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Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.04: “Thank You For Coming” shifts focus to male self-knowledge

Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.04: “Thank You For Coming” shifts focus to male self-knowledge
Masters of Sex S01E04 promo pic 1
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 4: “Thank You For Coming”
Written by Amy Lippman
Directed by Jennifer Getzinger
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime

Despite the wink-wink, nudge-nudge titling, “Thank You For Coming” is likely the gravest episode of Masters of Sex yet, concerned as it is with male abuses of power and privilege (not to mention outright physical abuse). The best thing the series has going for it right now is that it’s able to pursue its themes in multiple directions – even through the spectrum of a single character.

Take poor William Masters, for instance. This week, we meet his mother Estabrooks (Ann Dowd, who you might remember from being incredible in Compliance) for the first time. Before her arrival, “Bill” warns that having her around will be a nuisance and a half. When she actually turns up, she’s far more self-sufficient than he’d made her out to be, revealing more about his own prejudices than he does about his mother. But all is not as it initially appears. Where at first his uneasiness seems to stem from a stubborn refusal to accept that his mother has evolved and grown since his father’s departure from the picture, it becomes very clear that it stems instead from his father’s protracted physical and psychological abuse. Oh, and his sleepwalking fits, wherein he turns up all the kitchen appliances and the phonograph? Directly inspired by his mother’s attempts to drown out his cries of pain. Yes, it’s more than a little on-the-nose, but the image of young Estabrooks turning up the radio dial is disturbing enough to make it work. Add Estabrooks to the ever-growing list of characters who have sinned badly, yet remain points of interest.

While Dr. Masters earns some sympathy points this week, his tete-a-tete with Virginia’s ex-husband George reveals that the depths of the good doctor’s fixation on Virginia contain some rather unsavory behavior. Having the urge to look up Ginny’s ex-husband’s identity is one thing. Asking him back for a second session is entirely another. Playing back the recordings of those sessions as a means to further his own fantasies while she’s in the room is yet another level. The way the series keeps making William simultaneously creepier and – possibly – more compassionate is really something; his handling of the case-of-the-week, in which an abused expectant mother asks to be rendered incapable of having more children (in the hope that she’ll eventually be able to extricate herself from her husband) is touching, but is he only capable of providing help to those whose plights he has intimate, first-hand knowledge of? Not exactly a glowing recommendation. The series has done an excellent job of sketching the limits of Dr. Masters’s understanding and empathy, and how those limits affect both his personal life and his work.

The episode ends with perhaps the series’ most oddly ambiguous note yet, one that leaves room for a number of interpretations. While it’s too early for a definitive read, what is clear is that the notion floated by George of Ginny as “magic” can’t be taken as a face-value assertion by the show itself. “Thank You For Coming” shifts the focus to the show’s men – Dr. Masters, Ethan, George – as they grapple with the notion of self-knowledge. While Estabrooks asserts that men can only barrel forward and distract themselves from past trauma if they’re to continue living, all three men approach their pasts differently. George is content to try to rekindle old fires, while doing nothing to correct his loathsome behavior. Ethan, whose circle of sexual partners has grown cumbersome and suffocating at work, begins to at least acknowledge his shitty behavior, though it’s too soon to know if he has the means to change it before he once again becomes a danger to others. Dr. Masters, on the other hand, really has no impetus to change his ways at all – at least, not yet. Libby is still devoted, but her husband’s restlessness and unhappiness are not lost on her, so it’s only a matter of time before the other shoe drops on that score.

More broadly, Masters of Sex doesn’t seem to much care whether or not we like Dr. Masters, or Ethan, or George – much as with the study itself, the series is interested in presenting ideas and letting them percolate. That’s a quality it shares with Mad Men, and it’s worth nothing that Jennifer Getzinger also directed “The Suitcase,” easily one of that series’ Top 5 best episodes ever. Unlike on Mad Men, however, there’s the potential for something other than stasis. The entire point of Don Draper (so far, at least) has been that he doesn’t change; Masters of Sex seems to at least be interested in having its characters learn, if not actually change. Can you have one without the other? That’s worth pondering ahead of next week’s introduction of the great Allison Janney as Provost Scully’s wife.