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Masters of Sex Recap: Stay Single

“Stay single,” Margaret tells Dale a few minutes into what she calls their “very brief friendship.” And, judging from the relationships on display last, night it seems to be extremely good advice. In “Love and Marriage,” as the episode is ironically titled, the two rarely go together. Loneliness and marriage go hand-in-hand, as do boredom and marriage. Margaret and Barton even have friendship and marriage, but as she tells him at that drive-in, “It’s not enough. We have to divorce.”

Everyone thinks they’ll be the exception and no one ever is. “When you’re young and in love, you can’t imagine it will ever be you,” Margaret tells Dale, like some sad prophetic witch. “But it will be.” The person who really needs to hear this message is not Dale, but Vivian. Dancing around Ethan’s kitchen preparing him breakfast, she’s so head over heels she sings along to “Love and Marriage” with a blissful look on her face. To this child of the 1980s that song will forever be associated with the dysfunction of Married With Children, but presumably that’s sort of the point. Vivian is living in a less cynical time, when girls like her believe in happy endings even though they never really get them.

Ethan watches her do this from the hall (via her reflection in a mirror — people hardly ever really “see” each other on Masters of Sex). He looks anything but smitten, but he decides (after an opportune offer of a steak sandwich) to propose, seeking Austin out to ask about a good jeweler. “Why would you do that?” Austin demands, and judging from our quick glimpse of his marriage, it’s easy to understand his response. After Margaret preemptively breaks it off, Austin brings home a carload of toys for his kids, along with a vacuum cleaner for his wife. “Some poor woman is in tears,” she mutters to their baby. We’ve seen how callous Austin can be toward women, but this is a pretty chilling firsthand view of its profound impact on his family.

The reasons Ethan offers for getting married are mostly pragmatic and/or selfish, but finally he hits on one that resonates with Austin — your wife will always stand by you (he conveniently disregards the fact that she may not always have much of a choice). “You’re not exactly husband of the century,” Ethan says, suggesting Austin buy his wife something (other than a vacuum). And with that, they’re off to the jeweler, where Austin seduces Ethan into the bigger ring and the salesgirl into sleeping with him all at once.

The men take turns pushing each other into their socially prescribed roles, but their desire to do what’s expected of them is easily eclipsed by their deeper urges. Austin gets carried away by the idea of buying earrings for his wife but in the end he gives them to the salesgirl, who gets the “roller-coaster feeling” when he holds her hand. “That is the moment that everything is good,” Austin tells her, offering a basic insight into what drives him. That’s the moment he’s always seeking, collateral damage be damned.

As for Ethan, the poor guy doesn’t even get a chance to propose. Once he lets Vivian know he wants to take her out for dinner, she drills him with questions. Does she need to wear a dress that’s tea length or floor length? Does she need a manicure? Is the diamond brilliant cut or emerald cut? Ethan takes the ring out to check, and she immediately screams, “Yes!” and runs off to tell her mother. (Good luck with that — they don’t show Margaret’s reaction, but I think we can all imagine it.) “You’re up,” says the guy holding Ethan’s spot for lunch. It’s all one big conveyor belt leading to marriage, and Ethan’s next in line. 

Meanwhile, Margaret, the “poor woman in tears,” goes to a classy hotel bar for a drink and catches Barton coming to meet Dale. (People are always having inopportune run-ins on this show, a setup rescued from soap opera-ness only by the excellent acting on display.) Barton knows he has to own up to something, so he claims Dale helps get him prostitutes, a secret he thinks is at least more palatable than the real one.

The scenes between Barton and Dale continue to be wrenching, particularly because it feels like there is so little hope that Barton will ever be at peace with his homosexuality. Even Masters and Johnson, whose research helped open people’s minds to so many aspects of sexuality, would go on to write a book claiming that gay men’s orientations could be altered. “You should change your mind,” Dale tells Barton about his plan to try aversion therapy techniques. Change your mind, in other words, not your sexuality. But how can Barton recognize there’s nothing wrong with him when even esteemed colleagues are telling him there is?

Compared to the show’s treatment of homosexuality, its presentation of race is far less complex. Last night Walter, the handsome, elegant African-American handyman, shows up to clean out Libby’s gutters but ends up dancing the tango with her, catching her in his arms when she faints and taking her to the hospital. That he has to teach Libby how to dance is such an obvious cliché I assumed Masters of Sex was going to do something with it, but if it did, I didn’t catch it. This whole storyline seems misused, like the show felt it needed to address race and this was their somewhat-lazy solution. “Have your boy bring the car around,” the doctor tells Libby at the hospital, and just like that Walter is dismissed, as if once the show makes its point about racism he is no longer necessary. Will we even see him again? If not, he feels more like a foil than a multifaceted character in his own right. Which is particularly galling in the context of a series with such nuanced explorations of sexuality and gender.

At the hospital, Libby learns she’s pregnant, but that isn’t the episode’s only big reveal — we also find out about Dr. DePaul’s cervical cancer, which helps explain her drive, her bitterness, and her urge to make cadavers real to her students. But even as Dr. DePaul tries to humanize the dead, she doesn’t know how to relate to the living. Similarly, while she fights for women via her cancer study, she isn’t willing to help out a real woman she knows, namely Virginia. Masters asks Dr. DePaul to tell him if Virginia signs up for another class, and she correctly calls him out for fearing that if Virginia gets a degree “she could walk away.” Yet, Dr. DePaul still sides with him.

Masters not only wants to keep Virginia from getting credentialed, he also wants her to think she’s in control of her own choices. “Whatever you decide, it’s up to you,” he says in the last scene. Then they sit down to watch Beav St. Marie in her screen debut and Masters gets an immediate hard on, not from the nature of the video but from the fact that he and Johnson are the only ones who have seen it. They claim the sex they’re having is just for their study, but there’s a growing intimacy between them. They’re having an affair — it just happens to involve some unusual stipulations and a lot of scientific vocabulary. Their relationship is both bigger than the research they’re doing and it is the research. The two are inextricably intertwined.

Photo: Michael Desmond Photography/Showtime