Masters of Sex, Ep. 1.11: “Phallic Victories” punctuated with incisive acting and writing flourishes

EPISODE 111
Masters of Sex, Season 1, Episode 11: “Phallic Victories”

Written by Amy Lippman
Directed by Phil Abraham
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on Showtime

As the first season of Masters of Sex draws to a close, it’s worth taking stock of the series’ considerable contribution to the televisual landscape, even for those among us (myself included) who feel as though the writing could stand to be more focused. First and foremost, it’s finally given Lizzy Caplan the post-Party Down showcase she so richly deserved, a fact that bears reminding in the wake of the refreshingly Virginia-centric “Phallic Victories.”  It bolsters the meager ranks of dramatic series that don’t rely on absurdly heightened stakes – think Mad Men or The Good Wife – though it will need a little retooling to reach those series’ heights. Most of all, though, it was introduced comprehensive notions of patriarchal control and gender conflict into a TV landscape that still (in general) privileges straight white male perspectives above all else.

Understandably, bringing that last point to fruition is a challenge for a series that aims to tell the story of a partnership as thorny and complicated as that of Masters and Johnson. “Phallic Victories” is one of the best episodes of the series because it permits us a little time to explore Virginia and William’s separate headspaces, leaving room to adequately show us the forces at work under the surface without getting too caught up in the inevitable relationship drama. The fact that this all feels a little too transparently like a delaying tactic on the way to William and Johnson’s Inevitable Reunion is a minor quibble when the execution is this strong.

Meanwhile: is there a more tragic figure in all of 2013 television than Libby Johnson? Ever the devoted wife and partner, even in the face of her husband’s seemingly insurmountable bullishness, Libby has emerged as one of the series’ most vital presences. That’s impressive when you consider that wife-of-the-male-protagonist is almost universally the most thankless role in the entire history of TV and film. Libby is determined to make her marriage work, and she is naive in some respects, but she’s so accepting of William’s work (and work habits – the ones that she knows of, anyway) that it’s impossible to see her as the nagging obstacle to some great future happiness.

Much of the episode is centered on the long-gestating (but inevitable) friendship between Virginia and Lillian, as they venture out to secure support for the pap smear initiative on extremely limited funds. “Phallic Victories” does an excellent job – courtesy of teleplay writer Amy Lippman – of balancing Lillian’s very real grievances with gender inequality with her own health struggles, without making it seem as though the former is strictly motivated by the latter, thus invalidating her impatience as simply the byproduct of ill circumstance. When she bemoans the fact that William is diverting lucrative hospital funds thanks to a “sweetheart deal,” she is simultaneously expressing a legitimate frustration with the realities of her time as well as underlining the gravity of her own situation as someone with a profoundly finite lifespan. Every one of her beats works.

Crucially, however, the male corner of the episode is not without its moments of grace, either. Whatever my grievances with Ethan’s overall season arc, his last scenes with the exiled George Masters are profound, in a stunted sort of way. Whatever his shortcomings as a husband and father – and they are legion – George at least recognizes them. (Perhaps a side effect of being around the ahead-of-her-time Virginia for so long?) Or, as he more bluntly, rhetorically asks Ethan: “If you don’t want your kids to turn out like you, what have you got to teach ’em?”  It’s another in a long line of Masters of Sex characters speaking in a frank fashion that might undermine the series’ period credibility, but it’s at least notably poignant for once, serving to humanize a character who had previously been rather one-note.

“Phallic Victories” ends with a sequence that doesn’t add a whole lot to the series’ already-considerable emotional palette, but  it does broaden our understanding of Virginia’s past somewhat. As Virginia coos Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me” in a recording booth, Ethan ponders whether he’s really seeing the wild young Virginia that George spoke so fondly (OK, lustily) of, or merely a pale shadow. For her part, Virginia may not be able to answer any of Ethan’s burning questions, trapped as she is in a world where the possibility of a level playing field is distant at best. How can anyone, then, really know anyone?

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