Monday, July 14, 2014

Masters of Sex Season Premiere Review: "Parallax" - Fathers and Sons

Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan have a difficult conversation in "Masters of Sex"

It’s entirely coincidental that I watched the Battlestar Galactica finale last night.  I’ve been rewatching the series for the first time since purchasing the Blu-ray set a few years ago and one line from that finale always makes the room a little dusty.  As Gaius Baltar is surveying the landscape with Caprica Six, he tells her, “You know, I know about farming.”  This man, who has spent his entire life avoiding becoming his father, the farmer, going so far as to change his native accent to obscure his origins, now seems almost grateful for the opportunity to cast aside the visage and put his hands in the dirt. 

Men can never really escape their fathers’ influence, whether they want to be like their fathers or desperately want to be anything but.  And that’s where we find Bill Masters in the stunning second season premiere of Masters of Sex.  He is a man trying desperately to escape the shadow of his father but finding the prospect much more difficult than he previously imagined.  He is intensely devoted to his work, to the detriment of his family.  He is cheating (or at least cheated) on his wife.  The sounds of his crying child do nothing more than annoy him.  This was supposed to be his pinnacle: Published study, doting spouse, perfect son.  Instead, he’s jobless, sleeping on the couch, and unable to make even the barest of emotional connections.

Bill thus finds himself turning into his father not out of any active attempts to be terrible, but because he lets inertia take over.  The failure of his study (or at least of the medical community to embrace his study) and the loss of his job have derailed him.  Not that he was ever a particularly great husband or would have been a decent father, but without his work to serve as a stabilizing force in his life, Bill is left adrift. 

He does still have Virginia, however.  Their night together following the events of last season’s finale serves as a refrain as the episode keeps returning to that night in order to show us different points of view.  For Bill, their night of sex is cathartic: a release of all the pent-up emotion and guilt he’s felt for the last few years.  He literally falls into her arms.  He claws at her, pulls her down, desperate to feel a physical connection.  It’s telling how much of their encounter we see from his perspective and how little we see from hers.  Virginia is clearly not into the sex (at least not until the end), and the episode shows us that.  It’s a marvelous bit of filmmaking that takes into the heads of our two main characters without any dialogue.

The truth is that Virginia doesn’t love Bill (or at least isn’t willing to admit it), a fact that absolutely crushes Masters.  Sheen’s face as Virginia tells Bill that “it is a rare man who can understand how a woman could choose work over love” is heartbreaking.  The emotions there – devastation, fear, resignation – are beautifully played, making me wonder once again how Sheen didn’t score an Emmy nomination.  I’ve seen enough television to know that this probably isn’t the end for Masters’s and Johnson’s intimate relationship, but for now it’s clear that he is interested in a sexual relationship while she is not.

Elsewhere, I was a little surprised to see Beau Bridges and Allison Janney still on the show, given that both now have network sitcoms (for which Janney was nominated for an Emmy last week).  I’m glad to still see them here, though, because I could frankly watch an entire series following Burton and Margaret Scully.  Their love for each other is so plain, so obvious, but Burton just can’t find her attractive.  He’s trying so hard, but the electrotherapy and the gay pornography are just hiding the obvious: that this is a relationship that will never be physical in the way either wants.

Unfortunately, Bridges and Janney aren’t the only supporting actors who found other work between seasons.  Rose McIver will be on the CW’s iZombie this fall, so the Scullys' story might be brief.  Heléne York is headed to Broadway, so Jane is following her boyfriend to Hollywood.  And Ann Dowd is currently starring in every show on television including The Leftovers and The Divide, so Bill’s mother is shipped back home.  Thankfully, Dr. Langham and his apparently magical penis are still around, this time sleeping with his wife’s sister, leading to the wonderfully hilarious scene in which his wife, Elise, announces this fact over the hospital PA while Langham hides in an office.  We saw last year that Teddy Sears is capable of doing dramatic work as well, but I’m never going to say "no" to Langham getting in trouble for his philandery. 

Because of the changing cast, “Parallax’s” secondary stories felt like a lot of piece-moving, but the core relationship between Masters and Johnson is as beautiful as ever.  I named Masters of Sex as my fourth-best show of 2013 and it appears to be picking up right where it left off.

A couple of spare thoughts –

DePaul is enigmatic as ever, not even really revealing the cause of her black eye to Johnson.  She was a late addition to the show last year, and with Masters and Johnson moving their study to another hospital I can easily see her falling through the cracks, which I hope doesn’t happen.

Libby, as always, is great trying to hold everything together and even getting Bill to where he needs to be in order to get a new hospital to take on his research.  Caitlin Fitzgerald is fantastic in this role and I really want to see her do more than act as the nagging wife.  She’s capable of so much more than that.

Posts for Masters of Sex might be a little sporadic this summer because Sunday is such a busy night and I work Mondays, but I’m hoping to have one up at least every other week, if not weekly.

Tyler Williams is a professional librarian and an amateur television critic.  You can reach him tytalkstv AT gmail DOT com or Twitter @TyTalksTV.

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