When we last saw Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, they were in a decidedly acrimonious state — and frankly, I was pretty disillusioned with Masters of Sex, too.
It fell apart for me when Bill goaded Gini into removing her blouse to let a gorilla fondle her breast, a sentence that does not contain even a syllable of euphemism. When the season ended, I was frustrated with Bill’s slow descent into psychopathy, Gini’s reduction to being a bad mother and object of desire, and the show’s overall tendency to spin in its characters in circles. I was equally bothered by the show’s failure to leverage its fascinating backdrop, and the source material from which its stories are taken. This isn’t a show about an emergency room or a magazine staff or a firehouse; Masters of Sex is at its best when it’s a show about sex researchers doing sex research. That sounds glaringly obvious, and yet the show frequently dropped that thread in season three. But after tonight’s season premiere, I’m hopeful for what lies ahead.
We meet Bill and Gini where we often do: on parallel tracks, but impossibly far away from one another. In separate cities, they drink, watch the Miss America bra-burning protest of 1969, lie about their pasts, and finally disclose their histories as sex researchers. It makes me a little nervous that the storytelling is so unsubtle straight out of the gate — we don’t have to see Bill and Gini in physically similar spaces like bars and hotels to understand they’re equally emotionally unmoored — but since it serves to provide a bit of a recap for last season’s events, I’m okay with it. They end the episode’s opening act in car wrecks, both metaphorical and literal: Gini sleeps with a Caesar’s Palace bartender, and a drunk Bill totals his car, ending up before a judge.
Here’s the first point during which my hackles went all the way up. Despite having Bill’s file open in front of him, full of dicey and sexually related charges, the judge decides to assign him to community service at an elementary school. Things were different in the ‘60s (and I know Bill hasn’t actually done anything criminal), but still, I doubt any judge would look at the facts in front of him and then announce, “Give a speech at my little girl’s school!” What’s more, when Bill finally does visit the school at the very end of the episode, it’s clear that Masters of Sex wants us to take some Grand Meaning from Bill’s retelling of the story of St. Joseph — but I’ve got no idea what it could be.
Put another way: I love the stories on this show. I’m much less fond of its plot devices. Bill’s court-ordered AA attendance falls into that same category, unfortunately. “Is Bill an alcoholic?” doesn’t seem like a particularly interesting question, and putting him in a room where people deliver monologues about their emotions seems like an easy way out. It’s guaranteed to create situations for Bill to open up a little.
Then there’s poor, sweet Libby, whose desire to go for Bill’s jugular in their divorce proceedings gets waved away by her own attorney. Instead, he sends her to a group that “some of the gals find real helpful!” It turns out to be an encounter group, complete with first-person abortion narratives and marijuana. Libby is politely disdainful until the group’s leader nudges her into removing her bra. The way she lets it fall to the ground gives me great hope that we’ll finally, finally get to spend time with Libby on her own, rather than solely explore her character in relation to Bill or Gini or last season’s paramour, Paul.
One of the reasons why I love Virginia is her willingness to straight-up crash a sex seminar in Las Vegas, Bloody Mary in hand, interrogate the speaker in the middle of his spiel, and then, after thoroughly owning him, begin signing autographs. (Sidebar: Were we ever told the real story about where Dan is?) Her autograph session leads her to reconnect with Hugh Hefner, and she winds up traveling to the Playboy Mansion in Chicago to pitch a column to him. The details of the mansion are immaculately executed, all girls on roller skates and White Russians and pipe smoking, but Hef’s unsure if he’s interested in Gini without Bill attached. Gini has a wonderful Lean In–style conversation with Hef’s secretary and decides to write the column anyway; it’s a reminder of how great Masters of Sex can be when it remembers to give women the opportunity to talk with one another. Lizzy Caplan is, of course, glorious throughout.
Bill eventually makes it back to the clinic and a put-upon Betty, who’s been running the office single-handedly. (“Since your rumspringa, or whatever,” as she puts it.) Betty insists he see patients right away, and we see Mad Men’s Harry Crane and his wife in the conference room. (No, it’s not really Harry, but what else am I supposed to think when Rich Sommer appears on a ‘60s period piece?) Bill takes his first awkward stabs at conducting a clinic intake without Gini handling the pieces that require social skills. He manages, somehow, and Harry Crane admits that a foot fetish is the cause of his sexual dysfunction. Bill offers some gentle words of wisdom, but they’re less interesting than the way his face lights up with sheer fascination when the truth comes out. There’s still a scientist under those layers of ennui. And speaking of: We get that Bill is sad. Michael Shannon’s impeccable acting and even more impeccable beard drive that home. He doesn’t need to be extra-mumbly, too.
To the episode’s credit, though, the little moments are gorgeous throughout. Just for starters: the way the light streams into the living room when Bill breaks into the home he shared with Libby, Gini’s drunken rendition of “Stand By Your Man” on a Las Vegas dance floor, Bill’s hand moving to reflexively straighten a phantom bow tie when he walks back into the office for the first time.
Then all of sudden, there’s Bill at the Playboy Mansion with Gini, after Hef calls him in to announce that he’ll work with them … but only as a pair. I’m tempted to figure out if this was a real element of the Masters and Johnson story (“Siri, did Hugh Hefner Parent Trap Masters and Johnson?”), but I love it too much to really care. There’s no indication of how Bill manages to show up in Chicago without missing any of his court ordered 90 AA meetings in 90 days, and there’s also no indication of why he’s wearing the worst suit imaginable. Yes, Libby gave all of his clothing to Goodwill, but couldn’t he go to a regular store instead of resorting to a plaid monstrosity?
Anyway, Bill and Gini have a conversation about the future of the practice, and while it’s awkward and deeply painful, it’s the first time we’ve seen these two characters talk with each other in a long, long time. They decide to continue working in the clinic, but not directly with one another, and they explicitly discuss that the sexual part of their relationship, and any elements of romance therein, are over.
Still, Hef says it best when he announces that Masters and Johnson can only truly be separated by six feet of earth and a headstone. It’s a great line, but it’s also a bit of foreshadowing. This new season will move into the 1970s; Bill and Gini were married in 1971. Masters and Johnson really are on the verge of being inextricably linked by a “‘til death do us part” vow. I’m choosing to take the nod to that inevitability as a sign that now, at last, Masters of Sex knows where it’s going.