Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 7: “All Together Now”
Written by Tyler Bensinger
Directed by Tim Frywell
Episode 8: “Love and Marriage”
Written by Tyler Cunningham
Directed by Michael Apted
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime
Characters on Masters of Sex are prone to syntactically ambiguous pronouncements. In “All Together Now,” this one stands out: “I’m not discussing my sex life with you.” Those words pass between William and Virgnia, who quite suddenly fold themselves into their own study with little fanfare. Actually, no fanfare whatsoever: in the episode’s opening seconds, they are literally mid-coitus, and apparently not for the first time. The ostensible central couple of the series has made a serious move into practice, and though we see the moment they make that decision (the previous episode’s final scene), we skip the rest of the foreplay and get right in on the action.
Many freshman seasons struggle with pacing, but, if anything, Masters of Sex may be moving a little too quickly, so eager is it to touch on seemingly every within-purview subject on the minds of its writers – and since this is a series about sex, every possible topic ultimately falls within its purview. Race, class, gender, mortality, matrimony – it’s the apparent goal of Masters of Sex to engage as many of those subjects as possible every single week, and that approach is both exciting and problematic. The biggest downside of the diverse focus and quick pace is that we don’t spend quite enough time getting to know Virginia and William, the couple – as opposed to Virgina and William, the research team. “All Together Now” in particular fumbles this by failing to answer exactly why Virginia takes the leap into study participation now, and not back when William first made the proposition. Is it because of her increased love for the work? Her comfort level with William’s company? Her desire to ensure her place working for the study? Any one of those, or some combination thereof, would make for fine reasoning within the context of the series, but there’s insufficient dramatization even for guesswork.
Then there’s the ballad of Margaret and Barton Scully, a.k.a. the Todd Haynes corner of the series. If there’s still a nagging sense of familiarity to this storyline, it still ties in nicely to the series’ overall thesis about the need for open and honest discourse about sexuality. That thematic throughline is important, because the Margaret/Barton scenes aren’t the series’ most gracefully written. The bar confrontation in “Love and Marriage” is particularly galling; even if Margaret is supposed to be tipsy, her speech to Dale and her husband is incredibly on-the-nose and overwrought. Much better is the later scene with Barton and his “graduate student,” wherein the latter gets the episode’s best line, after he soundly rejects Barton’s attempts to drug the gay away: “There’s only one person who gets to be sickened by me, and that’s me.” Is it necessarily the most plausible line to be spoken by a young gay man in 1957? Perhaps not, but it’s a powerful moment nonetheless.
Though Janney has attracted far more critical buzz for her work overall on the series, it’s Julianne Nicholson who steals “Love and Marriage,” in which we learn a great deal about Dr. Lillian DePaul. Though she’s a fictional character, DePaul is one of the series’ most immaculately sketched-out individuals, and the way Nicholson has gradually added shades of genuine pathos to her scenes is tremendously affecting. The reveal, in “Love and Marriage,” of her terminal illness could (and should) be a groan-worthy development, but DePaul’s quiet dignity (so vividly undercut by Ethan and Austin’s snickering throughout her lecture), her deep respect for the cadavers she uses in her classes, and carefully concealed concern for Virginia feel lived-in and palpably real, and that’s a credit to Nicholson. No wonder she’s about to be a whole lot more ubiquitous via August: Osage County and Sundance’s Red Road.
Speaking of Ethan: he continues to be the thorn in the series’ side, though there are hints scattered here and there that Michelle Ashford and co. may be aware of the character discrepancy. Ethan continues to long for Virginia, even as he forces himself to take things further with young Vivian, from making her a fixture at home in “All Together Now” to outright proposing in “Love and Marriage,” which (in a literal sense) gets its title from a hilarious scene in which Ethan spies Vivian singing the titular tune (popularized by Frank Sinatra, though a different recording is used here, for obvious reasons), much to Ethan’s annoyance. Though these episodes are mostly content to play up Ethan’s warmer side, a few sideways glances, as well as a loaded line in “Love and Marriage” wherein Ethan acknowledges his “failings” (without naming them), might signal his return to outright physical violence, but it’s not clear yet if Masters of Sex has the stomach for that kind of character work.
Masters of Sex continues to contort itself, admirably, in the service of keeping Libby Masters busy and onscreen, to mixed results. The wives of Masters of Sex, in general, tend to display a sense of awareness that other series could learn from: in “Love and Marriage,” we meet Austin’s wife for the first time, and she’s all too aware of her husband’s patterns of sex and hollow regret. The same goes for Libby, who can sense problems in her marriage long before William ever comes around to acknowledging them. With that said, her scenes with Walter the black handyman feel a little labored (no pun intended, given the news of her second unlikely pregnancy). Besides the fact that Walter has clearly been conjured to give Libby someone to interact with while William’s at work, and to probe issues of race, Walter is simply a few touches too saintly – he’s even a widower. In a series full of flawed, compelling characters, Walter (at least on first impression) feels like a plot-and-theme delivery device.
Thankfully, “Love and Marriage” ends with one of the series’ most keenly observed and daring sequences. While we watch the shaky footage shot by William’s new cinephile collaborator Lester (whose style, he says, hews closer to Hitchcock than Welles), William notes that his latest refractory period has ended, a few minutes sooner than usual. The notion that this arousal can be attributed not to the footage, but to the sensation of discovering entirely new things with a likeminded partner, is a compelling one, and it marks the series’ best moment yet for explicating the William-Virginia pairing. The fact that there’s so much future heartbreak and strife to be navigated as a result is an excellent problem for a drama to have.