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Masters of Sex goes to a swinger party and has its best episode in years

Even a TV show you’ve given up on can have a stunner of an episode every once in a while

Masters of Sex
Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) realizes just what sort of party she’s stumbled into on 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.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for October 2 through 8 is "Coats or Keys," the fourth episode of the fourth season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex.

I’ve often said that being a TV critic means considering the possibility that the best episode of TV ever made just aired on NCIS: New Orleans, and you might never know about it. You can’t watch everything, after all. And even though it’s not likely, you still have to leave room for the possibility.

In the middle of its third season, Masters of Sex — Showtime’s period piece retelling of the story of sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson — seemed like it would never return to the promise of its first season, much less fulfill that promise.

Season two had had its moments, particularly in "Fight," a stunning episode that amounted to a single conversation between the two main characters. But it didn’t hang together overall, and ultimately disappointed. And season three was even more disjointed (granted, sometimes for legal reasons, as the show was compelled to make clear that its version of Masters and Johnson’s kids were distinct from the real ones). The nadir came in a now famously terrible episode, in which the characters were compelled to find a way to sexually arouse a gorilla.

It’s probably impossible for Masters of Sex to ever find its way back to its early acclaim. And yet, almost out of nowhere, it came close to its past glory in season four, with "Coats or Keys." It’s enough to restore one’s faith in the TV gods all over again.

What works about "Coats or Keys" starts from its premise

Masters of Sex
Here’s Michael Sheen holding a cute dog.

For awhile now, Masters of Sex has struggled to find a way to tell new episodic stories. In its first season, the two sex researchers worked with various couples in "case of the week" format, but the longer the series ran, the more it seemed to disconnect from the clinic at its center.

One big reason for that is the show’s sprawling cast, who’ve all required more development and screentime as the series has progressed. This isn’t the performers’ fault, especially Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan as Bill and Virginia.

But the show has never been as ruthless as it should be in jettisoning some of its non-Masters and Johnson characters, particularly Bill’s wife, Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), who is very good but often seems completely extraneous to the action.

Couple that with a storyline that has leaped forward in time by whole years in some episodes, in hopes of eventually catching up with what Masters and Johnson were up to in the 1980s. (The series began in 1956, and is currently in the late ‘60s, despite neither Sheen nor Caplan looking appreciably older.) The show can’t simultaneously be a normal medical drama about a sex research clinic and a biographical drama relentlessly moving into the future.

But Masters of Sex still excels at capturing the slow, then rapid, breakdown of traditional sexual mores in the decades it depicts. It’s dug into the growing openness of same-sex relationships, and the rise of knowledge about extra-marital affairs. It’s even touched on an increased understanding of sexual fetishes.

The series portrays all of this — appropriately — with a slightly detached, clinical stance. Being honest with each other is good, but we’re not always prepared for the consequences.

And viewed in that light, it makes sense that "Coats or Keys" would be the show’s best episode since early season two. It’s about a swinger party.

Masters of Sex is best when it embraces intimacy, not sex

Masters of Sex
Libby isn’t having the best night.

"Coats or Keys" is written by Amy Lippman, who’s been responsible for some of the series’ best scripts. (The aforementioned season two standout, "Fight," was also written by her.) Lippman’s most famous credit prior to Masters of Sex was the underrated ‘90s family drama Party of Five, which she co-created. She’s innately understands that television is often at its best when it’s told through small scenes featuring just two people.

And, of course, "small scenes featuring just two people" intersects nicely with a show about attempts to understand human sexuality. But where Masters of Sex sometimes loses its way — and where Lippman’s script for "Coats or Keys" is so ingenious — is that it doesn’t always understand that sex isn’t enough for a dynamite TV scene. You need to have intimacy too.

When it’s working, Masters of Sex nicely captures the gap between sex and true intimacy, especially in the lives of its protagonists. Masters can’t quite be open Johnson, no matter how much he loves her, because he’s still moving past the abusive trauma of his childhood. And Johnson, meanwhile, seems frequently stymied by why she’s always drawn back to Masters, even though he’s frequently a gigantic jerk to her.

Where season two’s "Fight" locked the pair in the same room for a full hour of television, "Coats or Keys" splits them up. They both attend the swinger party, but neither actually sleeps with somebody else’s partner.

Masters follows his wife back to the house he once lived in (the couple is getting a divorce) because he’s upset she forgot it was supposed to be his night with their kids and let the children make plans. Johnson, meanwhile, sits alone in a room with one of the swinger party’s hosts (a co-worker) while the two attempt to diagnose why opening up his marriage hasn’t had the effect he wanted it to.

Their secretary, Betty (the always welcome Annaleigh Ashford), who’s in a long-term relationship with another woman, contrives to be paired off with the only gay man at the party, so they can spend the evening trading stories and singing standards. And fellow co-worker Lester (Kevin Christy) hooks up with a black revolutionary when he challenges her to open his mind to radicalism. (Okay, this last plot isn’t really a winner.)

What you’ll notice about these stories is that they all boil down, on some level, to two people sitting in a room and having a conversation they’ve needed to have for a long time. The proposed lasciviousness of a night of sexual liberation is replaced with the cold, morning-after gaze of people who’ve been hiding things from each other for too long and just need to tell each other the truth.

And it works. I’ve mostly been watching Masters of Sex out of a skewed sense of completism all this time; I like period pieces, and this one seems closer to its end than its beginning. But about halfway through "Coats or Keys," I realized I was enjoying it more than I’ve enjoyed an episode of Masters of Sex in ages.

It took its time. It didn’t force unbelievable or over-the-top situations to try to tease out its premise. It simply existed in the space of one weird night for these characters, and didn’t try to do too much more.

I don’t know that I can recommend diving back into Masters of Sex if you fell off somewhere along the line (though watching just this hour might not be a bad idea). But "Coats or Keys" suggests the presence of a shadow series that’s been hidden within the troubled one all along, a series that thought more seriously about the differences and connections between love, sex, and intimacy, instead of picking them up every few weeks, toying with them a bit, and then hurling them across the room in disinterest.

Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on Showtime. Previous episodes are available on Showtime Anytime.

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