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Masters of Sex, episode 11: The season moves toward climax

Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) appear in your homes, thanks to the magic of television.
Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) appear in your homes, thanks to the magic of television.
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: Truth and lies are stacked up against each other, as every single storyline comes to a head.

"One for the Money, Two for the Show" begins the process of bringing this season in for a sure-to-be-bumpy landing. It's an eventful episode, bringing every single storyline that's still up and running to a climactic point, but it's also one that reinforces how disconnected many of the season's events are from each other. It's beautifully, sometimes brilliantly, written on the level of dialogue and theme, but it often feels like writer Amy Lippman is making much of it up on the fly.

Or, put another way, this is an episode where perhaps the most pivotal line of dialogue of the whole season is given to Flo after she once again blackmails Austin into having sex with her, as a part of what might be the weirdest plotline of an otherwise quality show in recent memory. (Not even Kalinda's ex-husband on The Good Wife got quite this bizarre.) The good and the bad of this season of television are so intertwined at this point that it's almost impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

So with the season at the precipice, let's take a look at our three major storylines and see where each stands in terms of that mix of good and bad.

Masters of Sex

Flo (Artemis Pebdani) begs Austin (Teddy Sears) to make her Gone with the Wind dreams come true in a deeply strange storyline. (Showtime)

Austin and Flo in Cal-o-Metric Follies

I picked on this storyline just two paragraphs ago, but it bears repeating: This is a really weird piece of television. The show has kept Flo around all season, so somebody somewhere clearly thinks she's an important, breakout character, but it's never been clear just what Cal-o-Metric is supposed to add to the series, outside of a vague thematic mirroring of ideas about how we all work as hard as we can to set aside the people we truly are.

But ever since Austin got roped into this storyline and the two turned into funhouse mirror versions of Bill and Virginia, it's been harder and harder to figure out just what the show is going for. There's something in here about what sexual harassment looks like when it's gender-flipped from what you might normally expect, but it's also incredibly difficult to really dig into that when the show seems to be playing every other scene between the two for laughs. It's as if the show is saying, "LOL, can you believe a lady who's not conventionally attractive threatening her male employee with being fired if he doesn't sleep with her, LOL!?" It's just clumsily handled.

Tonight, for instance, the show attempts to play a weird, mirrored version of "Fight," as Flo pushes Austin into a role-playing exercise inspired by Gone With the Wind and involving a prowler breaking into her house because he simply must have her. It's just a weird sequence all around, but it closes with a wallop of a line from Flo, lying in bed with Austin post-coitus. "When has self-awareness ever changed a person's behavior?" she asks, and it's like she's poking a hole in everything this season has been building up. These characters might learn, and they might even grow, but they probably won't change.

This is still a stupid storyline, though.

Good: 15 percent; Bad: 85 percent

Masters of Sex

Caitlin Fitzgerald stars in the greatest press still of all time. (Showtime)

Libby Masters in Racism Is Bad

I have vacillated so many times on this superfluous but occasionally intriguing Libby Masters storyline. At first, I thought her confrontations with her own inner prejudices were shining a thematic light on other elements in the show. But then the series hit the reset button on the Coral storyline, and I figured the show had just needed something to do with Libby for a while.

Now, however, her work with CORE has re-centered her storyline around these issues of racial equality, as well as, uh, how much she wants to sleep with Robert. She finally manages the latter in tonight's episode, and I won't lie — it's kind of nice to see Libby have something that makes her happy, and I was surprised how much chemistry the two actors had in that moment.

There's also something to be said for the way that Libby's monologue about how she always tried to be the good little girl and do the "proper" thing made her invisible to too many people. It tries slightly too hard to retroactively make sense of everything the character has done since the series began by placing it in a new motivation and context, but Libby has always lacked for both, so a little bit of trying too hard is fine by me.

No, the real problem with this has always been the way that it takes one of the defining political realities of the era — the civil rights movement — and clumsily reduces it to a grace note in the stories of the other characters. Mad Men has come under some amount of fire for how little it cares about the lives of non-white people in the '60s, but that was a creative choice made because its characters wouldn't really notice anything outside of themselves. (Whether that's a creative choice that works is ultimately up to you.) Masters wants to tackle these sorts of things head-on, and that's a great idea. But it's also not sure how to organically include them in the midst of everything else that's going on, which leaves them feeling so extraneous as to make the viewer wonder why they're included at all. That's not so great.

Even worse is the way that these last few episodes have made it seem that the whole story of civil rights in America is going to be reduced on this show to the question of whether Robert and Libby sleep together. I'm being glib, of course, but the way that these important issues and stories end up juxtaposed with that — no matter how much chemistry the actors have — means that the romantic angle ends up overwhelming the drier, more political angle. It's probably an attempt to pull everything back to some of the series' central questions, but it's rather a clumsy one.

In some ways, however, this all feels like set-up for season three. And on that level, there's some interesting stuff here. I just wish it hadn't taken the whole year to get us to that point.

Good: 50 percent Bad: 50 percent

Masters of Sex

Bill and Virginia get to be on the TV box. (Showtime)

Bill and Virginia in The Power of Television

The season has cast about for a solid throughline for Bill and Virginia, but "One for the Money" reveals at least some of that to be by design. Bill's reeling emotions collide with Virginia's ambitions collide with the TV people who arrive to document the clinic's work, and everything ricochets off of everything else in ways that suggest plenty of interesting directions for things to go come next week's finale. It's also kind of neat to build some of this story around the power of television to change minds, when it's nested within a TV show itself.

But the real reason to watch tonight is for the performances of Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, who bring their best stuff throughout but particularly in the final scene when Bill doubts that anyone would ever find him attractive or worth paying attention to. Virginia crosses the room in a matter of steps and wraps him into a fierce hug, and it's one of the more moving moments in the whole show. After the season he's had, Bill is having a serious dark night of the soul. And after realizing how much she's been focusing on work instead of her kids, Virginia's very nearly there with him.

Bill and Virginia have been the show's constant this season, the relationship that has kept it from falling apart too much. Even in more troubled episodes, there have been a couple of great scenes between the two, and the dedicated work the season has done to making the partnership — and love — between them stronger than ever before has been paying off in these last few episodes.

But I also like the way this episode makes sure to refocus everything on their scientific and business partnership. The show has done a lousy job of making us feel as if they're truly threatened with having their clinic go out of business, mostly just telling us that financials are tight or hanging the threat of somebody else getting to a comprehensive sex study before they do over the top of everything else. It's been much better at sketching out how vital the two of them now are to making sure this thing even happens.

If nothing else, this story also underlines the closest thing the season has to a central theme. When Bill finally launches into an impassioned monologue about how it's important to be able to speak forthrightly and honestly about sex — even on television — it's as close as the season comes to articulating its central ideas. Honesty is always best. Openness is always best. The world is better when we say what we really mean.

More striking than anything is to watch the people from CBS in the offices of Masters and Johnson, pushing things around and just generally shaping the narrative that will be presented to the country. (We shall see how it is presented next week.) It's a disruption in the careful order that these two have built. It's a necessary disruption, to be sure, but it's one that highlights just how ahead of their times these two are — and how outside of it, too.

"One for the Money" is, more than anything, a setup for what's to come next week, when the dam will break and the work Masters and Johnson do will finally be brought to the larger world. It's almost defiantly an attempt to make sense of a season that's seemed chaotic and random at times. And it's one of the best episodes of the season, smashed up against one of the worst. Then again, that describes life, in a way, so maybe this is all better than I'm giving it credit for.

Good: 75 percent, Bad: 25 percent

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