The third season premiere of Masters of Sex ended with an odd disclaimer: “This program is about the important achievements of Masters and Johnson. The children Tessa, Henry, Johnny and Jenny are entirely fictitious.” Presumably this was a legal move—the Masters and Johnson children haven’t signed over the rights to their stories, and with yet another time jump (this time to 1965), the fictitious characters are now old enough where this distinction needs to be made.
But it’s that first sentence that’s a little jarring. This is a program about the important achievements of Masters and Johnson, but you often wouldn’t know it with all the unnecessary tertiary characters shoved in, or the constant hurdles tossed in the way of their relationship. And while the action in “Parliament of Owls” is framed by professional achievement—the press conference revealing Bill and Virginia’s book, Human Sexual Response—most of the action comes from flashbacks to four months prior, with Bill, Virginia and Libby navigating their complicated family lives during a vacation at the lake.
Thanks to the four-year leap, Virginia’s children are both full-blown teenagers, and it’s freaking her out to the point where (despite having co-authored a book about sex), she’s begging Bill to talk to 15-year-old Tessa about sex and accidentally walking in on 17-year-old Henry going at it with his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Bill’s kids have grown in numbers—there are three of them now, so apparently he and Libby figured out a solution to their fertility issues. Johnny, in particular, is affected by Bill’s ice-cold parenting. He finally snaps after catching Bill in a compromising position with Tessa (who had gotten into the liquor cabinet and drunkenly tried to kiss him as he tried to help her…yikes), yelling “You never kiss Mommy” and throwing Bill’s precious book galleys into the lake.
On the one hand, it makes sense that these kids would be used to illustrate Bill’s continued struggles with parenthood. When he raises a fist to Johnny before stopping himself and offering a resigned “you’re grounded,” we’re meant to understand that he recognizes his abusive father in himself and is trying his best to avoid going down that road. And Virginia’s inability to relate to her kids after surrendering custody of them four years ago makes sense as well. But to put such focus on them after two seasons of treating them like window dressing doesn’t make much sense for an already overcrowded show. Are we supposed to care that Henry’s joining the Army right as Vietnam’s escalating, or that Tessa’s a drunk hormonal mess? Probably, but I can’t muster the energy for their storylines just yet.
Even the Bill/Virginia/Libby love triangle is beginning to feel tiresome. We learn right off the bat that the affair has continued into 1965, with Bill and Virginia in bed together as Patsy Cline’s “You Belong to Me” less-than-subtly plays in the background. In the flashbacks, they arrive at the lakehouse together, with poor Libby stuck as a third wheel. Bill would rather sleep outside than share a bed with his wife, and as a result, she has become a pill-popping ball of anxiety. When she climbs into bed with Virginia to discuss her marital troubles, she plants a kiss on her and admits that she has “always wondered what it felt like with you.” It’s an extremely weird moment, and it’s obvious that Libby is so desperate for a connection with someone—anyone—that she’ll even settle for her husband’s mistress. What happened to Robert? What happened to the newly empowered Libby at the end of last season who finally seemed comfortable with her own needs?
In real life, Bill Masters stayed married to his first wife until 1971. This show has already relied a little too heavily on time jumps, but here’s hoping for one more; there’s no way Masters of Sex can trudge through six more years of sad-sack Libby being trapped in an unhappy marriage. This is, after all, allegedly a show about the important achievements of Masters and Johnson.
—The twist at the end of the episode (that Virginia’s PREGNANT, possibly with her ex-husband’s baby, possibly with Bill’s) feels super unnecessary. Don’t Bill and Virginia have enough to deal with?
—Also, does Bill just make a habit of following Virginia into the bathroom or something? The first time made sense because she ran in there panicky and crying, but the second time? Just puke. Give a girl some privacy, Bill.
—Fun fact: when Virginia was playing Life with the kids, she named her daughter Lisa, the name of Virginia Johnson’s real-life daughter. Nice allusion to those non-fictitious kids.
— “There is no universe where fear is a barrier worth preserving.”
—We only see Lester for a few seconds this episode, but it’s mentioned in passing that he’s having trouble at home. Does this mean we’ve seen the last of Betsy Brandt’s Barbara?