|Beau Bridges makes an indecent proposal (though not the one you think) in "Masters of Sex"|
“It’s a curious thing. I’ve always felt different from other women. Most women, they want love when they sleep with a man. But I’ve always been able to separate sex from love.”
I know it’s meant to be Virginia’s thesis statement, but if ever there was a single line to describe a complicated personal drama like Masters of Sex, it is this line. Every character is navigating the difficult world of sex and love, learning that one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, nor can the two necessarily be found together. But when they are, man do sparks fly.
I know this is fundamentally a series about William Masters and Virginia Johnson, but the stars these past two weeks have easily been Beau Bridges and Allison Janney as Provost Scully and his wife Margaret. These two obviously love each other deeply but the ugly truth is that he’s just not physically attracted to her. He’s gay. It’s not his fault, though he definitely hopes to change it, but it just doesn’t change the fact that the likelihood of the Scullys having a functional sexual relationship is close to nil. What makes it all the more heartbreaking is that each has managed to find a sexual partner with whom they can’t share love.
Dr. Langham offers Margaret a lot in terms of her sexual awakening, but he seems completely incapable of love. As his conversation with his therapist* demonstrates, Langham views women as sexual objects to be had and conquered. There is no way he can provide her with anything she needs outside of sex. Likewise, Barton’s self-loathing leaves him unable to believe that he can love Dale who, despite their financial relationship, clearly has developed feelings for the Provost. Sex and love don’t necessarily need to come together, but it’s clearly impossible for these two (and others on this show) to have fulfilling relationships with only one.
* Played by Alan Ruck in a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment.
The most fascinating aspect of the separation between sex and love is how problematic it makes Masters’s and Johnson’s research. They are all about quantifying the body’s response to sex. How much time does the subject spend in this phase or that phase? What is the likelihood of achieving orgasm in any given sexual position? These are questions that science, especially the science of the time, could answer. Love, attraction, and their effects on the body were (and still are in many cases) complete mysteries incapable even of being tested.
And so it is that, initially, Masters’s and Johnson’s “work” is extremely clinical. Their sex is not what we would typically define as “sexy” because it’s fraught with complicated, unanswered questions of intention. Is Masters only “getting some work in” (my new favorite euphemism for sex) because he’s not having sex with his wife? Is Virginia being coerced into a sexual relationship because of their relationship as employer and employee? Is she using Bill to receive preferential treatment (and a promotion) because of their now sexual relationship? This show is a 21st century HR rep’s worst nightmare.
Those questions aren’t hidden from Masters and Johnson, which is why it takes resolving most of them for their sex to become “sexy.” And even then, I wonder how much Masters is attracted to Johnson and how much of his attraction comes from the work. Clearly, Virginia is falling for Bill. But I don’t know that he’s actually reciprocating those feelings. What Bill loves most is his work and I don’t think he has enough love left to truly devote it to another person. Sure, he can offer a bit to his wife and maybe a bit to Virginia. But it’s no accident that in the final scene of “Love and Marriage,” Bill isn’t aroused by the woman wearing a bathrobe with whom he’s just had sex, but by the intravaginal film footage that he and Johnson are the first people in the world to see.
Virginia may be able to separate sex from love, but it’s clear that Masters of Sex views the two as, if not necessarily intertwined, then at least symbiotic, serving not just to complement but to enhance the other. It’s fascinating to watch these people try to find that symbiosis in their relationships.
A couple of spare thoughts –
The way this show deals with sex and nudity is mind-blowing to me. I’ve never before seen a show use sex as a narrative and character device the way Masters of Sex does. Just watch the two sex scenes between Bill and Virginia at the beginning and end of “All Together Now.” The first is cold and clinical while the second is downright hot. This tells a story that goes so far beyond these two scenes, but shows how their emotional relationships (and the resolving of the aforementioned troubling questions) freed them to experience a deeper level of passion.
There’s also Margaret and Barton’s scene in her bedroom. Her nudity in that scene shows so much vulnerability (not to mention her instinct to cover up in front of her husband) and the fact that Barton doesn’t look anywhere but her eyes tells her all she needs to know about his attraction to her or, more fittingly, his lack of attraction. It is really a beautiful scene that actually requires nudity to be as powerful as it is, as opposed to a scene in which nudity is included just to titillate.
While most of the couples in the story are struggling to find a combination of sex and love, Haas seems to have gotten it in spades. He seems a little reluctant to embrace those new feelings, but I genuinely like where he’s headed with Vivian.
I want to isolate Finn Wittrock for his marvelous work in that final scene with Barton. There are so many great actors on this show that it can be easy for one with such a relatively small part to get lost. But his delivery of that parting shot was amazing.
Masters and Johnson had a complicated relationship with homosexuality and conversion therapy, though it didn’t come until later in their careers. I like that they’re dealing with it now, though, because it’s an interesting aspect to their story and wouldn’t the show to get canceled before they can deal with it (relax, the show has already been renewed for next season).
There’s so much other great material in these two episodes that I just can’t get to (Libby’s pregnancy, her African-American ad hoc dance instructor, Dr. DePaul’s cervical cancer, and Bill’s attempts to sabotage Virginia’s education just to name a few). I’m hoping that these storylines will stick around so that I can discuss them in more detail later.
“There’s only one person who gets to be sickened by me and that’s me. Everybody else can go fuck themselves.”
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