing to her cancer. (The slip-up when she says "care-ning," instead of "careful" seems telling.) Virginia has also decided to start selling diet pills to make a little extra cash, but she blanches when it comes time to follow the script used to sell them. She's better at speaking spontaneously, she says, but the script limits what she can say and do. It traps her in its rigid codes. Masters of Sex isn't always subtle, but even when it's pushing its point a bit too much, it's still being enormously perceptive.

Bill, meanwhile, is stuck at home, with a baby he's obviously just a little bit terrified of. (Sheen could win the "acting scared of a baby" competition at the acting Olympics going away.) When his wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), leaves him home alone with little Johnny, rather than comfort his son as he cries, Bill instead puts on the Everly Brothers and tries to drown the infant out. Apted spells this out in one perfect shot, as Bill rushes toward the nursery, seemingly ready to deal with his fatherly responsibilities, and then he just stops, the camera tracking backward from him, as if to emphasize how he can come to a certain point, and then just becomes powerless in the face of this child brought into the world without any of his own doing. Though it's his son, it was conceived thanks to science, without his consent. And now he's trapped by the kid, unable to be with the woman he loves, because he has all of these new responsibilities. He, too, has a script to follow. He just doesn't see it before him as clearly as Virginia does.

Bill finally has it out with his mother Essie (Ann Dowd), who's been caring for the child and drops by at Libby's insistence to see how Bill is getting along. (This mostly seems to be a way for the series to let Dowd go off to do The Leftovers. Much of this episode seems to involve writing out much of the season one guest cast so the actors can go do other things.) The thing Bill is most terrified of is becoming his own abusive, emotionally distant father, and now Libby and his mother have essentially cornered him into a place where he will have to become that person, at least in his own mind. What's fascinating here is that Essie is the only person Bill can be honest with, even though he largely despises her. He can be honest with his mother and tell her all about his relationship with Virginia, because she knows so much about who he truly is. They have intimacy, of a sort, yet no love.


Barton Scully struggles with his homosexuality.

Enter the Scullys

The other major story of the hour involves the Scullys, who both return from their sojourns to CBS sitcoms. (Beau Bridges stars in The Millers, while Allison Janney managed an Emmy nomination for her terrific work on the underrated Mom.) Barton undergoes his first electroshock treatments to "cure" his homosexuality, but they mostly result in a lot of physical discomfort. So he heads home to try to have sex with his wife, first prepping himself with images of robust young men, then trying to turn her over, so he doesn’t need to look at her. But now that she knows who he is, she also knows why he must do this, and she asks him not to.

Barton and Margaret's story is so inherently poignant that it occasionally threatened to overwhelm the other stories in season one. Here, it's still an important piece of the puzzle, but it's one that fits in very nicely alongside Bill and Virginia's struggles to define their relationship and themselves. Barton's desire has always been to no longer be himself, to somehow find a way to stop being gay and become the devoted husband the wife he loves so much deserves.

It's in this storyline that Ashford skillfully uses the trick of letting the audience's knowledge of what's coming play off of characters who are necessarily limited by their historical perspective. We know Barton won't be able to stop being gay. And if we're particularly knowledgeable about Bill Masters, we might know that he eventually came to a point where he claimed he could cure homosexuality in one of his later books. But the story isn't just about our certainty of what we know about the world that the characters don't. It's also about how Ashford uses our perspective to enhance the amount of empathy we can feel for Barton. He's not just an experiment or a piece of data. He's a very real man who is fighting his way through something that must seem impossible. And our understanding that he will always lose his fight to not be gay only enhances the poignancy.

It ends in a dark, horrifying place. Barton, having realized how much he's deviated from the script he thought he was supposed to be following, attempts to kill himself. Fortunately, his wife and daughter (Rose McIver) are home and are able to save his life. But there's also no way back from this moment. His wife has seen the depths of his anguish, and even if she doesn't realize why he took this action, his daughter now knows something prompted him to do so. It's a bleak, terrifying moment, to be sure, but in its aftermath, there might be something good that grows. The thing about coming to a place this dark is that it means you have to leave the map entirely. The script gets tossed out. Everyone has to figure out how to press forward on their own.

The same is ultimately true for Bill and Virginia, yet if there's one thing Bill Masters does, it's retreat for the safety of what "should" be, before he ends up doing what he actually wants to do. The final scene of the episode is the parallax in effect yet again, as the two attempt to define and nail down the parameters of their relationship, only to return to the safe confines of the study. Now, Bill says, he agrees with Virginia that there must be some sort of psychological component to sex. And he wants to explore that further. With her.

Bill spends much of this episode doing whatever he can not just to find a new job after being fired, but to find a way to revive the study, and in this final moment, that desperation gains a new context. Bill can only fully love Virginia if he can quantify her. And the only way he can quantify her is within the study. To Bill, everything, even love, is best understood not just through the veneer of science but through the veneer of observation. He, too, is terrified of what happens when the detached, clinical face comes down and the true, needy human being reveals himself. But if he's ever going to have the relationship with Virginia he wants, that will almost certainly have to happen. It all just depends on how you look at it.

Come back every week after Masters of Sex airs on Showtime to read our review and discuss the episode in comments!

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