We’ve spent much of the first two seasons of Masters of Sex watching Bill and Gini struggle — for space to work in, for recognition of the study as something scientific and not salacious, for enough funding to scrape by. At the start of season three, those struggles seem far behind them. When Gini emphatically announces, “We are the sexual revolution,” she’s not shamed or laughed out of the press conference she and Bill are holding upon the release of Human Sexual Response. The assembled journalists hang on and scribble down her every word, compare the work of the study to the work of Galileo, and award Bill and Gini with a legitimate, heartfelt slow clap at the press conference’s end. It would seem Masters and Johnson have arrived.
It’s a little strange, then, that the bulk of the episode is focused on a two-way family vacation between the Masters and Johnson clans — it’s apparently an annual summer event, but the trip we glimpse happens a summer or two before Human Sexual Response is released, shortly after Bill and Gini receive the first galley copy of the book. (Bill treats the galley as irreplaceable despite Xerox machines having been around for years at this point; even by the bar he typically sets, it’s a bit too fussy.)
All Bill wants to do is spend the vacation quietly in the front room, leaving Libby and Gini to deal with the kids, who are not all right. The show takes pains to point out that the children featured — Tessa, Henry, Johnny, and Jenny — are all wholly fictitious and not based on Masters’s and Johnson’s own children. (Masters did have a son named Howie, but presumably his actions in the episode [biting Bill, possibly swallowing a marble] weren’t damning enough to require a pseudonym or disclaimer.) Yet the stories about the fake children aren’t all that compelling. It’s as though the writers dusted off a few WB reject-grade scripts and decided they’d do: Gini begs Bill to give Tessa a sex talk! (Even though she herself is a professional sex researcher and probably would’ve seen that the best thing Bill could do for her daughter is write her a prescription for the pill.) Tessa gets loaded and kisses Bill! Johnny sees Bill kissing Tessa and angrily hurls the galley pages into the lake! Henry joins the Army but is so feeble and frail that it reads as a Captain America homage!
The children’s story lines aren’t a complete wash — the series of chants Henry and Jenny perform about their community’s drunken ice cream man are catchy enough that I’m still muttering to myself about Mr. Hisky and his whisky. But overall, it seems a bit odd for Masters of Sex to spend so much time on the children’s problems. We already knew that Gini struggles to balance work and family and that Bill’s presence in his home is anything but tender. Why spend an entire episode — and a season premiere, at that — proving it?
The moment where Johnny confronts Bill for kissing Tessa but “never kissing Mommy” is the most important of the bunch, largely because it reminds us of something we can’t forget going into season three: For all his brilliance, Bill Masters is capable of being an absolute monster. Any parent would be furious at a child for deliberately destroying something that didn’t belong to them (although again, Bill would do well to remember that Xerox machines exist). But Bill’s first impulse is to brandish his fist in his young child’s face, threatening to punch him unless he apologizes. It’s precisely what Bill’s father did to him, and so it’s not surprising, but it’s still appalling. What’s just as rotten is that when Johnny makes Bill see how egregiously he’s been ignoring his wife, Bill’s solution isn’t a kind touch or a frank conversation with Libby. He offers to let her read the manuscript. Sadly, that’s clearly the best Bill can do.
And that brings us to Libby, who’s not given the benefit of a “these people are just pretend!” disclaimer at the end of the episode like the kids, something that’s troubled me throughout Masters of Sex’s run. Bill and Gini were public figures, but Libby just happened to be married to a famous sex researcher, and it seems like Masters of Sex should perhaps be gentler to her than they’re being. The kids got a “fake children!” placard; Libby’s getting a continued preoccupation with the civil-rights movement and a prescription for psychiatric medication.
Oh, and Libby also gets a kiss with Gini that’s both chaste and not, and that comes after what I assume is the first truly frank talk Gini and Libby have had about the nature of Libby and Bill’s affair. (Feel free to yell at me in the comments if I’m forgetting about a similarly direct conversation in season two!) Libby explains that she was a child of divorce, and that even though she’s finished having her heart broken by Bill, all she wants is to give her children a stable childhood — holidays with both parents, all of their belongings in the same house, stability. After she kisses Gini, she explains, “I always wondered what it felt like, with you,” an explanation I’d imagine we’ll spend much of the season parsing.
Meanwhile, Bill and Gini’s ongoing relationship is a constant — within the first two minutes of the episode Bill accuses Gini of being “in heat” for initiating an additional round of sex, then goes on to admonish her: “Stop talking so I can fuck you properly before we try to sleep.” Ever the charmer! Aside from the frequent, passionate sex, they embody almost every cliché about old married couples, from how aggressively they bicker to how smoothly they appease one another to how overly involved they are in the minutiae of each other’s lives. Gini, exasperated, asks Bill at one point why she can’t even have a bathroom stall to herself.
The episode’s cliff-hanger goes on to suggest that Gini doesn’t even have a uterus to herself at the moment, and until we know whether Gini is truly pregnant (on what planet is Virginia Johnson not shrewd enough to be on birth control?), I’ll try to refrain from talking about my distaste for pregnancy as a plot twist for female characters, especially on a smart show like Masters of Sex. Maybe at the top of next week’s episode, Gini will hotly inform Bill that he’s wrong and that she’s not pregnant, and that will be that. I’m not sure how Masters of Sex could keep any other possible outcome from veering into soap-opera territory, because if the Teen Drama of this week’s episode was any indication, Masters of Sex doesn’t pull off “soap opera” in a terribly compelling way. But with Sheen and Caplan together at the helm (seriously, how are they so good together?), season three will surely give us more than that to see.