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Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.05: “Catherine” an effective, heartbreaking pivot point

Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.05: “Catherine” an effective, heartbreaking pivot point
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 5: “Catherine”
Written by Michelle Ashford and Sam Shaw
Directed by Michael Apted
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime
One of the cornerstones of the Golden Age (or Second or Third or Umpteenth Golden Age – take your pick) of television lies in an individual episode’s ability to convey a thematic throughline without being too on-the-nose about it. Series like DeadwoodThe WireMad MenThe Sopranos and many more manage to convey motifs through means other than direct address, whether that involves allusion, visual connectivity, performance tics, or other, less obvious factors. As Masters of Sex continues to find its feet, its ideas about how to form an episode’s thesis continues to evolve, and “Catherine” will likely go down as an important turning point in that evolution.
In the case of this episode, the notion of “performance,” and the difficulty of transcending the inherent artifice of the idea, seems most important of all, as it crops up in so many different forms this week. Austin’s struggle with sudden impotence – with or without Jane – is one. Virginia’s heroic attempts to present her kids with a face of relentless cheer while her son can only be hateful is another. Vivian poses as a worldly, experienced, casual sex partner for Ethan, while the truth is precisely the opposite. Most troublingly of all might be Estabrooks’s performance: that of the straightforwardly nurturing, caring matriarch with no dark secrets to speak of. She also gets the most satisfyingly knotty line of the episode: “If God weren’t invented for a time like this, then why invent Him at all?”
The character doing the least performing: poor Libby Masters, whose ordeal this week (referenced in that Estabrooks quote) showcases the series at its most heartbreaking. “God may have created the heavens and Earth,” says Masters in the episode’s other notable invocation of the Almighty, “but he’s not an obstetrician.” Indeed, William and Libby can do nothing but endure helplessly as their prospective little girl, who gives the episode its name, is taken away from them before her time. I was not anticipating the visceral visual impact of seeing the actual stillborn child: it’s not a commonly depicted occurrence, but the straightforward presentation of the facts of the situation fits the series’ warts-and-all approach to human sexuality and reproduction. Caitlin Fitzgerald is just as devastating as the circumstances demand; she’s made great strides. “Can’t we at least lose it together?”
Even moreso than before, what’s strikingly different about Masters of Sex compared to other, theoretically similar series is its strong ties to classical melodrama – and even soap opera. Specifically, there’s a heavy reliance on secret or hidden knowledge. Take William’s low sperm count, for example. Libby, Virginia, and Ethan all know about it, but William doesn’t know that Libby knows, and that lack of knowledge adds another layer of almost unbearable pathos to their scenes together once the news turns grim. William and Scully know about his dalliances with male prostitutes, but no one else does (except, perhaps, for his wife, but that remains to be seen), which gives the scene of Scully consoling William an added weight. Everyone but Jane can see that Austin is in love with her, which makes his (and their) impact on the study – and his genitals – remarkably complicated. In keeping with the late-50s setting and the subject matter, the emotional engagements are all heightened, all the time, but the seriousness of the circumstances (as well as the sharpness of the writing and acting) always keep it grounded. It’s a hell of a balancing act.
One sticking point: Ethan Haas. Is he a man or an idea? This notion of starting a character off at a noxious Point A (hitting our female lead in the face) and taking him somewhere markedly different, even sympathetic, is an interesting one, but it’s also remarkably tricky. Throughout “Catherine,” Ethan is warm, responsible, caring, sensitive, and generally not at all behaving like the sort of man who would hit a woman in the face. Is it just more performing, or are we meant to believe that he simply morphs into a terrible person when circumstances don’t turn his way? Hopefully Michelle Ashford and her writers have a thoroughly considered path set out for the character, as it’s a consistent sore spot. More broadly, however, just as the study looks to get much more complicated with the introduction of chemistry as a consideration, Masters of Sex is growing apace with its own universe, and it’s remarkably satisfying to chart that growth; it doesn’t happen like this as often as we might wish.