During the decades that MASTERS OF SEX takes place, sex was in an interesting societal position. It wasn’t publicly discussed much and there were many stigmas and attitudes attached to it (as expressed in various scenes throughout this series so far). Part of Masters and Johnson’s work, at least through the lens of the show, tries to normalize sex and its many aspects, especially in regards to female pleasure, desires, and “issues.” Sex is never shamed — Bill and Virginia may come at it from a scientific point of view, at least with the work, but there is also a genuine belief on their part of making very liberal progress when it comes to sex and society. The show itself holds the same type of power. Sex is still something of a taboo in American culture, as I discussed last week. It’s especially evident in movie ratings, where brutal violence can earn a PG-13, but consensual sex earns an R (or in extreme cases, an NC-17). This series, just like its lead characters, has the stage to present commentary and try and shift conversations, but it’s not an easy task to accomplish and I am all at once curious, eager, and wary of the series pursuing this avenue.
Last night, the show presented two aspects of a sexual life that it hasn’t yet explored yet: phone sex and BDSM culture. We’ll take the former first as it’s the far easier one to unpack.
Libby meets a new potential love interest (just as she seems to do every season, although none have proven to be as interesting or as charismatic as Season 2’s Robert), played by David Walton. There’s an instant attraction between them and their quasi-phone sex is new territory for Libby. It’s a much tamer new aspect of sex for the series to explore, but one that still represents the larger attitude of the show. It’s also a fun character move for Libby as she becomes more adventurous and bold in her newly single life. Of course, it also sets up potential conflict as Walton’s Abe is also the lawyer representing Bill’s clinic in their legal troubles.
In the office, Bill and Nancy take on a pair of new patients who seem to have a fairly straightforward issue: the husband prefers milder sex, but the wife wants things to be a little rougher and for her husband to take more control. She saw a 1965 movie The Defiler, a real movie, and it sparked something inside of her — but when she showed her husband, he was appalled and thought his wife was a sexual deviant. Bill assumes the wife suffered some trauma to inspire these desires in her (a misconception about BDSM culture, but one that is appropriate for the character, the time, and the plot of this episode) and he’s half right. There’s a history of trauma, but it’s with the husband, not the wife.
Bill and Nancy observe the couple as the husband lightly spanks the wife, but this soon turns into rough spanking, which in turn evolves into the husband flipping the wife over as he chokes her and screams “What do you want from me?” It’s a powerful and raw scene — something I’m grateful this show has never shied away from but has also treated with respect and dignity and never as shock-value — as both husband and wife are completely horrified by what has transpired. The scene is too close to home for Bill, with Michael Sheen delivering some truly wonderful acting, and he crosses the line and asks Virginia for help on the case. She responds with compassion and an affirmation that she will help. It’s the closest we’ve seen these characters in a while (to say nothing of their dance in the beginning at Hugh Hefner’s request at the Playboy Mansion) and there were undeniable sparks and heartstring tugs — I can’t wait to see how they find their way back one another. I also hope the series continues pursuing this plot. Sheen is never better than when he’s playing the wounded, compassionate, and emotionally raw Bill Masters (even when it is difficult to elicit sympathy for the character) and there’s plenty of potential for truly elevated television here.
As Bill continues grappling with his own inner demons (there are multiple instances in the episode where he’s shown watching the video of Virginia masturbating from the first season, before he throws out the footage at the end), a truth has been revealed in the office: Nancy and Art are married. Bill is upset at first and discusses this with Virginia. They decide to keep them on as partners, but with a stern warning. I’m still not sure what Nancy and Art’s endgame is here — it’s been openly acknowledged that they’re in an open marriage, but it’s not clear what their ulterior motives (because they definitely have them) are towards Bill and Virginia and the clinic.
Another reveal of the episode (it was full of them) was how Virginia and Dan didn’t get married. Basically, she set up Dan “accidentally” discovering her in bed with another man. But she has conflicting feelings because it’s shown she’s been leaving emotional voicemails for him, except this backfires on her as Dan is back with his wife Alice (Judy Greer) and she’s heard all of them. Greer is a revelation in this episode — from her brutally honest conversation with Virginia, to revealing to Bill at an AA meeting that Virginia and Dan aren’t married, she is absolutely fantastic and sets many plots in motion. It is interesting that the show decided to reveal so much this episode (Nancy and Art’s marriage, Virginia’s sham of a marriage) and not prolong it for drama’s sake. I’m curious to see where they take it all.
There were other smaller plots in the episode (Betty’s blast from the past and Virgina taking random men to bed to test multiple orgasms for women), but they paled in comparison to the great character work of the episode. Masters of Sex is getting back to its roots and I hope it keeps it up because I couldn’t be happier to have this show back with its top form in grasping distance.
Season 4, Episode 3 (S04E03)
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