Masters of Sex falls into something of a more routine pattern this week after the last two episodes hurtled the drama at breakneck pace. The danger in returning to the norm is that there is something of an unavoidable letdown after the intoxicating feats the show gracefully undertook. This week’s episode – Mirror, Mirror – is still nonetheless accomplished and sets the stage for the run up into the finale.
It’s just that the Sex doesn’t feel as thrilling when you’re sticking to the usual.
The overall theme of the episode mirrors the slightly altered direction of the Masters and Johnson practice: basically, their shift from observing successful sex acts to cataloguing (and potentially curing) sexual dysfunction. The poster child of this shift has to be Barbara (Betsy Brandt) who has struck a chord in Virginia Johnson after discovering she suffers from vaginismus, an involuntary tightness of the vagina that causes pain during sex.
After much discussion, Virginia awakens repressed memories within Barbara of a teenage sexual relationship with her brother and its discovery by their mother. Barbara’s issues with sex clearly stem from this trauma, and Virginia, a budding psychologist, is clearly fascinated by the connection. So much so, in fact, that she poses as Barbara and attends a therapy session with a noted St. Louis psychologist.
The storyline is touching and fits well into the general direction the show seems to take. I’m not thrilled with Brandt’s constant wild-eyed performance here, but I was never a fan of hers on Breaking Bad either. The important take-away here is Virginia’s constant breaking of the doctor-patient boundaries: seeking out Barbara at her job, allowing Barbara to visit her home late at night, and attending a psychotherapy session as Barbara herself.
The character of Virginia Johnson has always been fashioned as a pioneer, a woman who uses her natural intelligence and curiosity to break into a male-dominated profession. But given that her latest exploits are most assuredly problematic, I wonder how much the writers are going to let her slide.
The other major event of the episode is the unsurprising introduction of Tony-winner Christian Borle as “Francis Holden,” Bill Masters’ estranged brother. The episode is structured around the mysterious Holden’s attempts to work through infertility treatments with Masters in early morning appointments and rushed lab evaluations. The problem with this is that nearly every piece of Season Two publicity has revealed Borle’s involvement in the series as the brother of Bill Masters, so the gradual reveal of the relationship between Masters and Holden serves little purpose.
What’s more interesting are the reasons behind their estrangement. Is Holden a half-brother? Did he suffer similar torments at the hands of their father? Since Holden and Masters both suffer from low sperm count, a genetic condition, then we can only guess their familial relationship is relatively close. I’m hoping there will be more to the story than the attempt to heal Bill Masters’ soul by restoring severed family bonds. We’ve been down this path before with his mother.
In other minor plots, Libby Masters is revealed to have extraordinary insight into her place in the world (and, thus, the show itself). She confesses to Bill that their lives (and the show) have revolved around him and his sex study, of which she has little to no involvement. Where does she belong in his story (and, thus, the show itself)? It was as if the clouds had parted and the sun appeared for the first time.
Of course, the resolution to this issue is to have Libby once again bear the racial sensitivity storyline. After volunteering to raise advertisement dollars for a local charity event (the completely unsettling and bizarre Veiled Prophet ball, a high society event that looks and feels like a sanctioned Klu Klux Klan rally), she partially witnesses the beating of a prominent African-American man.
Coral’s brother, Robert, recognizes her and begs her to step forward and share what she knows of the event as local news and police assume that the beating was a drug deal gone south. Taking on the mantle of white guilt mixed with a dash of bored housewife, Libby approaches Robert in his boarding house and agrees to help out. Your guess is as good as mine as to where this goes, but, for once, I’m happy to have Libby doing something that isn’t outwardly offensive and evil.
I’ll take this over lice any day.
Finally, the comedy in the episode comes not so much from Betty (who is given a relatively minor role this episode revolving around the Masters clinic’s pending tax audit – oh how you’ve fallen Betty) but from the budding relationship between Flo, the Cal-o-Metric saleswoman, and Dr. Austin Langham, Cal-o-Metric’s new spokesman. Flo makes very thinly veiled passes at Austin during a foot examination: she offers up her curves and he tells her to have surgery and lose weight.
These scenes are mostly harmless, but it does bring to light why Flo and her Cal-o-Metric business have stuck around after Virginia stopped selling the supplement. I am hoping the writers don’t go down the path of absolving Austin of his former, lothario sins by having him fall in love with an overweight woman. It would be wrong-headed and offensive, much like the head lice that plagued Libby Masters.
So, ultimately, Mirror, Mirror serves as the bridge episode into the last quarter of the season, and a decent bridge it is. The problem is that I can’t comfortably predict what lies on the other side of this bridge. Given the shows mixed history with supporting stories, I’m hoping it’s a place we want to go.