You certainly can’t fault this show for its lack of ambition. Each week it focuses on another weighty topic, and last night it delved into the most profound question of all: What makes life meaningful? For Libby, it is family; for Lillian, it is work; for Ethan’s parents, it is religion; for Vivian, it is love (or at least something that superficially resembles it). None of these answers seem quite sufficient, but as that sage at the hospital tells Ethan, “Floating is for boats.” Humans need to believe in something, in other words, and while life may be inherently meaningless, the act of believing imbues it with meaning. It’s very existentialist, this show.
“Involuntary” begins with Virginia and Masters dressing after a “research” session that left Masters’s shoulder covered in bright-red scratches. “It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose,” Virginia tells him, and this prompts the two of them to formulate a new hypothesis to investigate. “People have always assumed these are signs of passion,” Masters says, “but I think what they are is a patterned response that’s completely involuntary.” They’re talking about sex, but the idea has wide-ranging connotations. Maybe whom we love or desire is no more voluntary than the way we flex our toes during orgasm. Maybe, even, the urge to find meaning is an involuntary patterned response. Just another spasm we can’t control.
Masters not only theorizes on Virginia’s physical reactions to sex as a scientist, but as a lover. “I might consider this positive feedback,” he tells her about his scratches, a self-satisfied smile on his face. Virginia is worried about her performance review and Masters is, too, though not the official kind — he wants to make sure he’s a good lover. Masters and Virginia may not be “in love,” exactly, but they’re far more than simply research associates.
Essie, for one, is onto her son. Libby asks her about the worst thing she’s ever done and while she doesn’t answer her, Essie later marches into Masters’s office, owns up to her role in his childhood misery, and warns him about the insidious effects of workplace affairs. “I didn’t speak up,” she tells him about the abuse he experienced in his childhood. “I didn’t stop what was happening to you.” But what was happening to him? Was his father not only physically abusing him but sexually abusing him as well? At moments I thought the show was headed in this direction, but in the end all we learned about Masters Sr.’s “tremendous sexual appetites” is that he had an affair with his secretary.
Whatever went on, Essie is doing her best to honor Libby’s wishes and give her the family she so desperately wants. She waits for Masters to get home from work, asks him about his research, acts nonplussed when he tells her the nature of his study, then shows up at the hospital, bearing dinner for the whole crew. And it was pretty hilarious watching them all try to make small-talk pleasantries about sex over a cream-cheese-infused dinner. (“Generally, I masturbate,” Jane explains, regarding her role in the research. “That’s wonderful!” Essie replies.) In real life, initial participants in the study were asked to wear paper bags over their heads, and when Masters’s mother learned about this she sewed them silk masks to use instead. I wish this detail could have been included, but presumably it was a step too strange even for this show.
Masters, at his mother’s suggestion, talks to his wife and learns she’s pregnant. For Libby, Masters’s work is important, but what truly matters is having a family. Otherwise you’re just lost in space, she says, like the astronaut in that comic book Virginia’s son was reading at the beginning of the season. As for why family is so important to Libby, it turns out her mother not only died when she was young, but her father also left soon afterward. (“He had moved to Virginia,” Libby says, not realizing that her life is headed in that same direction all over again.) Going behind Masters’s back to get pregnant is Libby’s involuntary spasm, the action she would have died if she didn’t do.
What Vivian wants is for Ethan to convert to Catholicism so they can get married in a church. “They’re just words,” as she tells him. And the words that matter to Vivian don’t really have anything to do with God, but with Ethan declaring that he takes her, forever, as his wife. “I’m nothing,” Ethan keeps saying, but in the end this turns out to be an untenable position. After he yells out “The Lord Jesus is my savior” one too many times, he has what is practically a religious epiphany, though not the kind Vivian has in mind. He hits a man (“Jesus Christ!” Ethan shouts, followed by, “Oh my God!”), faints, and ends up at the hospital, where the person in the next bed offers him the prayer card for the patron saint of lost things. Ethan says he hasn’t lost anything but suddenly realizes that’s not true — he’s lost himself. Trying to stop just floating along, he decides not to convert and breaks things off with Vivian, leaving her heartbroken and him likely to face some pretty big trouble with the provost.
Virginia once again gets the raw end of just about every deal. She receives a 99 on her anatomy test and is asked to run a study group, only to get kicked out by that bunch of bozos about whom all I have to say is that at least Virginia manages to match them quip for nasty quip. Lillian suggests she focus on work, but then Masters undermines her role in the research. After he finds out Libby is pregnant (and likely influenced by his conversation with his mom), he tells Virginia he has been taking advantage of her and offers her money for the work she’s done on what he calls “my study.” He’s attempting to make a complex emotional relationship less meaningful by turning it into a monetary transaction, and it doesn’t go over very well. Virginia refuses the cash then cries in her car, where Ethan finds her. (And romances his way into her bed, at least according to the preview for the next episode.)
Right at the end, we hear Virginia’s review of herself, and it’s positive except for one thing — she says she needs to learn to take her work less personally and adapt a more detached approach. Yet Masters takes things just as personally. He is the one, after all, who finishes the episode watching the film of Virginia masturbating, alone in a dark room. And who knows how either of them will actually be able to detach going forward.