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Masters of Sex Season 2 Premiere Recap: What Do We Do Now?

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson in Masters of Sex (season 2, episode 1) - Photo: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME - Photo ID: MastersofSex_201_1998

“So? What do we do now?”

The first season of Masters of Sex left us with an improbable cliffhanger: a profession of love in the pouring rain. The first episode of season two both answered and didn’t answer that question as it slid back and forth in time, doling out answers gradually, settling us back nicely into the love-it-or-hate-it muted pace that defines the show. And somewhere in there, there was a black eye, a screaming baby, a suicide attempt, an ill-suited speed saleswoman, and Bill and Ginny’s first go at intercourse without wires or electrodes. (Surely there’s a “Look, Ma! No hands!” joke in there somewhere, right?)

Put another way: I was worried the second season of the show wouldn’t measure up to the first. I’m not anymore.

Before we dive into matters of Bill, Ginny, and research, I want to talk a little bit about Barton and Margaret Scully, whom we likely won’t be seeing too much more of this season due to Beau Bridges’s and Allison Janney’s busy schedules. Crammed into this episode are Barton’s attempts at electroconvulsive therapy, intercourse with Margaret, and suicide. It’s impossible to overstate how completely affecting it is, especially with material that could so easily lapse into over-the-top territory. But my God, if you needed 15 seconds of footage that showed just how horrific it was that homosexuality was classified as a mental illness until 1973, Barton shivering, vomiting, and begging for his wife to come and pick him up from a procedure he doesn’t remember requesting are really all the further you’d need to look. Margaret frantically cutting him and his noose down from a basement beam would be a strong exhibit B. 

When people ask me what Masters of Sex is about, I usually trot out the “researchers who revolutionized the study of human sexuality” line, but the more honest (and also probably more insufferable) answer is that I think it’s a show about intimacy. And the show is often at its most moving when the intimacy being explored isn’t at all sexual in nature. Bill’s relationship with Barton is such a strong example of this, and it shows in both Bill’s tension in the recovery room — should he be Barton’s colleague? friend? doctor? — and in how boyishly excited he was to tell Barton that he has a new job. It speaks volumes to the quality of storytelling happening here that the thing I keep thinking is, I just hope Barton’s going to be okay.

(As an aside: I still hate the opening credits. Do we all still hate the opening credits?)

Meanwhile, Ginny continues to suffer the consequences of aiding (and quitting) Bill’s research: She’s constantly besieged by men who are positive they have to sleep with her or they’ll die, and she’s broke. She deals with the former problem with the acerbic wit that probably went a long way toward getting Lizzy Caplan her Emmy nomination, and the latter by selling diet pills in the hospital cafeteria. It’s one of the only things in an otherwise tight episode of television that seems random and out of place, but speed kills, kids, I guess. 

At the same time, Libby’s hustling in her own right, trying to get Bill back to work (and to get her son a new pediatrician, after his former one likens Bill to a cannibalistic psychopath). She’s also saddled with the fact that Bill wants nothing to do with their baby, going so far as to let him cry on his own for hours while Libby’s off at a brunch trying to network for him. He goes on to kick his mother (who was Libby’s primary source of child care) out before Libby even has a chance to come home and object.

It seems so profoundly thankless to be Libby — and to play Libby, although Caitlin FitzGerald somehow continues to find angles of the role that don’t relegate her to being the world’s biggest Skipper doll. That said, it’s getting harder and harder to overlook how rotten their home life is now that there’s a baby in the mix. It’s hard not to scream “Leave him!” at Libby, even as her reasons for staying are clear. And it’s got to be doubly frustrating when you do everything you can to set your husband up in a new obstetrics practice and instead, one of his former hooker test subjects’ pretzel-king husband does the job for you — with the sex study attached.

So what do Bill and Ginny decide to do? As Ginny explains, “An affair is a fairly pedestrian thing. And the story always ends the same.” She insists that the something special between them isn’t love. It’s “the work.” I don’t know who’s lying, who believes what, or who’s just kidding him or herself.  But by the episode’s end, the two of them are Doctor and Mrs. Francis Holden, all dressed up in a hotel 30 minutes away from St. Louis, booked in a room for the night. While they may not be being honest with each other about how they feel, the glimpse we get of their first night together and unwired is achingly tender — Bill doesn’t first rip off Ginny’s clothes or start making demands of her; instead, he sinks into her shoulder, embraces her, and holds on. It’s telling.

We’re not just “colleagues with benefits” anymore. This is season two. I can’t wait.

Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime