Written by Michelle Ashford
Directed by Michael Dinner
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
Project Manhigh was a primitive pre-astronaut experiment that sent men into the stratosphere in balloons; it’s all kinds of appropriate that this tentative step towards full-blown space exploration in a principal source of inspiration for the final episode of Masters of Sex‘s first season. Here is a series whose ambitions are greater than nearly any other drama to grace the medium right now, but one in need of significant retooling if it’s to ascend to the heights of its greatest peers. At various times, it either adopts the right direction, or takes the correct form, but generally not
As befits a finale, nearly every seemingly disparate narrative corner of the show makes some kind of appearance in “Manhigh,” though not all are quite given the necessary screen time to really make an impact. The most curious choice of the episode is the prooritization of the William-Barton friendship over the Virginia-William courtship. The second half of the season has seen Barton take a backseat to Margaret, but as “Manhigh” opens, the proverbial cat is out of the bag, and Barton has to contend both with the future of his marriage (and his sexuality) as well as the fallout from William’spresentation.
The presentation, and William’s scenes leading up to it, contain some of Michael Sheen’s most indelible acting yet. Ashford takes the time to give us silent (or near-silent) moments to take in William’s quiet rituals of preparation, of calculating theoretical audience impact. Yet, in her most important contribution to the episode, Libby remarks that he should have let her in on the content of the presentation, as she’d have urged him not to include the visual aids. Masters of sex is exceedingly fond of making Libby correct as often as possible; it’s an interesting corrective to the fact that the series really belongs to William and Virginia, and always will, by design, which means that to some degree she’ll always be on the show’s margins. By showing us as frequently as possible that her instincts are sharp, however, Ashford and co. are laying the groundwork for the idea that if she’s to be made a fool of, we’ll know just with whom the blame should land, and with what degree of ferocity.
The non-William and Libby couplings, on the other hand, are looking markedly healthier – for the most part. Jane and Lester are completely adorable, never moreso than when she pledges to defend him against future recrimination for what he’s filmed while he sings the praises of her “vaginal walls.” Truly, a pairing for the ages. (Not surprisingly, she pays Austin little mind when he suggests resuming their study participation.) Barton and Margaret come to a kind of understanding that they can still seek to function as a family – though, of course, he decides to undergo ECT without her knowledge. (Baby steps.) And then there’s the small, niggling matter of Virginia and Ethan. I’ve long been wondering precisely what Ashford had in mind in terms of Ethan’s arc and construction as a character – after all, punching the female lead in the pilot is kind of a big deal – and the answer is…a little mystifying, as it turns out. In a post-season interview with Alan Sepinwall, she explained that Ethan’s behaviour in the pilot was conceived as a kind of youthful indiscretion, and a bad reaction to a woman whose sensibilities confuse and conflict with his own, rather than the behavior of an inherently abusive individual.
Setting aside questions of whether or not the one-time abuser is a psychologically sound idea, the notion of socking a woman in the face as a way of dramatising the effect a relatively “liberated” woman might have on a contemporary male with more traditional/conservative values is a bizarre one to have if the ultimate goal is to have the character barely acknowledge the error of his ways and transform into a boy scout/family man. Credit to Ashford for at least having a clear conception of the character’s journey, but I’m not sure the legwork was done to sell it on a dramatic or psychological level – that would have required a whole lot more time spent with Ethan alone, or confiding in a friend or psychologist. For a series so effective in presenting still-revolutionary ideas about human sexuality, Ethan remains the one element that feels strangely regressive, or at the very least, under-analyzed.
Going forward, there’s reason to feel good about the future of Masters of Sex. Ashford’s stated intentions for the William/Virginia/Libby triangle sound daring (and, as a bonus, historically accurate), and anyone who’s done even a little research on the real Masters and Johnson know there’s all kinds of dramatically fertile material to come. Whatever the season’s trouble spots, it never lacked for sharp dialogue and carefully observed, emotionally engaging material, and writers’ rooms tend to strengthen and gel in sophomore outings, particularly when it comes to serialized drama. Hopefully the next round will spread itself a little less thin in terms of its characters, and in the process see Masters of Sex become as great as it is refreshing.