Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 1: “Parallax”
Written by Michelle Ashford
Directed by Michael Apted
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on Showtime
“Parallax” is the difference in an object’s appearance, depending on the position from which one observes it. One thing won’t look the same from the points of view of two people looking at it from different angles. The season premiere of Masters of Sex showcases this phenomenon with a scene that directly follows the end of last season’s finale. After Bill makes his anguished declaration that he “needs” Gini, they go inside, have sex, and then she breaks things off with Ethan over the phone. We see it first from Bill’s perspective, and then from Gini’s, which reveals that it’s their work she’s choosing, not Bill, over Ethan. Later, Bill claims that he too considers their sexual relationship “part of the work” and not an affair. Which does not dovetail at all with the emotions he displayed when he said he needed her, nor their closeness in bed.
A large part of Masters of Sex has to do with self-deception. In the repressed mainstream social environment of ‘50s America, desire must be tamped down, lest it clashes with what’s expected or considered “appropriate.” The Masters and Johnson study is destined to help tear down the wall of silence around sexual practice. But there are also interpersonal secrets at play, and the best parts of this series show where cultural norms and secrets intersect, and how people make up whatever narrative they need for moving ahead with their lives. Bill needs Gini, but his new baby (conceived without his knowledge) has firmly anchored him to Libby. So he tells her and himself that it’s just work. Gini tells Ethan and herself the same thing, because that makes it easier for her to turn down the seemingly perfect scenario Ethan’s offered her. Like so much else on the show, it’s wonderfully tragic.
Though the sadness in that storyline can’t top what comes from the episode’s major subplot, which sees Scully starting his gay aversion therapy. This is self-deception in its most extreme form, as Scully seeks to fundamentally change the way he is. It’s not working, but he tries to pretend it is anyway. However, he’s blocked by Margaret, the one major character who isn’t willing to indulge any delusions. In the episode’s best, most wrenching scene, the two try to make love, only for Margaret to push back when she realizes Scully still isn’t truly with her. And this kick to the stomach is compounded by Scully’s suicide attempt.
There are other examples of willful denial of reality throughout the episode. Betty is adamant that she’ll be happy with the Pretzel King, even though she knows she can’t give him the children he wants. Essie is almost literally worshipping her new grandson (she all but calls him Jesus!), and pretending that Bill isn’t the man she knows he is — his one moment of honesty in the episode comes when he blows up at her. Lillian is perhaps not lying to herself about whatever’s going on in her life that’s given her a black eye, but she’s anything but forthcoming about it. And then there’s poor, poor Libby. I’m not sure whether she is denying anything or honestly clueless (I’ve not re-seen all of season one and can’t recall what she does and doesn’t suspect about Bill’s activities).
Besides the two major plotlines, most of this episode is concerned with the usual premiere business of wrapping up loose threads from the first season, while setting up new ones for this season. Much of this entails sending off the various recurring characters whose actors have other obligations. So it’s off to California for Jane (Heléne Yorke is doing Broadway stuff), while Essie gets kicked out of the Masters household (Ann Dowd is on The Leftovers). I’m given to understand that Beau Bridges and Allison Janney won’t be showing up as much this season due to their commitments to their respective sitcoms (boooooo). And of course, Nicolas D’Agosto is out, but will we really miss Ethan? I don’t think so. We’ve already met the first of several new characters with Danny Huston as Bill’s new boss, who is going to let him go ahead with his sex research. This new environment will presumably form the basis for the main thrust of the science-related story going forward in this season.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t cover how in-charge the women on this show were in this episode. It goes beyond Margaret’s refusal to deal in Scully’s fake-conversion and her and her daughter’s rescue of him from his suicide attempt. There’s Libby finagling Bill’s new job by setting up social appointments. There’s Gini handling the gross advances of doctors with steely aplomb (she kicks one in the crotch!) — they shouted down Bill’s presentation because it was “indecent”, but feel no shame in pursuing her just because she was a part of it. There’s Teddy’s wife calling him out in public over his latest affair (the dude’s ceaselessly hungry dick has led him now to his sister-in-law, and that is his sole notable contribution to this episode). Masters of Sex is one of the few shows on television with a majority-women writing staff, and this ease in doling out interesting material is one result of this.
“Parallax” ends with Bill and Gini setting up a recurring rendezvous at a hotel, where they’ll be posing as a married couple. That sure seems like an affair, no matter what they say to one another. We already know that (spoilers from history) they’ll end up married for real one day, though the show has a lot of ground to cover before that happens. Of course, who knows how close the series will hew to history? There’s already plenty of divergences, and it’ll be interesting to see where they’ll be going from here. No doubt, it will squish viewers’ hearts like putty.