Last night’s episode of MASTERS OF SEX had an unflinching and thrilling scene when Libby, in a frank and electric performance by Caitlin Fitzgerald, details all of her affairs to Bill after he barges into his former home with his soon-to-be ex-wife unannounced. The shock on his face is genuine, but as he explains later to his AA leader, Louise, how is supposed to feel upset over Libby lying to him when he’s also lied to her time and time again and caused irrevocable damage to their lives? It was a joy to watch Libby take a sort of satisfaction in her admissions to Bill, not least of all because of the way she has been treated by Bill over the seasons (but never the series — to the series’ credit, it has always propped up Libby as her own character with her own agency rather than just Bill’s wife, who he selfishly assumed would always be there for him, even if he wasn’t there for her), but also because of the exciting future she has ahead of herself (more as an individual coming into her own, rather than as a secretary for her divorce attorney, which she also became last night in, surprise surprise, the same building as Bill and Virginia’s practice).
Still, the scene also revealed something the writers need to work on over this season — the likability of their two lead characters. Luckily, actors Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan (who is also getting the best costumes this season) are more than up to the task as they continue making the characters enjoyable to watch, even through all of Bill and Virginia’s faults and imperfect personalities. But it’s hard to have much sympathy for either of them right now and that’s a tricky line to balance when you’re trying to be faithful to the characters and all their layers and complexities and yet not completely alienate them from the audience.
Was I supposed to feel bad for Bill when Libby admitted her affairs to him? Even with Sheen’s raw and broken expression, I don’t think so and I certainly didn’t. But eventually, as a viewer expecting satisfaction from what I put my time into watching, I want to be able to root for Bill and Virginia again — not as doctors and scientists, because I’ll always support the core of the work they do, just as the series also rightfully does, but as characters. I certainly don’t want to turn into a Tessa, who popped up again in last night’s episode only to berate her mother before leaving to live with her father (speaking of children popping up, Johnny also made a random appearance to tell Bill he wanted nothing to do with him, so he and Virginia have this going for them). Tessa isn’t a bad character in and of herself, but she was mishandled by the writers last season in the midst of all the other trip-ups, and that made her presence on the show heavy-handed and likely the show will be better off without all the extraneous characters of last season.
Like Dan, who, apparently, never actually married Virginia. Who knew? I definitely didn’t! It was revealed last night that Dan and Virginia never actually got married, but Virginia is keeping up the pretense as a protection for herself against Bill, which makes sense on paper but we all know isn’t going to last, especially when your episode ends with Bill and Virginia eyeing each other from across a table as The Turtles’ “Happy Together” starts playing into the credits (and reminding your audience exactly how much sizzling chemistry these two characters have). But until then, there’s plenty to explore first, such as how Dan and Virginia fell apart, which I’m sure we’ll get as the season continues (though likely without much from Josh Charles who is great but at this point unnecessary in the series).
The Dan reveal also came with another absolutely fantastic scene between Betty and Virginia, with the former delivering to the latter a bouquet of roses “apparently” from Dan in front of Bill. In just two episodes, Betty is killing it this season (although to be fair, there hasn’t been a season of this show that Betty hasn’t been a stand-out). It’s about time due course was given to Betty’s strength of character for keeping the clinic afloat and supporting Bill and Virginia and all of their messes. Plus, anything that requires Annleigh Ashford to play up the sarcasm in her biting humor is more than okay by me. I hope the show keeps it up with Betty this season.
Also in the office, Bill continues to treat the couple with a shoe/foot fetish issue in their bedroom life, alongside his new work partner, Nancy (who is calm, cool, and collected, and successfully gets under Virginia’s skin almost immediately, as I’m sure Bill intended because he and Virginia are equally, if nothing else, completely unprofessionally immature about these types of things). To successfully move past last season, this show needs to turn its focus back to the sex research and its main core of characters, which it seems to be doing so far. Watching Bill and Virginia interact with their patients can lead to some of the most rewarding scenes, in part because of the way it makes the show, on a larger scale, normalize a lot of aspects of sex that are still considered taboo in American culture in 2016. So getting back to the clinic will hopefully have a lot of good impacts, both for the individual characters but also for the larger messages and morals of the series.
Bill, of course, isn’t the only one with a new partner. Virginia also hires a new psychiatrist to work alongside her, which result in a sequence of fascinating but ultimately baffling scenes. She first tries to recruit her old therapist Dr. Madden (wonderfully played by John Billingsley) who us adamant in turning down her job offer and instead cuts her to the bone by revealing her pathological ability to rationalize dangerous behaviors. So what does Virginia do in turn? She sleeps with him, turns his own argument on him, and then snatches the job offer right off the table. These scenes played right into the writers’ problem of making Virginia a likable leading character, but they also had a crackling intensity about them that was fun to watch as a viewer. I’m not sure there will actually be any payoff from the scenes, so we’ll have to wait and see. With Dr. Madden no longer an option, Virginia instead hires Art Dreesen, who, on his first day, parks a few blocks away from the clinic with… Nancy (and a shared kiss) in tow. It seems the new partners have some secrets of their own, which Nancy decidedly did not reveal to Bill when they had their “completely honest” conversation about their own sexual histories (don’t worry, Bill lied to Nancy about his affair with Virginia, so everyone’s pretty even here).
Finally, the AA scenes are still struggling to find their footing and place within the season. Niecy Nash is wonderful, as always, but her scenes with Bill feel too constructed and inorganic to work as well as the rest of the scenes. But the series is trying again and that has to count for something.
Season 4, Episode 2 (S04E02)
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10PM on Showtime
Anya is a journalist with a passion for the following things, in no particular order: movies, history, dogs, musicals, and Disney parks. She lives her life attempting to embody Amy Poehler or Lauren Bacall on any given day.
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Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor