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Masters of Sex, episode 8: 5 reasons for the messy second season

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Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) discuss turning the study toward curing sexual issues, instead of just studying them.
Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) discuss turning the study toward curing sexual issues, instead of just studying them.
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.

The episode in one sentence: The characters all deal with the psychological side of sex — and the problems it can bring — with varying results, both in terms of plot and in terms of quality.

At the end of "Mirror, Mirror," this season of Masters of Sex is two-thirds over, and it's time to start seriously worrying about whether the season is going to cohere in any way, shape, or form. It's getting harder and harder to imagine that all of the elements of the show are going to stick together in a way that makes sense, come the finale. The show obviously has four episodes to bring everything in line, and that's a lot of time. But at the same time, it keeps introducing new elements, which is often a sign of a group of writers that isn't sure what it should do next.

In short: I'm hoping this will all come together, but I'm worried.

Let's break down the reasons for being worried about this season, starting with...

Masters of Sex

Bill (Michael Sheen) meets with Francis, a mysterious figure from his past (Christian Borle). (Showtime)

1) Is this season going to be about anything?

With eight episodes under our belts, the show's many stories essentially have nothing to do with each other. If the first season was about the ways all of our lives are affected by sex in its many facets — among other things — then this season is about what? The co-dependent connection between Bill and Virginia? Libby's battles against racism — both her own and that baked into her society? Flo the Cal-o-Metric woman's business strategies?

Even when the first season was struggling here and there, it had a thematic backbone that kept things pointed toward a kind of true north. I'm not sure season two has this quality yet, and that means that a reveal like, say, Langham working with Flo as the new spokesman for Cal-o-Metric diet pills mostly elicits groans because it's dumping in some other story that has nothing to do with anything.

The first season had its share of plotlines that went nowhere and characters that could feel like they added nothing to the proceedings, but it also had the rock-solid foundation of Bill's curiosity about sex, and his and Virginia's struggles to get the study accepted by people at Memorial. This season has nothing like that. In fact, it's essentially rebooted itself three times now, in ways that suggest the writers are casting about for a solid story as well. And even when it has a solid theme, as with the idea of duality and mirroring in tonight's episode, it struggles to really do anything with it.

But maybe that's because...

Masters of Sex

Flo (Artemis Pebdani) announces Langham (Teddy Sears) as the new Cal-o-Metric spokesman. Did anybody want this at all? (Showtime)

2) There are just too many characters scattered all over.

As mentioned, season one had a huge ensemble of characters, too, but outside of Libby, they were united by all working at Memorial (and even she eventually wound up working there). That meant when the show couldn't lean on any of its storylines, it could always revert to a workplace drama about a 1950s hospital. So the flirtation of Lester and Jane, say, could play out as a background story that occasionally gained prominence.

This season, because the characters are scattered to the winds, the show necessarily needs to cut away to Langham to see what he's up to, or make sure we know what's going on with Libby. Even the Lillian stuff — which mostly worked — took place on its own island. It's had the structural effect of turning Masters of Sex into five or six different shows existing within the same space and jockeying for attention.

Tonight alone, we had Bill and Virginia's separate stories about combatting sexual inadequacies (stories that brought in yet another new character in Francis, revealed to be Bill's brother at episode's end), Libby's story about the cover-up of a racially-motivated crime, Langham's story about taking a job with Cal-o-Metric, and the story about forming the board of trustees at the clinic. That's five storylines that have essentially nothing to do with each other, outside of a vague idea of buried secrets coming to light, an idea that doesn't carry enough weight to put the episode over.

After season one, the show probably needed to just cut every character that wasn't Bill, Virginia, or Libby (whom the show needs for reasons I will get to in a moment), then start over. But that wasn't really possible, which has led to the mess we're in.

Is it possible that ...

Masters of Sex

Bill and Virginia hope to use their study to cure those with sexual problems. (Showtime)

3) The show now works better as a collection of scenes than anything else.

Somehow, Masters of Sex has turned into a show that tells stories into one that has individual scenes that awkwardly get juxtaposed with each other. And the show seems aware of this, too. One of the best scenes in tonight's episode, for instance, is when Barbara has the breakthrough and realizes that she used to have sex with her brother, a revelation Virginia is not remotely prepared to handle.

It's a great scene that has the shape of a story, but it's also not really a story with beginning, middle, and end. And it also leads to Virginia's strange decision to head to the psychiatrist on Barbara's behalf and present Barbara's story as her own. I sort of buy that Virginia would be this desperate to help out that she would do this; I don't buy that she would be so stupid as to think she could get away with this and actually use it to help Barbara through her trauma somehow. I get that both Bill and Virginia are so drawn to each other because they're both people who see their own limitations as gentle suggestions, but this is simply ludicrous in a way the show rarely allows itself to be.

And that's the case throughout this episode and the season: the scenes try to be stories, but they don't really hook up with each other. That leaves the episodes trying too hard to make them hook up, and creating heavy-handed parts where the characters might as well be turning straight to camera and telling us just what each scene is supposed to signify.

But you know what? This might not be the show's fault, because ...

Masters of Sex

Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) needs a story this season. So she somehow got this one. (Showtime)

4) This is kind of a boring part of Masters and Johnson's real-life lives

If you've read the book of the same name that this series is based on (or even just the Masters and Johnson Wikipedia page), then you'll know that some seriously exciting stuff is coming down the pike, even if Michelle Ashford and her writers deviate slightly from the historical record. It's the sort of juicy material that any TV show would love to dig into. The end of last week's episode hinted at some of this, but we're still a bit too far off from it to really dig into it. And this is mostly at a point when Masters and Johnson were trying to get their sex study off the ground again, which could easily feel repetitive (and has at various points).

But because of what's coming, the show needs characters like Libby. And that means it needs to find something for them to do, because Showtime isn't going to pay Caitlin FitzGerald to sit around all season and not do anything. This means that she gets diverted into storylines like this season's tale of her realization that, hey, maybe racism is a real thing that exists and maybe she is a little bit racist, too. And that could have worked if the show had really committed to making Buell Green its central setting, but it largely bailed on that, and Libby has felt isolated from everything else for most of the season.

But the show needs her for future seasons, so she gets a story, even if it sucks. Because finally, and above all else ...

Masters of Sex

Bill and Virginia check into a hotel. Good for them. (Showtime)

5) This is a show about Bill and Virginia, and it keeps forgetting that

The material that has crackled this season has been about Bill and Virginia slowly building toward the kind of genuine intimacy with each other that they've never had with anyone else. It's been about the two of them coming together and falling apart and coming together again. And yet the show treats their partnership almost as something it's not that interested in, because it has other things to attend to.

Have you seen Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan's chemistry, show? Did you watch "Fight" and get why that was your best episode yet? Heck, even "Asterion" mostly worked, because it could sell Bill and Virginia being separated for what amounted to about three-quarters of one episode as the worst thing that could happen to either of them. Now, the series is drowning itself in standalone stories for both of the characters, with occasional check-ins with them in their hotel room (check-ins interrupted by moments when Bill gets to go look at the corpse of a man who ate himself to death for no particular reason). The series has this powerful, potent thing, and it keeps ignoring it in favor of so much other stuff.

As I said above, none of this is unfixable. The show is still staffed with talented writers and directors, and it maintains the fun, playful sense of style that made season one such a treat. The last four episodes of the season could tie everything from the eight episodes prior together into a neat little bow that makes me feel foolish for not trusting Ashford and her team. But for any show to work, it needs a center, and Masters of Sex will need to find one soon — or at least use the center it could have in Bill and Virginia's pairing more frequently — if it's not going to write its entire second season off as a wash.

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