Masters of Sex: Seismic Shifts

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t quite figure out what Masters of Sex intends to do with its second season. All of the pre-release press I’d read focused largely on the heavy African-American influence, which made sense considering this is a drama set during the 1950s. The era was on the precipice of the socio-political tumult of the 1960s, and it seemed a logical path for the show to take.

But after this week’s episode, Blackbird, I give up trying to predict its direction. Course correction for one or two minor plotlines is expected in any drama, but the changes enacted were abrupt right turns in its direction. Still, I’m along for the ride, and who knows where it will take us. But be forewarned: my discussion of Blackbird will be positively spoilerific. You have been warned…

MastersofSex S02E06b

Each prominent storyline developed over the past few weeks received equal attention this week. At first, it appeared that we were digging deeply into Masters and Johnson’s attempts to rekindle their sex study with African-American patients, but their hidden adversary – Dr. Charles Hendricks (Courtney B. Vance), the individual ripping down sex study advertisements – finally revealed his motivations.

Dr. Hendricks had previously admitted his goal of bringing white patrons to his hospital through the acquisition of Bill Masters, and he supported Masters’ sex study to a point – only if it were conducted using white patients. Turns out, Hendricks’ past experiences with amoral studies on African Americans in the name of science have cooled him on the thought of further study opportunities.

Discouraged, Masters seeks the aid of a local journalist to publish a story on the intent and inherent benefits of using black subjects in the sex study. The journalist has other designs on the story of Bill Masters, though. She sees Masters and his recent experiences with the white hospital power structure as identical to the current plight of the African American, right down to the random acts of violence. Masters doesn’t quite see it – want to see it – that way, so he threatens to publish a false study reinforcing negative stereotypes (penis size, animalistic sex drives, etc.) unless the article was suppressed.

Here, we are witnessing Bill Masters at his darkest moment: resorting to betraying the one thing he holds closest to his heart, science, in protection of his reputation. At the end, he resigns/is fired from his post at Buell Green. Once again, Masters and Johnson are jobless and adrift as he decides to strike out on his own and leave hospital entanglements behind.

Virginia Johnson’s through line in the episode is a more emotional journey, though equally devastating. We are given several fantastic scenes of Johnson growing closer to Dr. Lillian DePaul as DePaul decides to stop her cancer treatments. The futile treatments would only worsen her quality of life, and DePaul decides it’s time to give up (a dark and sad analogy to the recent suicide of actor Robin Williams).

Never one to give up, Johnson demands DePaul continue the treatments or seek other options. Ultimately, as she tearfully reveals in a touching, clothed, scene with Masters, she cannot cope with losing the surprising friend she found in DePaul. Later, Johnson and DePaul share a quiet, intimate conversation about their lives and DePaul’s one regret – that she never found someone with which to share her days. Given her earlier instructions to have her body donated to science, I should have seen where this was going.

Johnson puts DePaul to bed, but DePaul awakens and downs a bottle of sleeping pills with some wine. Johnson returns for the papers containing DePaul’s last wishes and discovers her friend, presumably in a deep coma. She tries to call the police but realizes it’s time to give in and let DePaul go. We last see Virginia Johnson lying in bed beside the dying Dr. Lillian DePaul.

It’s a beautiful moment, one for which I was ultimately prepared but not quite ready for. I’ve long proclaimed the greatness of Julianne Nicholson, and I will be sorry to see her go, particularly given the expert work she was doing here. Emmy voters: engrave your trophies now.

Compared to this, the frivolousness of the Betty DiMello Moretti scenes were something of chore to sit through. Ultimately, her shortly suffering husband, Gene, discovers her relationship to Helen (Sarah Silverman) and confronts Betty. While she never denies it, Betty tries unsuccessfully to cling to Gene – even though she never once says that she loved him.

I’m not quite sure where the character goes from here. Perhaps the writers will make her secretary in Masters’ new clinic, presuming he starts one.  I have always liked Betty, but I have not admired the direction the writers have forged for her in season two. Now that she’s free, I wonder if they will also allow her to pursue her relationship with Helen, although that seems fairly ruptured as well.

And finally, I come to Libby Masters, the unfortunate recipient of the most cringe-inducing, eye-rolling plot lines of the season thus far. This episode is no different as she continues to harass nanny Coral over her choice in boyfriend, going so far as to dig up a police record on him. She asks Coral to have someone else transport her to/from work but follows Coral one day, notably leaving the baby alone in the house, to discover Coral has yet again disobeyed her.

Finally, her obsession takes control and Libby, this time with the baby, tails Coral and boyfriend Robert back to their apartment. After scratching her leg on the bumper of her car and confronting Robert in the mailroom of the apartment complex, Libby finds out that Robert isn’t Coral’s boyfriend after all… he’s her brother.

Humiliated, I believe, by Coral’s previous spot-on dissection of the Masters marriage and shamed by her attraction to Robert (who busies himself with cleaning the cut on Libby’s leg), Libby abruptly fires Coral, throwing severance money at Robert’s feet. And so ends the black dalliance of Libby Masters. Perhaps now the writers will find more realistic and convincing ways to drive an irreversible wedge between the two Masters.

So, now all of these season two moments have largely been undone by this single episode. Even the Masters and Johnson sexual relationship/love affair seems (temporarily) in jeopardy after he discovers she has been keeping a lover on the sly. Halfway through the season, I’m aware of where we’ve been. I’m just not sure why.

Consider of all the great actors that are now, again presumably, never to return: Greg Grunberg, Julianne Nicholson, Danny Huston, Betsy Brandt, Courtney B. Vance, Rene Auberjonois, Sarah Silverman, and Keke Palmer just to name the stars. While they have left us with memorable moments, their abrupt disappearances feel more symptomatic of a show unsure of its direction. It is a show that, despite all of my bitching and whining, that I still love because it gave us such deeply felt experiences that we largely don’t see in other shows. With a half season still to go, I will miss these experiences, but I feel richer for having felt them.

Bye, bye, blackbird. Indeed.

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