Monday, October 7, 2013

Masters of Sex Review: "Race to Space" - Motherhood in Trio

Libby deserves far better than her husband in "Masters of Sex"

“As for the burdens of maternity, they assume widely varying importance according to the customs of the country: they are crushing if the woman is obliged to undergo frequent pregnancies and if she is compelled to nurse and raise the children without assistance; but if she procreates voluntarily and if society comes to her aid during pregnancy and is concerned with child welfare, the burdens of maternity are light and can be easily offset by suitable adjustments in working conditions.” – Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

With a title like Masters of Sex, you would expect the show to be about sex.  But right now it seems to be a show about love and motherhood.  And I’m okay with that. 

The leading quotation comes from The Second Sex, the book Heléne York’s Jane was reading in “Race to Space,” the second episode of this fascinating new Showtime series.  It isn’t the passage she quoted, but it’s a fascinating (and oft-repeated) discussion of the burden of motherhood, particularly the burden of single motherhood.  We get a good look at that burden this week as Johnson tries to balance the job she’s trying to save with the children she doesn’t have time to care for.  She’s clearly much more fascinated by her work with Masters than with her children, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  But it’s clear that she's cut by her first babysitter’s words, with their implication that she should be making more of an effort to care for her children.  That’s not even mentioning the other implication in the scene: Who babysits for the babysitter?

Then the new babysitter has a much better time with the children and it turns out that it’s all because she took an interest in their wants and needs.  She doesn’t see Henry’s comics as frivolous entertainment, but as a way of establishing an alternate universe, and a universe that can tell Virginia just as much about Henry (and Masters) as it tells Henry about the world.

I can’t say that I know much of what it’s like to be a single mother, but I can’t imagine it being any easier in 1957 than it is today, especially when you’re constantly surrounded by other women telling you that you should be home raising your children.  Johnson has clearly found a career avenue that she enjoys and that can better her life and the lives of her children.  But how can she invest the time she needs to build that career when society is telling her that she isn’t deserving of society’s aid, but should instead subvert her own will for the good of her children?  It’s an issue that women, especially single mothers, deal with still today.  As I said in last week’s review, Virginia Johnson is a woman far ahead of her time and it’s fascinating watching her try to navigate a world to which she’s so ill-suited.

While Johnson is dealing with the “burden of maternity,” Libby and Betty are both mired in the burden of fertility.  It’s incredibly painful to watch Libby struggle with her “infertility,” knowing that her dick of a husband is a) the cause and b) lying to her about it.  She clearly loves her husband and wants to give him what he desires.  The problem, though, is that it is just as clear that William hasn’t the slightest idea of what his desires are.  His research seems driven by the fact that, despite being the country’s foremost expert on the science of maternity, he has absolutely no idea how passion, love, and desire work.  The fact that he doesn’t deny Libby’s assertion as to his voyeuristic tendencies says a great deal about him.  Masters doesn’t understand even his own sexual impulses and it’s killing his marriage.

Betty, meanwhile, seems to have found what every secretary is looking for, at least if Mad Men is to be believed.  She’s got the rich man desperate to marry her and start cranking out children.  It’s every woman’s dream.  Unless, of course, that woman is gay and infertile by choice.  That Betty would even consider this arrangement shows just how strong such social pressure was on women in the 1950s.

What draws me in to Masters of Sex is how the women all seem to know exactly what they want and could get it, if only society and the egos of men would allow them.  The men, on the other hand, are terribly inept when it comes to the desires of women.  Masters is completely incapable of seeing how badly Libby wants just to be loved and desired by her husband.  Ethan is desperate to recreate the experience he had with Virginia but doesn’t seem to realize that if he could have been as casual with her as he is with the other co-workers he’s bedding, he wouldn’t need to be sleeping around.  And Dr. DePaul’s complete misreading of Jane’s interest in him (versus her interest in science) would be infuriating if it weren’t so sad.

Watching all of these intelligent men bumbling around while the women take all that they’re allowed just makes me love this show more.  And it makes me long for the day when Betty can live openly gay, when Libby can have a real fertility doctor tell her she’s okay, and when Virginia can go to work without having people (especially women) telling her that she should be home with her children.

A couple of spare thoughts –
Can we talk about the credits for a second?  I have never seen a more incongruous title sequence in a premium cable show.  Even The Newsroom’s insanely over-the-top first season credits made sense given what Aaron Sorkin thought the show was.  Here, though, we get a mix of Dexter-ish music, a series of sexual innuendo and double entendre clips (petting a cat, buttering a muffin, somebody washing a cucumber, an exploding volcano, etc.), and a pair of animated teens kissing on a bench.  What’s so great about many of the HBO and Showtime title sequences, even the lesser of them (like True Blood and Boardwalk Empire), is that they’re at least good at setting the mood for the hour that’s to come.  The tone of these credits is completely disjointed from the tone of the show and it’s a little jarring, even if I did watch them three times.

The daydreams, or visions, or whatever you want to call them (as Masters and Johnson each envision her response to his indecent proposal) were at first a little off-putting, but eventually fit in nicely. 

“Normally we’ve got naked coochies lined up along the sink, but it’s slow.”

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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