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Masters of Sex Recap: Home Studies

Annaleigh Ashford as Betty and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex (season 1, episode 2) - Photo: Peter Iovino/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MastersofSex_102_0592

Last week’s premiere rapidly sketched out the groundwork for a whole bunch of interconnected plotlines. At moments, it felt like it was speeding through the material, almost as if to say to the audience: If a show about sex isn’t enough to grab your interest, it’s also about sexism! And there’s domestic drama! And lots of doctors! And also more sex!

So it was a bit of a relief that the second episode slowed down and focused on deepening the existing story lines rather than continuing to rush forward at such a quick pace. We also got to meet Virginia’s kids, Coke-bottle glasses and all, and see the brothel to which Masters is forced to move his study. By the way, so Victorian-looking, that brothel! My familiarity with late fifties brothel décor is admittedly limited, but I was expecting something more functional and a little less promiscuous-lady-tribe-hanging-around-on-sagging-couches-making-bawdy-jokes-in-lingerie-amid-fringed-lampshades.

In any case, our first glimpse of the brothel is actually in the kitchen, where a man is getting fed baby food while wearing a diaper and what appears to be a fez. Perhaps adult baby syndrome really did exist back in the fifties, although the Internet tells me sexologists didn’t get around to studying it until a few decades later, so presumably no one really knows. In spite of the scene’s factual accuracy or lack thereof, it reminds us that studying masturbation, controversial as it may have been in Masters’s day, hardly scratches the surface of the varied ways humans experience desire. Also, that while Americans by and large put up a publicly prudish front in the fifties, this didn’t mean people only had sex missionary style. It just meant there was a divide between people’s urges and their ability to acknowledge them, sometimes even to themselves. A prime example of this, obviously, is Masters, who feels such shame about his sexual impulses he can only pursue them under the guise of something he considers legitimate — namely, science. Unfortunately, all this inner contorting results in him acting like a complete asshole much of the time.

The show starts out, after all, with Virginia desperately trying to figure out how to respond to Masters’s request to sleep with her. She needn’t have bothered, because once she makes it to the office, Masters doesn’t even give her the chance to discuss the matter before telling her the provost has shut the study down, that he blames her and that she’s fired. It’s never clear how the provost found out — Masters blames Ethan, but when Virginia asks him about it, Ethan believably claims to have no idea what she’s talking about. As the episode went on, though, I started to wonder if the provost found out through channels we haven’t learned about yet, and maybe Masters even knows this. More than anything else, it looks like Masters fired Virginia simply because he didn’t know how to handle the impact of his inappropriate demand. Apparently he not only feels the need to suppress his own urges, but to punish other people for them too.

This is just one of the many crappy things Masters does over the course of the hour. He also continues to let his wife think she’s barren, even though he’s the one “shooting blanks,” as Ethan puts it. And when Betty tells him she wants him to reverse her tubal ligation, he makes it clear he doesn’t think she deserves to be a mother. “This doesn’t even sound like you,” Virginia says about Masters’s resistance to the operation, but she often gives him too much credit. His dedication to scientific “objectivity” is clearly more selective than he would like to admit. He’ll happily use it as a foil for his erotic inclinations, but he’ll also set it aside when it suits him.

Of course he’s not the only man on the show to try to couch his sexual appetites in ways he thinks will be more palatable to the women in his life. “Think of it as a kiss,” Ethan tells the nurse he is trying to talk into giving him a blow job. “This is also for science, just more like home studies,” the doctor tells the secretary, trying to convince her they should keep having sex even though the “couples” study has been suspended. At least the secretary is wise to what’s going on — she responds to the doctor’s proposition by reading him a passage from The Second Sex. (His eyes glaze over once he realizes that instead of being a book geared to male fantasy, it’s actually about female empowerment.)

The women in Masters’s life fight back, too. After the brothel is raided and Libby learns the nature of Masters’s research, she shows herself to be more strong-willed and savvy than I anticipated, telling him on the drive home from jail she wants to be behind the wheel in case she decides to veer his side of the car into a tree. Later she even offers to masturbate in front of him, though he quickly shuts that down. (“I love you too much,” he offers, ridiculously, by way of explanation.) While Masters still appears determined to keep Libby spending sixteen hours a day on her back, sedated with a cervical cap, she evidently has other things in mind. And now that she has Ethan back as her doctor, it seems only a matter of time before she learns the real reason she can’t get pregnant.

Then there is Betty (I continue to love her whether her accent is terrible or not), who responds to Masters’s condescension by threatening to dump his expensive machines out on the street if he won’t operate. That this is all in the service of marrying the Pretzel King and bearing him oodles of Pretzel heirs is a plot twist I can’t tell whether I find clichéd or simply entertaining. All I know is I hope we get to meet the guy.

As for Virginia, she manages to sabotage Masters’s search for a new secretary, and even snags herself a new babysitter in the process. Clearly the idea is to complicate her character by showing her as a not-always-present parent who prioritizes her work over her children, but I actually found her single mother struggles only made her more sympathetic, at least for now. She’s desperately trying to hang onto a job that involves work she believes is important (though why she cares so much about working for Masters is a question I don’t feel the show has sufficiently answered). Meanwhile, women around her keep coming down on her for it. 

In the first episode, there was the administrator who tried to keep her from signing up for classes once she learned she was a mother (though all I could think was that Virginia still sure had it easy as far as enrolling for college goes, mean lady with cat-eyed glasses or not). In this episode, Virginia’s maid gives her a hard time about being away from her kids. And then Virginia turns around and implies Betty can’t possibly be equipped to raise children. The show handles all of this fairly deftly, but the message is clear: The world may hold women to rigid and unrealistic standards, but women are just as likely as men to come down on each other for aberrations from the norm.

Betty is clearly going to get her operation. But Virginia doesn’t ever get the upper hand with Masters. Even after dropping everything, including her kids, to head to the brothel and save him from himself, she still doesn’t get her job back. And later, at home, she discovers the babysitter has read her son the last Race to Space comic. (How absurd that even as space exploration was considered the pinnacle of science, this whole Race to Space subplot seems to be pointing out, the research of sex, a subject equally unknown, was seen as smut.) As she flips through the comic’s last frames, we see the astronaut suspended in emptiness, halfway between the moon and the Earth, completely alone. Maybe it is meant to represent early sexologists in an uncharted field, or maybe simply Virginia, an ambitious working woman at a time when this was anathema to motherhood, or maybe both. Either way, once again, the saddest moment was right at the end.

Photo: Peter Iovino/Copyright, Showtime, LLC All rights reserved