I’ve frequently lamented the fact that Masters of Sex has more supporting characters than it knows what to do with and maintained that trimming the fat is all the show needs to go from good to great.
But boy, was I happy to see Barton Scully again.
Even if it was just for one scene towards the end of the season finale to reiterate the episode’s theme—letting go of facades and trusting in your partner—it was good to see the show’s most compelling minor character make his return. Watching Bill and Virginia try to treat Lester and Barbara’s sexual dysfunction is interesting, but what makes Barton’s story so strong is the fact that he can’t be cured, that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him. He’s a victim of his time, a perfectly healthy man born into an era of bigotry that saw homosexuality to be at worst unspeakably deviant behavior and at best some sort of embarrassing disease.
But, barring any more potential time-jumps, that’s the era we’re dealing with on Masters of Sex, and the shame and ignorance associated with all things sexual manifest themselves this week with CBS’ edited piece on Bill and Virginia’s study. The network shies away from even saying the word “sex” on TV, which obviously poses some problems when presenting Bill and Virginia’s work. Virginia sees the piece as a necessary evil, one that will help them beat Joseph Kaufman (who is about to publish his findings in a book, Man and Sex), but Bill can only see a neutered version of their work. By the episode’s end, we find out he sabotaged the piece after getting his hands on an advance copy of Man and Sex—which he discovers pales in comparison to his own work—and setting up an interview with Kaufman and his assistant (who—SURPRISE!—is Dr. Ethan Haas) on a rival network with some help from Barton. It’s a genius move for him, but once again he’s failed to consider that Virginia depends on him. Bill’s always been Don Draper-like in that regard, making impulsive decisions without any consideration for the effect they’ll have on those around him, but the stakes feel higher here than ever.
That’s because Virginia has sacrificed her children for her relationship with Bill and the study. After she denies George’s request to have a few extra days a week with the kids, he lawyers up and informs her that he’s prepared to take her to court and question her fitness as a mother. He’ll bring up the study, painting it as salaciously as possible, of course, and most importantly, he’ll bring up her affair with Bill. Rather than risk all of that coming to light, Virginia gives up her kids, awarding George primary custody and limiting her time with them to one night a week. This is one of Lizzy Caplan’s strongest episodes to date, whether she’s somehow simultaneously frantic and eerily calm as she explains her decision to Bill or silently weeping on the phone before swallowing the emotion and offering a cheery “hello?” or finally losing it after the CBS piece gets killed. The fact that George—who has been out of the picture for a long time and just returned from six weeks in Europe—was able to figure out that Virginia and Bill are sleeping together doesn’t exactly bode well for their secret, and sure enough, later in the episode we get thrown another curveball: Libby knows too.
Not only does she know, she’s known for years. She offers this little tidbit up while in bed with Robert as she tries to convince him to continue their affair. She’s tired of pretending, tired of holding onto a life she doesn’t have, and she’s ready to let go and let herself look for love outside her marriage. The knowledge of Bill’s affair with Virginia is a pretty big bombshell, one that, coupled with Libby’s ongoing affair with Robert, seems to signal the imminent end to the Masters’ marriage. We don’t know exactly how much Libby knows—she only mentions that her husband has been having an affair for years, but there’s no indication of whether or not she’s aware that the affair has been with Virginia—but we do know Masters of Sex is headed to a brave new world, one where Kennedy (who not-so-subtlely ended the episode by declaring “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans”) is president and all of its primary characters are willing to take leaps of faith and trust that their respective partners will be enough to carry them through season three.
—It was nice to see Flo rejecting Langham for once (implying he’s nothing more than a pretty face), but these two characters continue to feel completely useless to me. Here’s hoping we see much less of them next season.
—The parallel between solving Bill’s impotence by getting him out of his own head, taking away the pressure to perform and just letting it happen naturally and everything that happened with Libby and everyone else this episode was nice, if a bit heavy-handed.
—So is Ethan back now? Part of me hopes not, but I have to admit, it’d be an interesting twist.
—Maybe it’s because it started with him walking out to get the paper, but Bill’s dream sequence had a similar feel to some of Tony’s dreams on The Sopranos.
— “It has all the gravitas of a toothpaste commercial.”
—That’s Jack Laufer, who played Don’s accountant on Mad Men, as Herb the divorce lawyer, in case you’re keeping track of how many former Mad Men actors have cropped up on this show so far (by my count, we’re up to three now).