Monday, December 2, 2013

Masters of Sex Review: "Involuntary" and "Fallout" - A Matter of Time

Julianne Nicholson and Lizzy Caplan take cover in "Masters of Sex"

I have a problem with Masters of Sex.  It’s not a huge problem and it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the show, but it does affect my understanding of the characters, their motivations, and their relationships.  You see, Masters of Sex has a problem with time.  That is, there are very few markers indicating the passage of time.  For example, how long were Vivian and Ethan dating?  A few weeks?  Months?  Years?  How long has it been since the end of last week’s episode, when Ethan consoled Virginia, and the beginning of this week’s episode, where they’re dating, at least casually?  We get some clues.  Virginia says it’s been “weeks” since Bill offered her money for the study, but she only says that it took her weeks to realize why Bill had tried to pay her.  Other context clues indicate that it’s June, but it must be at least 1958 then, unless Libby managed to get pregnant, have a miscarriage, and then get pregnant again in a period of four months (the third episode takes place in February 1957).

The reason this is a problem, for me anyway, is that most of the emotional drama in this show is based on relationships and relationships change with time.  Did Scully scuttle Ethan’s permanent job at the hospital after he and Vivian had been dating for a couple of months or for more than a year?  It may not make a great deal of difference to the narrative of the show, but it certainly gives us a different understanding of Provost Scully’s character, depending on which circumstance he’s reacting to.  And it’s even more important given that we don’t see or hear from him at all in this episode.

Ethan’s breakup with Vivian and his potential firing from the hospital is just one example of the problems caused by the show’s tenuous relationship with time.  It’s not a deal-breaker in any sense, but it’s frustrating because everything else about this show is amazing.  I’ve backed my reviews down to every other week recently not because I’ve liked the show less, but because the themes and stories the show is playing with seem to work much better in episode pairs.  The two episodes preceding “Involuntary” both dealt with the problems created when sex and love aren’t paired.  Likewise, “Involuntary” and “Fallout” both deal with what happens when people lie about their desires.

Obviously, the biggest development is the breakdown of Bill’s and Virginia’s relationship, leading to her resignation at the end of “Fallout”.  As Virginia presciently points out, Libby’s pregnancy clearly reminds Bill of his duty to his wife and clues him in to the fact that he is not treating Virginia as a research partner but is, in fact, developing feelings for her.  The whole affair is predictable and sordid, but the fallout is devastating as Bill tries to pay Virginia for her work in the study, revealing that he truly doesn’t see her as a legitimate researcher, but as nothing more than an assistant.  And the way it all unravels to the acknowledgement that their relationship wasn’t just research but an actual affair is played fantastically by both Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan. 

But Masters and Johnson aren’t the only ones lying to themselves and others.  While the religious differences are the proximate cause of Ethan’s breakup with Vivian, the deeper problem is that he never really jumped into their relationship, she pushed him every step of the way.  Vivian is the one who convinced Ethan that she could handle a casual hookup and then she pushed him into a relationship.  After that, she basically moved in with him and became a pseudo-housewife without really even consulting him.  Ethan may have bought the ring, but it was Vivian who jumped on the proposal.  She’s been the driving force in this relationship the entire time and it took until Ethan was finally forced to change something about himself that he was willing to admit that he had never been chasing Vivian, she had been dragging him along.  It’s a brutal, but honest, end to a relationship I was really beginning to enjoy.

With only two episodes left this season, the status quo has very much been upset, with Virginia working for Dr. DePaul in her attempts to push through the proposal for regular gynecological exams for women, Bill alone in his research, and Haas apparently about to be let go from the university.  Masters of Sex isn’t a terribly plot-heavy show, but it’s capable of weaving stories that always leave me wanting more.

A couple of spare thoughts –

The whole business with the Civil Defense Drill in “Fallout” felt very out of place.  This isn’t a show, like Mad Men, in which real-world events play a prominent role.  Certainly, events like this would help my time-tracking problem, but it all just felt very out of character for the show and didn’t even provide a decent framing device, instead only serving to make sure that nothing that happened in the hospital was routine.

That Bill seemed so blasé to one of his subjects getting pregnant surprised me.  They must have known that this was a possibility (hell, a probability given the number of participants and the apparent failure rate of the period’s contraceptives).  One of the principle concerns of clinical research (nowadays at least) is that the participants must be made aware of any possible consequences from the study.  Clearly, that wasn’t the case here.  I’m not terribly interested in the fact Dr. Langham is the father (other than to snicker at his enthusiasm for the study given the number of times he’s apparently participated), but the show may yet get some leverage out of this storyline.

I’m beginning to like Johnson and DePaul as a pairing.  They’re far and away the strongest women on the show and I hope they stick together for a while.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Anne Dudek in the opening scene and then utterly dismayed that she got only one line.  It was a very confusing cameo.

Unless something momentous happens in next week’s episode, I’ll likely stick to the schedule I have for the last several weeks and just post a review after the season finale in two weeks.

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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