When I queued up this week’s episode of Masters of Sex, I was delighted to see Adam Arkin listed as its director. I love the show’s commitment to bringing directors back for multiple episodes, and Arkin is responsible for the some of the series’ strongest moments … and for bringing a modicum of dignity to last season’s “Gini gets sexually assaulted by an ape” debacle. And my excitement was well-founded: With “The Pleasure Protocol,” the season is now three for three.
But let us now pause for my annual reminder that I hate this show’s opening-credits sequence. It is terrible.
“The Pleasure Protocol” focuses on Bill and Gini’s first cases alongside their new partners, but before that, we see them at the Playboy Mansion alongside Hugh Hefner and Sammy Davis Jr. (played to near perfection by The Wire’s Andre Royo). Because Masters of Sex so reliably executes period details, from costumes to props to scenery, it’s easy to take that attention to detail for granted. But if you compare the Playboy Mansion sequence to similar a video from the late 1960s, you’ll see the show’s commitment to getting it right — down to John Gleeson Connolly’s portrayal of Hef himself. The only quibble I have with the sequence is Hef’s weird zeal over the prospect of Bill and Gini getting married. “You have to admit!” he says. “It would make a good story. Two sex researchers, whose research was so good it led them straight to the altar.” This is winking awfully hard at the audience, since we know Bill and Gini will eventually get married, but it’s also an odd stance for the world’s most famous swinger to take. Since when is Hugh Hefner stoked on monogamy?
Back at the office, Gini and Art begin working with a patient who comes in without a partner or a sexual dysfunction. She simply wants to learn how to have multiple orgasms, and promises that if Gini and Art can teach her to do so, all of her friends will come to the clinic to learn, too. Gini recognizes a cash cow when she sees one, and tells Art she’ll “look in the research” to develop a protocol, knowing full well there’s not much in the research to support anything like this. Instead, she goes to bars, tells strange men she has a challenge for them, and then takes them to bed with a stopwatch, timing her orgasms and noting her responses. I honestly can’t decide if this is wantonly self-destructive or a no-nonsense, straightforward decision to get the information she needs as quickly as possible. It’s probably both.
And it works. Through a series of strange twists, the woman winds up partnering with one of the members of the legal team representing the clinic in its pandering case (more on that soon). He recognizes Betty from her days back in the brothel, a revelation that’s properly startling, since I haven’t thought of her in that context for a very long time. He ejaculated prematurely in his interaction with Betty, and asks for another chance to show her he’s gotten much better at sex since then. She says sure … and then takes him to a clinic bed and asks him to sleep with the multiple-orgasms patient as a way of “paying it forward.” He agrees, so long as Betty stays to check out his new moves, and it’s all much sweeter than it has any right to be.
At the same time, Bill is already muddying the boundaries with Nancy, calling late at night to inform her that they’ll work on every aspect of the clinic’s business together. While I want to be able to muster up some measure of sympathy for Bill, who must be very lonely, it’s just so creepy, especially combined with his obsession about Gini at the end of last season. Nancy and Art brainstorm and decide she’ll stick with a sort of “fizzy flirting” to both appease Bill and keep things from deteriorating into a full-blown office affair.
Unfortunately, the case they take on hits close to home for Bill. Enter the husband who wants polite, gentlemanly sex, and the wife who wants something rougher. She brings him to a movie called The Defiler, which Lester describes as a “roughie” — a film that combines both sex and violence. She thought it’d give her husband some ideas and bedroom inspiration; instead, it makes him think he’s married to a sexual deviant. Nancy tells Bill they should see the movie themselves, but after a particularly intense spanking scene brings up memories of his abusive childhood, he’s convinced that the wife must also be traumatized by her past.
This hunch is almost correct. Bill and Nancy bring the couple into a treatment room, but gentle spanking turns into rough spanking, which turns into the husband choking his wife and slapping her in the face, screaming, “What do you want from me?” He’s the one with the history of trauma, and that’s a revelation that Bill finds too jarring to continue studying. And so, he does the unthinkable — he asks Gini for her help — and the ensuing conversation is the most compassion we’ve seen Gini extend to him in a very long time.
Meanwhile, a bunch of troublemaking guest stars swoop in to stir things up. (And to remind us of the show’s incredible casting department.) First, there’s David Walton as Abe, a high-powered cad of a lawyer who’s representing the clinic in their pandering case. He makes waves right away, asking Gini to put files together for the case. She stares at him witheringly, announces, “My name is on the door as partner, not secretary,” and storms out. Abe also connects with Libby, and she later calls him at his hotel, announcing that her consciousness-raising group has decided that a woman calling a man is a form of rebellion against the patriarchy. They have quasi-phone sex, but he doesn’t realize Libby is Elizabeth Masters until he shows up at her office to ask that she put a hold on the divorce and testify as a character witness for Bill. Whoops!
In the course of the episode, we also learn how Gini got away with not marrying Dan: She found a man to take to bed four hours before their wedding ceremony, then let Dan “accidentally” discover it. Given that discovery, it’s no surprise that the episode’s most affecting scenes come with the return of Judy Greer as Dan’s wife, Alice. Gini’s been leaving long, embarrassing, soul-searching messages on Dan’s machine, but he’s back with Alice now, and she’s heard all of them. She comes to St. Louis to tell Gini that it’s over, and that she needs to stand down. It’s an excruciating, harrowing conversation, and one that definitely warrants watching. In particular, Alice strikes a fascinating balance between pity and something that resembles understanding. I’d be completely content if Judy Greer and Lizzy Caplan decided to travel the nation doing repertory theater for the rest of their lives.
There’s one more wrinkle: Alice is sober now, and Bill runs into her at an AA meeting, during which she shares the fact that she and Dan have reconciled. I know I’ve railed against AA as a plot device in every episode thus far, but recognizing Alice’s voice before Bill turned around to see her face was enough of a thrill that I’m willing to overlook it this week. Besides, I spent most of my plot-device-related rage on the fact that Lester discovered Art and Nancy’s marriage because he was trying out his long-range photography spying techniques. I’m not just annoyed about the manner of discovery, though. I’m just disappointed that it happened. Their subterfuge would’ve made for an interesting long-term story line.
By episode’s end, Bill is less upset by Art and Nancy’s relationship than he is about Gini lying to him. He watches footage of Gini’s naked body, a relic of their partnership together, then balefully, judgmentally, lets it spool off the reel and into a trash can. Never mind the fact that he’s lied to Gini countless times, including the time he told her that she needed to keep sleeping with him if she wanted to keep working with him. I’d call that deception more unforgivable than a lie about a marriage, but then again, I’ve been watching this show long enough to understand the futility of ascribing logic to the actions of Bill Masters.