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Masters of Sex, episode 9: Why the show is better when it’s more like a stage play

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Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) meets with Barbara to try to help her.
Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) meets with Barbara to try to help her.
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: Bill and Virginia move full steam ahead on their plan to diagnose and treat sexual issues, but they get in way, way over their heads.

Last week, in taking the second season of Masters of Sex to task just a little bit, I opined that the show has now turned into a series of scenes more than anything else.

But there's a flipside to that. Some weeks, being a series of scenes has made the show feel incredibly disconnected as storytelling. But on other weeks, when those scenes are good enough, the show becomes richer because it's made up of smaller bits and pieces of larger stories. Not everything in tonight's episode, "The Story of My Life," works, but there are enough powerful scenes that it's a marked improvement over last week's episode (and the latest piece of evidence in my budding theory that this season is at its best in its odd-numbered episodes).

The episode centers on a lot of things — the weight of the truth, the responsibility of parents, the way people view shared history differently — so perhaps the best way to consider it is via some of its best scenes, rather than as a whole. Here are a handful of them.

Virginia goes to therapy

These are technically two scenes in the midst of everything else, but they immediately reveal that the show, and the characters, are at least somewhat aware that the idea of Virginia going to therapy to get ideas on how to treat Barbara (by passing Barbara's story off as her own) is ridiculous. That's reassuring, as it means the show hasn't totally taken leave of its senses. The scenes are also helped by placing Lizzy Caplan in the same room as the great character actor John Billingsley, who turns the therapist into a man who starts poking holes in Virginia's affect almost immediately.

Now, the notion of someone going to therapy for some other reason, then ending up talking about themselves anyway, is as old as dramatic depictions of talk therapy. But Masters of Sex has often been a show that works much better when it behaves more like a stage play than a TV series, and that means the therapy scenes gain power just from the fact of what they are: two people sitting in a room and talking to each other.

In particular, the second scene is terrific. I like the way director Jeremy Webb instinctively knows exactly when to cut away from Caplan's face, as the therapist quietly asks Virginia why she continues to sleep with Bill when Libby is her friend. (He knows nothing of the real situation, but you can still see the way in which Virginia feels troubled by what he says.) I've become so fond of Caplan's unconventional line readings — she never places the emphasis quite where you expect her to — that it's easy to forget just how good she is at the smaller parts of her technique. But the way she navigates the tiny shifts in Virginia's mood in this scene speak to how willfully Virginia's blinded herself, and the scene gets bonus points for invoking Lillian's memory without being maudlin.

Masters of Sex

Robert (Jocko Sims) confronts Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) about what she's actually willing to do. (Showtime)

Libby visits CORE

The "Libby Masters explores the depths of mid-20th century racism and/or has a kind of crush on Robert" storyline continues to be the messiest thing about the season, an attempt to give the character complexity that keeps shying away, at the last possible moment, from doing anything of the sort. So the scenes where she agrees to appear as a witness, testifying to the terrible events she saw last week, are kind of lumpy — even if they have an intriguing moral quandary at their center. (The CORE lawyer and Robert want Libby to lie about exactly what she saw, to make their case better.)

But the scene where Libby and Robert talk through her testimony is solid, as these things go. The season's grand master plan seems to be throwing in Libby's face just how little she understands her own privilege, and how much she's benefited from being who she is. (I also like how this episode flips that on its head, to remind us that Libby is drastically limited in what she can do in her society, simply by virtue of the fact that she's a woman who's "expected" to behave a certain way.) Robert does a fair amount of that in this scene, asking her just what she'd ever have to have lied about, and how important it is that she gets this one right.

It's the right kind of complicated. Technically, what Libby is being asked to do is wrong, but it's for a cause that's just. Which outweighs the other? Libby ultimately can't lie, but she still ends up volunteering for CORE. Regardless of why, Libby is lurching her way toward an understanding of what's wrong in her world.

Masters of Sex

Francis (Christian Borle) shares a painful story from his past. (Showtime)

Frank at Alcoholics Anonymous

I'm still not entirely sure why Bill's long-estranged brother Francis is a part of the show now, considering how thoroughly their estrangement rests on the characters telling us it happened. But Christian Borle is so good in the role, and he and Michael Sheen have such instant, prickly chemistry, that I find myself not really minding, even as I can feel the wheels turning to make all of this relevant.

The notion of Bill's terrible upbringing has been one of the few constants this season, and the show gains potency every time it returns to it. "The Story of My Life" actually finds a way to back into telling that story: Frank drags his brother to an AA meeting, where he plans to share the story of his addiction. That story is a long, writerly monologue that (again) wouldn't be out of place in a stage play, but that's also what's so great about it. Writer Amy Lippman (also credited for the script on the season's best episode, "Fight") constructs a lovely little speech for him, one that sets up the idea of "disappearing" as central to the boys' upbringing.

It pays off in the moment when Bill disappears. He later reveals that he's convinced Frank appropriated Bill's childhood suffering for his own story. But, of course, both boys struggled with a terrible father, in very different ways; Bill didn't quite realize that, since he abandoned his younger brother. "Story of My Life" has to do a lot of work in order to retroactively justify bringing Francis into the story. It doesn't get all of the way there, but this scene comes so close to doing so that it works anyway.

Barbara goes to see her brother

Another way that Masters succeeds in a fashion similar to a stage play is the amount of scenes in which we are told about an encounter, rather than seeing it happen. This is the case with Barbara's story tonight, which involves her going to see her brother and confronting him about their sexual encounters as children. If the show is shifting its focus slightly to be about Bill and Virginia's attempts to treat sexual issues, instead of simply acknowledge they exist, then this is a good way to show the potential limits of that approach.

Treating sexual issues might require a physical component, but there's also an important psychological side. Virginia intuitively understands that, but she's improperly trained to deal with them. Barbara, for instance, takes Virginia's suggestion to imagine what her younger self wants to say to her brother as an actual suggestion to go talk to her brother — something that only causes Barbara more pain, when she comes to realize that there's every possibility she was the one who suggested the two have sex in the first place.

And if nothing else, this is the scene that will be the centerpiece of Betsy Brandt's Emmy campaign. It wasn't immediately clear why the show brought in an actress of her caliber earlier in the season, but it ended up working in the show's favor. Wondering just why she was there made it easier to remember her when she resurfaced a couple of episodes ago; the quality of her acting has made these stories feel not salacious, as they might have on another show, but riddled with deep-seated pain.

Masters of Sex

Bill and Virginia meet again in the hotel room. (Showtime)

The final scene

So much of this season has boiled down to Bill and Virginia in a hotel room, carrying on an affair that once had a veneer of being "for science." The final scene sends both characters' stories crashing into each other: Virginia finally confronts Bill with her misgivings, with her concerns that what they're doing would destroy Libby if she found out. Bill can claim that he's doing everything without hopes of hurting anybody as much as he likes, but as we've seen with Francis, he's so relentlessly focused on himself that these good intentions don't matter.

What's more, this allows the show to rope in the "cure" side of things with the story of Bill and Virginia's affair. The irony is that by embarking on an attempt to cure Bill's impotence, the two will only increase Virginia's guilt over what's happened. If they're able to have sex again, that means they've "succeeded," which would mean that there's no real scientific reason for the affair to continue. The two are trapped, and they might even know it. But there's simply no way they're going to stop what they're doing.

That, in a way, is the message of "The Story of My Life." The characters can see some of what's coming, perhaps even in a crystal clear fashion. But they're powerless to stop themselves from continuing.

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