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Masters of Sex, episode 12: Michelle Ashford discusses her show's divisive second season

Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) anxiously await our season two verdict.
Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) anxiously await our season two verdict.
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 second season of Masters of Sex has been a sometimes frustrating, sometimes enthralling journey through three years of history, but it ends with a finale that ties up most major storylines and positions the show for what could be a much more consistent season three.

Rather than offer you my thoughts exclusively, I thought it would be good to talk to the series' showrunner, Michelle Ashford, and see what some of her thought processes were in constructing the season as she did. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Todd VanDerWerff: How did you approach the question of turning a story that takes three years into a season of television?

Michelle Ashford: The first season seemed organically to play out as a year, and it seemed like a good way to launch our show and settle everybody in and not do anything too crazy. But I've always known that if this show goes the distance, [Masters and Johnson's] lives and their careers were fascinating and event-filled way into the 1980s.

I've never seen a TV show move through that kind of time. But I thought, "Well, okay, but this is a nonfiction story so this is what it is, we've got to start laying some track in terms of how we are going to do this." The first season settled in, and then I thought, "Well, you know what, let's start this second season three years later. Masters and Libby have two kids, and let's just do all that."

Then in talking about it in the writers' room and feeling people out in terms of how they felt about the ending of season one, which sort of had a cliffhanging kind of quality, we realized that people were going to be really annoyed if they didn't get to see, what happened. What happened after that night? How did it play out? I didn't want to play it out completely chronologically, like, okay here's that night, and then this is what happened. So we played with time in those first couple episodes a little bit — like three weeks later versus the night of. We realized there's a lot of good story to tell right on the heels of the end of season one. But we still were stuck with this time problem.

The truth of Masters and Johnson is they spent from like 1956 to 1966 basically buried in research, and they were underground, and no one knew who they were. They were doing their stuff, and they were collecting massive amounts of data, and they were making this transition from data collecting to more therapeutic work. That went on for a very, very long time.

I thought, well, okay, but we've still got to move. Let's move in the middle of the season, let's show people that we're moving. Let's actually let them watch the sausage be made, and see what happens if we do an episode like that. This could either bomb or it could be really interesting, I don't know. But I knew we had to move. I'd never actually seen that on TV, where you're actually in one episode just watching the calendar flip by in that way. So we thought we would try it and that's why. In terms of their careers, it seemed a very natural sort of break, which is they spent a lot of time just gathering data. So it's like, if that's going to be really what they're doing work-wise, that's where we can speed through and then pick up where they've made a shift in their work, and then follow that out for the rest of the season.

Todd VanDerWerff: Were there historical events you wanted to pull in? And how much of this were you having to make up whole cloth, since they were underground in this period?

Michelle Ashford: There's a bit of a quiet period. This is another reason we decided to pick it up on the heels of season one. When [Bill Masters] did, in fact, leave Maternity Hospital, he did leave under contentious circumstances. When he walked away from that, he walked away from 20 years of a career, essentially. He walked from his surgical privileges, from delivering babies, from his OB practice. All that went. I thought, that's a radical thing for someone to do. We don't have, really, anything written about what he was thinking about that and what he felt about walking away from that, but that, to me, seemed like very fertile ground.

So I thought, let's see that as well.  The historical record is that they were at Maternity, they found a place nearby, and they set up a practice. If you're going to look at the emotional upheaval of a decision like that, let's see him try to cling to some kind of security as long as he can, until he's forced to realize that he has to go out on his own, which is what led to him — in our show — trying to make it work at this hospital, trying to make it work at that hospital, then finally just going, "I can't. My days doing this are over. I can no longer have a boss. I've got to go out on my own."

It seemed like a good thing to dramatize. The real Bill Masters did not go to that black hospital, which in reality was called Homer G. Philips. But he didn't do that. I felt like it was emotionally honest that the decision-making process to leave behind something so secure would be an honest one. That would have been really, sort of traumatic to come to that understanding about where you were in your life. So we thought, let's just dramatize it then, and that seemed fair to us.

Todd VanDerWerff: It also leads to a season where you have to do three different season premieres and two season finales in the midst of these 12 episodes. What were some of the struggles of building that?

Michelle Ashford: We did have to have an ending here, and then start again and make this weird transition. Episode 207, in the middle with the time jump, put all of us in an early grave. Because it was hard, and we'd never done something like that and we didn't really have a template. Structurally, it was an incredibly complicated episode. It ended up being 20 minutes over, so 20 minutes of material is actually missing in that. Some of that would explain more of what was going on.

But once I realized, okay, we're going to change in the middle, then yeah, you had to look at it as two seasons, essentially, two little six-episode seasons. In the middle is this weird transition. Hopefully that transition itself becomes interesting in terms of using the element of time to also tell stories about where these characters are and where they've moved in their lives or not moved in their lives. Which is hopefully what that episode was conveying. Structurally, it became this crazy year and it was hard, for sure, but I'm really glad we did it, I thought it was better than just doing something in a more traditional manner.

Todd VanDerWerff: Do you have hopes that you'll be able to get bolder with that in future seasons?

Michelle Ashford: Yes, exactly. I feel like we, a little bit, got our training wheels on, and I think now that we have a little bit more of a grasp of, okay, if you're going to do those time jumps, this is how you can use time as a very, very effective storytelling tool, that we'll get better at that. It's a fun challenge. You pull your hair out, but it is really interesting, so yes, we will be doing more of it, and hopefully, it'll be really interesting.

Masters of Sex

Jocko Sims starred as Robert in the second season. (Showtime)

Todd VanDerWerff: This season had so much stuff about race and the civil rights movement. What compelled you to pull that into this story at this point?

Michelle Ashford: We knew that that first season was very isolated from the real world, really, and that felt thematically correct. First of all, we're introducing everybody to this work, and to them, but also they were really, really underground with this stuff. They were closeted away, and the world was going on. Neither of them had much interest in it, and they were just doing their thing. The truth about Masters and Johnson of course, is they are more and more emerging out into the world. In fact, they become central in some major, major societal shifts, become incredibly public. This was always one of the things that really appealed to me about doing this series. I thought, wow, they became really famous! Wow, what a weird story that they start off so hidden and then become so famous.

Once they're out there, they are going to be in the center of all the craziness that was happening in the 1960s and '70s in terms of real shifts, in terms of people's perception of sex, certainly, and feminism and race and all of it. As I started to look around and say, "Okay, well what was actually happening in the world? Let's start with St. Louis." St. Louis became really interesting. They had this hospital that was unlike anything else in the world, training black doctors and nurses. CORE was very active there. Martin Luther King came through and gave a very significant speech about race and where St. Louis was with race.

But I didn't want to just plop it in on top of our characters. I hate it when shows do that. I wanted it to come through character somehow. That's how it ended up coming through Libby, and that's how the whole thing sort of started, because she has a very personal problem where she's now had this baby and she thinks everything's going to be fine, and everything is not fine.

So she hires a surrogate, a sort of a proxy, for her husband who has no interest in this baby. And she thinks this girl will be the one that maybe she can raise the baby with. But these are like two cultures that don't really understand one another. As the pressure increases on Libby, who's having basically a meltdown, realizing that her plan for a nuclear family is not coming together, it causes her to have these altercations with this girl which unmasks kind of ugly ribbons of prejudice.

Anyway, I always loved the reality of that hospital in St. Louis and we thought, well, if Masters is a guy who's going to burn one bridge after another and simply has run out of options, wow, that black hospital will be a really interesting place for him to land. We found ourselves in that world. We found it really, really interesting and we thought, let's just keep pushing this and see where it goes.

When all that stuff happened in Ferguson, I literally could not believe it. It was so strange, because we'd already laid out all that story. In fact our episodes were already airing, and it was one of these stranger coincidences. We thought, well, how odd that we were showing exactly these problems and they were hinting that there are problems with the police and this and that and the other thing. Then there it happened, however many years later.

Todd VanDerWerff: Did you think about staying at the black hospital for longer?

Michelle Ashford: We were. Because it was a deviation from what happened in an historical record, I thought it was an interesting sort of thing to push through, but I didn't feel for us to really put roots down there. It didn't feel accurate. That itself should be a TV series. That hospital is really interesting. I didn't feel like, okay, we won't spend enough time at this hospital. But what we will do is we will spend enough time in this world of this bubbling up of racial tensions and a merging civil rights movement. I really felt like, well, we won't give that short trip. We'll spend a lot of time there. We just won't spend a lot of time at that particular hospital.

Todd VanDerWerff: You spend a lot of time on Bill's past and the bad things that happened to him. What made this season the right time to delve into what really drives his character?

Michelle Ashford: Well I think one of the things that's been an interesting juggling act is how much of him to reveal and how much to keep hidden. I think this character has embarked on a journey that he can't get off whether he wants to or not. One of the things that's happened to him is he has met Virginia, and for a man who was completely buttoned down and had all of his compartments organized and blocked off, there's something about Virginia and the nature of their work that is now tapping into something. He sort of can't put the genie back in the bottle. And it's forced this character against his will to confront certain things that are changing and happening, and I don't think the character can make any sense of it yet. But something's happening, and something's happening to him.

And the reason for going this direction is it is, I think, very true to what actually happened with the man, which is that he started off exactly like we portrayed him. And she was always the warm and open one. In reality, she was a much harder creature at the end of her life, and he was like this kind of, almost — I don't want to say innocent — he became just sort of open and sweet and gentle. And that actually happened. So when we looked at the trajectory of their lives, we thought, well he did go that direction. He went from one type of creature and went through some kind of transformation, which of course, he never articulated. There's nothing written down about the internal psychology and emotional shift that happened to him. So we have to figure out what it was. But it is documented that people say he was very different at the end of his life than he was at the beginning. So we're left with this interesting puzzle, well what was that about? And let's get going on it. Let's see what's happening. And so that's sort of what we're doing.

Todd VanDerWerff: Was that some of the same reasoning behind the storyline in the last couple of episodes with Virginia and her custody fight?

Michelle Ashford: Yes. Another thing that is very clear from the information we do have is that her relationship to motherhood is a very complicated one. It's obviously a topic I find incredibly interesting, which is women who are ambitious and have big goals. And how do they reconcile that with the fact that they have children? You can't pick up a magazine and not find an article about this. It is a very real and interesting subject, and I hope that we just come at it in a way that is unsparing. I hope really gets to the heart of what that dilemma is. One of the things that is — especially for in that day and age — but even now, women who are really ambitious are, it kind of comes off as unseemly or anti-feminine or certainly not maternal. So it's really interesting to take a woman— and I think she was very ambitious — like that and say, "Well yeah, look she's got these kids, and now what is she going to do?"

I think it's  very fertile ground, and I would say I think someone said, "Oh, the ending is such a downer for Virginia." And I said, "Look it's just like Libby, starting off seeming like she was prejudiced and a creep all of a sudden. It's  just a beginning of that story, that whole thing about Virginia and her children and how she is going to incorporate them into her life." Now how she feels about that and how she's feels about a nuclear unit, that is just the beginning of what happens.

Masters of Sex

There was a lot more of Austin (Teddy Sears) than you might have expected this season. (Showtime)

Todd VanDerWerff: When we talked at the end of season one, you said that you knew you could really, outside off Masters and Johnson and Libby, change the supporting cast every year, if you wanted to. And you did that brilliantly with Ethan. But Austin stuck around, and Betty became a regular. What made those characters good fits for this season?

Michelle Ashford: We keep casting these actors that we just fall completely in love with, and we say, "Oh no, but they are so great on the show." And then we find ourselves bringing them back, and we seem to have a hard time letting almost anybody go. Which is a great thing. We have just been so lucky cast-wise. But you know Austin is — you look at these things, and you have to find a really interesting balance in terms of just the energy that is brought by different characters. And so when you look at someone like Betty and you look at someone like Austin, they bring something entirely different than the emotional tone that Masters certainly brings or Johnson.

If you want the thing to have some buoyancy and some variation, you've got to put together a group that allows you different energies. I can only describe it that way. Different energies, in terms of storytelling. Langham's wonderful, because while we have these other brooding creatures in our world, he is deliciously clueless. But I think you can actually tell a very interesting story about that, somebody who moves through the world without ever really learning anything. I think we all know people like that. I think he's just got a great energy.

Betty was the same. She's a very different creature than anybody else in the show. She was just supposed to be in our pilot, and that was it. She's ended up now becoming one of our regulars, and it's because we think the actress is incredibly gifted. She brings a really unusual energy to the thing, and now she has a story that we really like. We really like Sarah Silverman. When I used to sit and watch the dailies with those two women, I thought, I'm really interested in these two. What is going on with them? So all of a sudden you think, well okay but this is really fertile ground for story. So we say we're going to change, and then I think we're a village. We're a big village where people are just going to come in and out, I think through the duration of the show. I really do.

Todd VanDerWerff: This is a period where they're moving into treatment, of sexual disorders. What does that afford you as a storyteller?

Michelle Ashford: It's just based on what actually happened. If you just go down to Barnes and Noble right now and you look in the sexual dysfunction health section, if there is such a thing, and you pick up any of these books. The thing that they are most known for is a thing called sensate therapy that is still practiced today. And the majority of their work when you look over the totality of their careers was in therapeutic health.

They did collect all of this data, and their first book was all about this, how does the human body work. By the time that they published that first book, they were already well into this other therapeutic approach. And so most of their work was taking couples, bringing them in, and trying to heal them. And it's really rich stuff because it involves not only physiological exercises and things that people could do that are still practiced today. But also it involves a whole bunch of psychology which they were not actually technically qualified to dispense.

So it becomes a very murky, interesting world. And so we have tons of stuff to mind in that coming up, because they did. They had all sort of celebrities, and they had all sorts of people that they had come in over the years that they would try and help, and repair their marriages. That was the bulk of their work. So that's where this has to go actually.

Todd VanDerWerff: Where are you hoping to move in season three? Do you feel like you're through this period when there's not a lot going on in their lives, or do you have more of that coming up?

Michelle Ashford: Well the next big milestone for them, in terms of their work, was that they published this book. Human Sexual Response, which is their first book, which changes them from being these two people laboring away in a lab, to very, very public figures. That's the next big thing that happens for them.

I think that's going to happen sooner than later. We're in January of 1961, and so that's a lot of time. So we need to get there. I don't feel comfortable at all fudging that date, that book did come out in '66, and I could never say otherwise, because otherwise you just have no credibility at all. So we got some ground to cover, and I think we'll get there sooner than later. Yeah, I'm not going to tell you by season five they will publish that book. No, it needs to be published soon. So, I've just got to figure out how we get there gracefully, when we're talking about five years down the road.

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