Showtime’s Masters of Sex returns this week after receiving a smattering of Emmy love, three nominations in acting categories including a well-deserved Best Actress Drama nomination for Lizzy Caplan. In a less competitive environment, season one would have easily tripled its nomination tally, but such is life. I do think it is guaranteed to triumph in one category: Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for Allison Janney’s astoundingly powerful work.
It’s not immediately clear where season two is headed as it spends much of its time wrapping up dangling plots. Still, the episode felt assured, engaged, and, by the end, ready to move forward with the next chapter in the saga of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson.
We last saw these two in a rain-soaked melodramatic confrontation. Masters had been relieved of his position, and the infamous study shuttered. He shows up on Johnson’s doorstep, soaked and professing his undying love for her. It was a radical, seismic shift for the show given the frigid way Masters had been depicted all season long.
As gradually revealed through the episode, Masters succeeds in wooing Johnson, hardly a hard-fought battle. The woman knows what she likes, and she likes sex. And their sex is passionate and intense, free of the wires and measures that allowed them to couple without many complications in season one. Here, it’s all about their budding love. Or so we think.
By the end of the episode, both are so fearful, so defensive about their progression as adulterers that they seem to call it off. Masters appears to find comfort in the scientific relationship he’d cultivated with Johnson and retreats to it rather than face the consequences of his emotions. History tells us they do get together (and later divorce), but the show appears to be progressing down a variation of the “will they or won’t they” trope. Here, it’s less repulsive/tiring than similar relationships of the Ross/Rachel variety. We avoid frustration because we know how it ends.
In my opinion, the most powerful scenes of the season opener involve the troubled (to put it mildly) marriage between Provost Barton Scully (Beau Bridges) and his wife, Margaret (the still amazing Allison Janney). Looking to electroshock therapy to “cure” his homosexuality, Barton is a sobbing, depressed mess. After a single treatment that leaves him temporarily confused and disoriented, Scully still returns to the old crutch of the male skin mag to arouse himself enough to initiate sex with his wife.
Initially pleased, Margaret is immediately turned off when Barton asks her to turn around, angered at the insinuation that he can only have sex with her if he imagines her as a man. Shattered and angry, Barton tries to hang himself in the basement but is rescued by Margaret and their daughter. Later, after receiving a job offer that he wishes to discuss, Masters tried to pay Barton a visit but is turned away at the door by Margaret. I suspect the characters will not feature prominently in season two, which is a huge shame. As much as I like Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan, Janney and Bridges provided a fascinating subplot that, as with the best subplots in the similar Mad Men, felt honest and true to the era.
Other supporting characters from season one were quickly removed from the scene. Johnson’s paramour Dr. Ethan Haas is only heard on the telephone as Johnson rebuffs his marriage proposal and secretary Jane Martin will seek fame as a starlet in Hollywood. Master’s mother, Essie (the undervalued Ann Dowd), has one final showdown with Masters before she is sent packing. It’s not clear based on the pilot if she will return. Only Dr. Lilian DePaul (the great Julianne Nicholson) is given the proper heft to presume she will continue to feature in season two.
In thinking about this episode, I was most reminded of the recent second season premiere of House of Cards where old stories and supporting characters that were dangerously close to becoming redundant were radically jettisoned. There, the writers cut the fat and, in my opinion, correctly shifted focus to the Machiavellian power machinations that made the show so addictive.
If the writers of Masters of Sex have similar intentions, then I can only hope cutting the familiar characters here has the same result. Let’s hope the Virigina Johnson selling diet pills subplot gets cut as well. Masters of Sex has so much going for it that it would be a shame to see it falter in season two. Introducing the always-solid Danny Huston as Masters’s new boss seems to be a very positive step in the right direction. Particularly when he expresses a great deal of (potentially lurid) interest in Masters’s study.
I can only imagine what perversions Huston is willing to explore, and it would be most interesting to see what happens to the show if Masters is given an unfettered supporter rather than a stereotypical opponent. Imagine the possibilities if the man who employed a dildo with a camera were given free reign.