Masters of Sex Season 2, Episode 8, “Mirror, Mirror”
Written by Steve Levenson
Directed by Michael Apted
Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 9, “Story of My Life”
Written by Amy Lippman
Directed by Jeremy Webb
Airs Sundays at 10pm (ET) on Showtime
This season of Masters of Sex appears to be shaping up to be more like two mini-seasons aired consecutively. The first six episodes had Masters, Johnson, and their sex study bouncing willy-nilly between different hospitals. There was a minorly conclusive note at the midway point, with Lillian dying, Libby settling her feud with Coral by firing her, Bill and Gini getting kicked out of Buell Green, and Betty’s marriage collapsing. The back half has seen the study finally settled into a home with the opening of its own clinic, and new characters have been introduced (along with a few old ones not seen since season 1 coming back). This show is not settling into a lull by any means. The lack of cohesion in the central narrative is frustrating, but the series has consistently upped its game in every other respect this season, so one doesn’t feel compelled to complain too much.
The biggest shift of the status quo in the second half of season two has been in Bill, whose behavior has grown more erratic since the onset of his erectile dysfunction. Tossed into this mix is his heretofore unrevealed younger brother Frank, who’s using fertility treatments for his wife as an excuse to seek to mend fences with Bill. But Bill, because he is Bill, treats anything that might require a hint of emotional vulnerability like it’s plagued. He particularly can’t understand Frank’s devotion to AA, and the idea of sharing one’s intensely personal pain with strangers. The dynamic between the two is hypnotic, and Christian Borle has already made an excellent addition to the recurring cast as Frank. This show is consistently on point with drawing in actors.
That quality is also on display with Betsy Brandt, whose Barbara baffled many with her seemingly superfluous presence in the first few episodes of the season. But now she’s back with a vengeance, and Gini’s attempts to help her resolve her many sexual hang-ups form most of her storyline across these two episodes. Bill and Gini have drastically different ideas about how they can help Barbara — Bill staunchly believing they can only treat her physically, while Gini maintains that doing so would be useless if they don’t help her psychologically. It’s a simple but effective showcase for the fundamental difference between the two researchers, both in their approaches and in their philosophies about this study. Gini also reveals more about herself in the course of her actions; her move to pretend to have suffered Barbara’s history of incest and repression for a psychologist, in order to mimic his techniques when interacting with the real Barbara, seems like something straight out of a TV stock plot handbook of hackery. But these episodes follow this idea to its logical conclusion, and don’t treat it with any levity. It seems clear that what Gini’s doing may be causing Barbara more harm than good.
Meanwhile, Libby has turned her recurring subplot for the season on its head, going from being horribly racist to trying to prove that she’s not racist. It’s good to see that the show has not dropped its concerns about race relations in the time period completely, but this storyline is still awfully wonky. For one thing, Robert and his CORE colleague’s actions don’t really make sense — first they’re asking Libby for her help bringing hate criminals to justice, but after she’s offered it, they first ask her to bend the truth in her testimony, then criticize her for not being able to do so effectively, and then basically tell her to leave. But it does lead to a strong moment for Libby, her strongest all season, in fact. Being let off the hook for any moral obligation to help CORE makes her ultimate decision to return and offer her help anyway all the more resonant. In “Mirror, Mirror,” she talks about what it’s like to feel utterly helpless. Now she’s taking charge of her own agency by, as her sister-in-law puts it, doing something no one would expect her to.
Other characters are left a bit out of the loop here. Austin is now the spokesman for the weight loss program, because… well, he’s a main cast member, and he needs something to do. Betty too doesn’t get much to do in these two episodes either, which is a shame. But the return of Lester the AV geek continues to be an absolute delight. Kevin Christy has shot up to the top of the list of recurring cast members who should be added to the main roster. One great feature of the second “mini season” has been a better grasp of humor than the first, and Lester’s social anxiety is a good source of it. His extraordinarily awkward encounter with the prostitute Kitty is one of the highlights of these two episodes (“Maybe we could start by you telling me what you like.” “The French New Wave”).
Every time one has tried to guess where Masters of Sex has been going this season, the theories have been proven wrong within an episode or two (Recall the theory, posited in prior reviews, that Buell Green would be the source of a prolonged exploration of race in the ’50s? Ha!). So looking to where the show will be going in this year’s final three episodes would be a fool’s errand. While the show does seem to be building a conflict between Bill and Gini as to how their sex study can best help its subjects, it’s equally possible that they’ll be all lovey-dovey midway through the next installment. The fact that “Story of My Life” ends with Bill finally admitting his impotence is a big step, though. Begrudgingly, he’s picked up some pointers on opening up from his brother. Before they can help anyone else, they have to see about helping themselves.