If there’s one thing season two of Masters of Sex taught us, it’s that you can drop Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen in a room with a script — any script — and get unique, compelling results. Seriously, wouldn’t it be great if instead of the exploits of Masters and Johnson, next season just gave us Caplan and Sheen in various other roles — performing Waiting for Godot, say, or just footage of them reading Facts of Life scripts to one another? They’re just that good. And it’s the quality of those performances and their chemistry that’s kept an otherwise wobbly season of Masters of Sex afloat.
The finale touches (oh, God, no pun intended) on what would become one of Masters and Johnson’s core therapies: sensate focusing, or the idea of building intimacy or breaking down sexual barriers by touching — first other parts of the body, and then breasts and genitals, before (over time — weeks, even) moving on to intercourse. The goal is never orgasm, but simply pleasure. It’s an important moment for Masters’ own impotence, for the study, and for them as a couple, and it’s fascinating to watch all of that crammed in to a few (real naked) moments. Plus, it allows for lines like “If we put touching genitals back on the agenda, but stop before actual sex …” to be delivered in the “I’m so formal I sound bored but I’m not bored” tone that no one does better than Bill Masters.
After taking the kids to Europe last week, Virginia’s ex George wants to spend more time with them, even though he’s not great with kids. “But you know who is?” he asks. “Audrey!” I know the show wasn’t playing this moment for laughs, but it’s a pretty hilarious way to try to sell a new custody arrangement on your ex — hey, I know you’re not good with kids, and I’m not, either, but my new wife seems awesome, so … free child care all around? While I have no doubt that Virginia’s professional life complicated her family life, I have a real problem with the show tacking a custody battle (and eventual loss) onto Virginia’s story.
As far as I can tell, George Johnson never asked for or won additional time with his children — Thomas Maier’s Masters of Sex makes no mention of legal procedures and refers to him as an “ethereal presence” in the lives of their kids. So when there are so many other interesting stories to tell with Virginia, adding on a pretty narrow consideration of “Won’t someone please think of the children!?” seems reductive and, given that Virginia Masters was an actual person, pretty unfair. It also puts a weird spin on the fact that Virginia and Bill do eventually get together. Doesn’t her giving up custody for the good of the study create a sort of debt? Won’t it look like Bill marries her solely to pay that off? It’s an odd departure all around.
Bonus: Lizzy Caplan looks pretty boss throwing a martini, and if the way she swallows a sob in a “Hello?” on the telephone after explaining the new arrangement to her kids doesn’t get her an Emmy, I’m not sure what will.
Meanwhile, by leaking a competitor’s work to a rival network, Bill’s deliberately sabotaged the footage CBS took of him and Virginia (not realizing at the time how much Virginia was depending on its success to help her with her custody battle), and it turns out that his secret accomplice is BARTON. BARTON IS BACK. And he delivers the sort of barn-burning, final-act season-finale monologue that only Beau Bridges can, urging Bill to stop being an island unto himself already. “Blazing ahead like this? Always the one-man show, always your terms and your terms only? Well, it’s hell on the people around you. And no picnic for you either, as far as I can tell.” It’s funny — it sounds an awful lot like what Frank was trying to tell Bill a few episodes ago, only this time, Bill doesn’t respond by throwing a punch. He sighs and takes another drink, but maybe that’s a start.
Still, it was an hour with plenty of filler — Langham and Flo are still at it, only this time with a more ornate corset (her) and the revelation of family riches (also her) and accusations of dumb-blonde-ness (her, to him). See you guys next season, I guess? And Libby goes back for more of Robert, going so far as to show up at his apartment at 2 a.m. with nothing but a slip under her overcoat.
But Libby has a good deal more than usual to do this episode, starting with the question she poses to Virginia: “What if you just let go of everything you thought your life would be? What if we both did? What then?” It’s clear that Libby’s spent time thinking this through; later in the episode, she matter-of-factly informs Robert that her husband has been having an affair for years, that she’s looked the other way, and that she’s focused on her children. It’s a fairly massive revelation to fold into her pillow talk with a new lover, mostly because her revelation that she looked the other way wants me to know how she looked the other way. How was she such a kind friend to Virginia for so long? How has she continued to share a room (if not a bed) with Bill? But Libby doesn’t answer, except to say: “I know I want to feel.” Fair enough, girl.
It’s a little unfortunate that a season marred by heavy-handedness ends with a montage of all of its characters making or contemplating life changes against the backdrop of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. Betty smiles at no one, Langham remarks on JFK’s missing top hat, Libby makes soulful eyes at Robert, Virginia’s kids move out. And Virginia and Bill are back at the office, offering the sensate focus protocol to Barb and Lester, with the promise that this time, together, they’ll make it work.
That’s not to say the montage isn’t moving — it’s just a bit much. What I’ll remember about this season of Masters of Sex are the tinier, intimate moments, where the show always finds its greatest resonance. Barton’s deftly handled, devastating suicide attempt. Coral’s studied kindness in the face of Libby’s cruelty. Lillian and Virginia’s complicated, funny, wonderful friendship. Every second of “The Fight.” Flying egg rolls in an observation room the night Dr. Greathouse finally went too far. Betty and the Pretzel King, out of place as they were. Bill’s capacity to wound and Bill’s capacity to heal. (That’s the most saccharine thing I’ve ever written, but season finales make me sentimental.) Frank’s show-stopping AA monologue. And damn it all, if nothing else, I’m so profoundly grateful to write about female protagonists like Virginia Johnson. Thank you, Masters of Sex. See you next year.