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Masters of Sex Recap: Better Late Than Never

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex

To start with, let’s address last week’s episode briefly. There had been so much talk about how Masters was “shooting blanks” that a week ago, when Ethan said he “technically” was the one to get Libby pregnant, I really thought he meant that literally. Obviously I got that completely wrong, as many commenters were quick to point out. This week’s episode made abundantly clear that those many, many hours Libby spent on her back getting her cervix capped enabled one of Masters’s solitary sperm to get her pregnant, and as a result she’s glowing with happiness.

Masters, on the other hand, is so stressed about it he’s started sleepwalking, a habit that likely has to do with the unhappy childhood we got a few glimpses of. This was my favorite episode so far (we’re only four in, so, long way to go), and largely because most everyone became more multidimensional and less black and white. Easy-to-like characters (i.e., Virginia) became more complicated, while difficult characters, like Masters, became easier to understand — by the end of the hour, he had been transformed from an inexplicably cold and imperious person into someone I could actually relate to.

It starts with a visit from his mother, Essie, who shows up in an entirely red outfit, complete with a jaunty red beret, having ditched her black clothes for colors because she’s decided to become a new Tom Collins–drinking kind of woman now that she’s done mourning her husband. Masters is not at all comfortable with the change, but while at first his resentment seems maybe immature and certainly kind of harsh (after all, as she tells him, “It’s better late than never, son”), his response looks different once more of his past is revealed, namely an abusive childhood in which his mom stood by while his dad beat him up.

Each week, we get another piece of the psychological puzzle that is Bill Masters and this one sure helps make him more transparent. Later, when he yells at Virginia’s son for flooding his bathroom, I understood the various forces at work beneath his brusque exterior — he’s channeling his father’s anger, he’s immediately remorseful for coming down so hard on Henry, and underneath it all he’s terrified about having a child of his own. He’s not, in other words, just an impenetrably uptight jerk.

Speaking of Masters’s fear of having kids, I love the way the show continues to widen its lens on the zillions of different ways women (and men) respond to having children. Every episode introduces characters who are either desperate to be pregnant or equally desperate to avoid it, and the reasons behind each person’s feelings are given equal validity. This episode, for example, included the woman with the indeterminate accent (I think Russian?) who asks Masters to tie her tubes because she “can’t afford” another baby, which turns out to really mean that it’s her only hope of eventually escaping her abusive marriage. In spite of the fact that legally she needs her husband’s permission, Masters, who we now know has reason to be sensitive to this kind of thing, does it anyway.

Masters still remains the same not-all-that-nice guy to Virginia, even while he’s increasingly sexually obsessed with her. As Essie tells Libby, who for all her good intentions is starting to come off as almost hopelessly naïve, men run from disappointment (unlike women, so she claims) and toward “the best distraction there is: pleasure.” The show immediately sets about complicating the idea that such neat divides can ever be drawn between the sexes (with Essie and her son, after all, she is the one claiming the past is dead and buried), but where Masters is concerned, this does seem to be his coping mechanism. After Virginia lets him know her overgrown child of a husband volunteered for the study, Masters not only rifles through the files to find how George described Virginia in bed, he even calls him back in for a one-on-one interview, then listens to it over and over.

“This woman is magic,” George says about Virginia. And yes, I think at this point we get it — she’s ahead of her time, every man’s sexual Everest. But other than setting her up as unusually sexually self-possessed, I’m not entirely sure what the show’s getting at with these Virginia-as-sexual-diva montages. That she’s awakened something in Masters that’s helping fuel his research? That she’s single-handedly sowing the seeds of the sexual revolution? That in spite of being an object of desire, she still faces all the same difficulties as any other woman of that time? Once again, she ends the show profoundly alone, sitting on a bench waiting for the bus, just another single mother with a deadbeat ex who expects to be paid for babysitting his own kids.

To Ethan, though, she remains his sexual equivalent of Technicolor and he can’t get her out of his head. Her rejection of him at Libby’s party drives him completely nuts (he is St. Louis’s most eligible bachelor — how can she possibly resist?), so later that night, in some misguided effort at retribution, he brings the provost’s daughter up to his apartment. She is 18, has an uncanny resemblance to Ingrid Bergman, and is willing to do anything he asks, whether that means removing her complicated contraption of a bra, letting him dribble liquor down her chest, or even dropping him at the hospital, completely sloshed, so he can (terrifyingly) operate on someone. He does at least have the decency to apologize the next day, but she just looks at him adoringly and reminds him how at her Sweet 16 party he was “so handsome in black and white.” Presumably she will eventually discover no one is quite so simple as that, and certainly not Ethan, but for now it appears that nothing could make her reassess her wildly idealized version of him. It’s like watching a lamb being led to slaughter.

Photo: Michael Desmond /Showtime