7 Days in Hell is an HBO TV mockumentary about …
If you can imagine Nixon resigning in the middle of All the President’s Men, with the remainder of the film dedicated to Woodward and Bernstein fighting their editor, you have a pretty good idea how Kill the Messenger plays out. It’s not a bad film, but it is a sloppy one that squanders a firecracker start and a terrific performance from Jeremy Renner. As Gary Webb ponders whether to publish his inflammatory story, he is advised that, “Some stories are just too true to tell.” Such is the case with some scripts, which, in their admirable haste to relate the truth, forget the requirements of compelling storytelling. If you want to find the heart of Webb’s story, you’ll have to dig a little deeper.
“Everyone has their own version of everything that’s ever happened.” There’s more weight and truth to these words Ann Dowd speaks than in any of the many speeches she got to deliver in The Leftovers. It’s an easy sentence to seize upon as a master key to interpreting the ideas in “Below the Belt,” but “easy” doesn’t mean “unintelligent.” It’s there from the opening scene, in which Gini confesses to her psychiatrist that she’s set all their sessions up as a charade to try to help Barb. It’s in the fundamental misunderstanding between Langham and Flo about the nature of their new sexual relationship. And of course, it’s at the heart of the episode’s biggest conflict, as Bill and Frank clash over whose version of their past is the truth.
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 by the midway point, what 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 I don’t feel compelled to complain too much.
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.
As Masters of Sex continues to grow and evolve, what’s increasingly clear is its clear affection for (and sly subversion of) classic Hollywood melodrama. That connection is made very explicit in “Brave New World,” whose two key motifs are the theories of Sigmund Freud and the novel (and subsequent film adaptation) Peyton Place.
If anything, “Brave New World” too prominently pushes those motifs. All of a sudden, every character is bringing up, questioning or outright mocking Freud’s theories on female and male sexuality. To make Freud’s work such a prominent issues only makes sense; after all, his influence had barely waned even two decades after his death, but the teleplay is a little too insistent on making that omnipresence clear. A little subtlety goes a long way, and the strangest thing about Masters of Sex is that it seems to understand that on a number of fronts, while being blaringly obvious on others.
One of the cornerstones of the Golden Age (or Second or Third or Umpteenth Golden Age – take your pick) of television lies in an individual episode’s ability to convey a thematic throughline without being too on-the-nose about it. Series like Deadwood, The Wire, Mad Men, The Sopranos and many more manage to convey motifs through means other than direct address, whether that involves allusion, visual connectivity, performance tics, or other, less obvious factors. As Masters of Sex continues to find its feet, its ideas about how to form an episode’s thesis continues to evolve, and “Catherine” will likely go down as an important turning point in that evolution.
Despite the wink-wink, nudge-nudge titling, “Thank You For Coming” is likely the gravest episode of Masters of Sex yet, concerned as it is with male abuses of power and privilege (not to mention outright physical abuse). The best thing the series has going for it right now is that it’s able to pursue its themes in multiple directions – even through the spectrum of a single character.
The title “Standard Deviation” more obviously refers to William Masters’s chance encounters with homosexual men, who provide his latest ethical and moral hiccups in pursuing sexuality scientifically, but it also works to demarcate the episode as being the precise point Masters of Sex decides to make a clean break from history and chart a potentially very different path for its characters. I won’t go into too many specifics for fear of potential future-series spoilers, but it’s already clear that Michelle Ashford is setting out to use Masters and Johnson as more of a loose framework to probe big ideas about societal relationships to sexuality than strict historical portraiture.
Part of the fun of watching a first-time showrunner flex their muscles is to see just what narrative strategies they’re prepared to deploy in service of a story. With “Race to Space,” Masers of Sex expands its stylistic/narrative catalog a bit, allowing in daydreams, allegory, and montage, while it hones in on Virginia and her reaction to Dr. Masters’s request that they themselves engage in sex. It’s not all effective, but the willingness to toy around with different storytelling modes bodes well for the series’s future.