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Masters of Sex Recap: The Reclining Lotus

Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters and Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex

We all knew where this was going, and last night we finally got there. “All Together Now” opens with Virginia and Masters hooked up to wires in their laboratory, having sex. But are they consummating their research collaboration or their personal relationship? And is it possible to tell where one ends and the other begins? This episode was all about whether neat lines can ever be drawn when it comes to inevitably messy subjects like love and sex. (The answer appears to be no.) As the details in that opening sequence make clear (“Love Me Tender” plays in the background as the camera cuts back and forth between the machines spilling out their reports, and Virginia and Masters, toiling away), from the get-go their sexual relationship is a muddle of hopelessly interconnected urges and interests.

During the sex, Virginia looks unsatisfied and resigned. Her promotion (and Masters’s apparent willingness to begin treating her like an equal) prompted her to agree to participate in the study, but as she's lying there while he thrusts around on top of her, it doesn’t look like she’s feeling good about her choice. Is she worried that by having sex with Masters she has already given up some of her hard-won agency? Or is she just frustrated by a bout of bad sex? Her motivations and feelings around her decision to sleep with Masters remain hard for me to parse.

The subsequent scene at the car lot certainly makes apparent her relative lack of power compared to Masters, or any man. As a single woman, she can’t even look for a car by herself without getting harassed, much less sign a check to buy one. Ethan saves the day once again, and in spite of the fact that romantically they are a mismatch (not to mention Ethan’s anger issues), sitting in the back of that car they do appear more at ease with each other than with anyone else. But after Ethan runs into Virginia and Masters at the hospital and deduces that they have started having sex, he decides his friendship with Virginia is over and resolves to make a go of it with Vivian.

That he expresses this by buying sheets he doesn’t even pick out himself only serves to underscore the various ways his whole relationship with Vivian is based on projection. He doesn’t really know her, and while Vivian thinks she’s in love, really she just wants the Good Housekeeping version of life. When Ethan tries to open up and tells her he’s recently had his heart broken, she asks, “Why are you telling me this?” She’s not interested in who he really is. Of course, her capacity for denial is understandable — she’s gotten a master class from her parents.

Speaking of which, Barton’s ability to keep his homosexuality under wraps begins unraveling after he is attacked by a bunch of homophobic thugs. For obvious reasons, he doesn’t want to go to the ER, but he does go to the hospital, where Masters finds him, sews him up, and delivers a lecture. “Is it worth it?” Masters asks. “Just to meet some boy in an alley?” Beau Bridges’s face in that moment expresses so many feelings at once: realization, terror, despair. And talk about a double standard! Masters is risking his career and family by sleeping with Virginia, but his denial (along with his homophobia) keeps him from recognizing this.

Margaret’s own tryst with Austin is cut short after she tells him he has saved her life. As Austin’s therapist points out, he prefers his women to be “types” rather than real people, so Margaret revealing herself to be a human with needs is a terrible turnoff. I love the therapy scenes, by the way, partly for the way the therapist is so spot-on with his observations yet so dry in his presentation (so therapistlike, in other words), and partly because he is played by Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Austin isn’t the only doctor who saves a life. Libby tells Ethan he’s saving her life by helping her try to get pregnant again, too. “We’re owed a miracle,” she says. But in the meantime, she’s faced with the daunting task of convincing her husband to start having sex with her again, which happens only after Masters realizes Virginia won’t continue their “research” otherwise. (“I got locked out!” Masters tells Libby when she gets home and finds him outside with a pile of wood, in one of the shows many double, or maybe triple, entendres.)

As for Virginia and Bill’s physical relationship, the show starts off (coyly, I thought) presenting it almost obliquely. In that first scene we see very little of the sex itself, and the next time they partner up we only see Bill humming afterward — Virginia has climaxed twice, thanks to the “reclining lotus.”

Their final sex scene, in which they orgasm simultaneously, face to face, is far more explicit and makes clear just how difficult it will be, or already is, to maintain clear distinctions between their personal relationship and their professional one. Virginia claims she can separate love from sex, but like just about everyone else in the episode, she’s in denial.  

Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime