Masters of Sex Season 3, Episode 1
“Parliament of Owls”
Posted by Sage
It’s 1965 and the “sexual revolution” has never felt more claustrophobic and awkward. Welcome to Masters of Sex season 3, and our very first episode recap.
Time jumps are trending right now, and Masters went a little time jump-happy in “Parliament of Owls.” Not only does the show leap over several years between the season two finale and this premiere; the premiere itself hops back and forth between two pivotal events spaced three months apart: a “family weekend” at the lake, and Bill and Virginia presenting Human Sexual Response to a panting press.
I’m still processing my feelings about this episode, frankly. I find Masters to be dazzling in its finest moments. Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, and Caitlin Fitzgerald especially are giving weekly master classes in acting (and I’m not very patiently awaiting the return of Emmy nominees Beau Bridges and Allison “Human Sunshine” Janney); the show’s female characters are complex without being forced into inscrutability; the period styling is a wardrobe buff’s dream; and the subject matter is ripe for dramatic interpretation. But, along with every other Masters fan, I need to accept that the series is entering into a new era. It’s 1965. Masters and Johnson’s study has been going on for 12 years. While the book is newly published, the researchers’ names have been out there for a while. Betty has a sensible haircut. And the tense triangle of Bill, Gini, and Libby has settled into a calm-on-the-surface blended family arrangement. The premiere’s first scene, with Bill and Gini at the Boston Ritz, attempting to work through their nerves before their career-making press conference was a valiant effort to convince me that Masters hasn’t morphed into a family drama. (“You should stop talking so I can fuck you properly before we try to sleep.”) I’m skeptical.
We knew from casting announcements that Bill and Virginia’s children would be aged up this season, and so they were. When we last left Henry and Tessa, Virginia had too. Bill manipulated her into relinquishing them to George’s care, which broke her, for a time. There are no room for children in Bill’s life; even the ones already there he endeavors to ignore. (Also, since when the hell is there a Howie Masters?) So he kept Virginia for himself (“Is there not one square inch of my life that you haven’t insinuated yourself into?”), and probably hoped that Libby would leave him entirely. But Libby is resolute in her commitment to hold onto her family and – through Virginia – keeps Bill tethered and floating along next to them. Most of the time, he can lose himself in his work. But he dreads the Masters/Johnsons lake house vacations because they force him to face the mess he created. He’s practically jumping out of his skin from the moment he and Virginia step out of their (slick as fuck) car and head in to a house lousy with hormones and complicated histories.
Here’s the problem with populating a world with teenage characters: they take up all the space. In an effort to show a disconnect between the researchers’ domination of the broadening public conversation about human sexuality and their inability to transfer their professional expertise to their own families, Tessa and Henry are post-pubescent messes. (“My work is not for children, you know that.”) Henry is a adrift, sleeping with a much older woman and trying to enlist. And Tessa is your standard underage vixen caricature. Both of them are the way the are, we’re meant to accept, because they feel abandoned by their mother. This feels like a punishment for Gini for choosing to pursue her career, even though she’s still degree-less after more than a decade. Huge props to Lizzy Caplan for playing Virginia’s frustration with this state of limbo with such realism. She chastises Bill for holding her back in front of Libby, but still allows him to get away with it. What are you waiting for, Gini?
I did appreciate the scene where Virginia went to visit George to, essentially, use him as her punching bag. Her ex-husband has his failings, but her pride will only allow her to blame her kids’ unhappiness on him instead of, you know, thanking him for raising her children. Twice divorced, George has evened out, and honestly, his plan for dealing with Henry’s restlessness sounds the most viable. And instead of fighting back against Gini, he accepts her fearful lashing out for what it is. Team George, basically. (“I am worried. And I’m sorry…for, you know, the hash I’ve made of it as a parent a lot of the time, but not always. And in this one, I am with you, Virginia. Lockstep.”)
Compared with Mad Men often and for obvious reasons, Masters shares that other show’s fondness for the occasional plain-spoken dialogue that races right past symbolism and straight into the truth and nothing but the truth. Towards the close of the episode and after an insane day, Libby climbs into bed with Virginia, beatific smile on her face and explains to us exactly why she’s being so cool about a weekend getaway with her husband’s mistress:
I have thought a lot about my marriage. And I realize I don’t need Bill to be all things. I don’t even need him to be a lot of things…I think that a heart can only be broken so many times, and then it’s done. And I think that I’m done. And I’m okay with that, I am. As long as my home and my family stay in tact…I want to spare my children a life of upheaval and pain. I know you can appreciate that….we understand each other, Gin. Sometimes I think we understand each other better than either of us understands Bill.
Of course, Libby isn’t fine. She’s self-medicating. She’s incredibly lonely. And, in a “we didn’t forget about this!” nod to season 2, she’s obsessing over the battle over civil rights in the southern states. But, unlike Bill, she can learn to endure. She has adapted to this situation, as unfriendly as it once seemed. Bill’s weakness has been a theme since the show’s pilot. He’s brilliant and determined in his work. (“Two career cards for your father, naturally.”) But elsewhere, he’s a coward. He manipulates the people in his life and pretends that he doesn’t know he’s doing it. He’s used the ghost of his abusive father as a excuse not to love his own children. He has two incredible women standing by him (three, if you count Betty, and I sure do), and he’s pathetic in their shadow. But it’s 1965 and he is a man. By that virtue alone, they need him. (LIBBY, JUST WAIT TILL THE ’70S, GIRL.) What makes matters worse, is that Bill knows these things. He sees himself, just like those kitschy owl prints on the lake house walls. And that self-loathing encourages him to become more of a shit, resulting in an endless loop of male shittiness. (AKA, my love life.)
Professionally, meanwhile, Masters and Johnson are killin’ it. Though Johnny endeavored to destroy the work that his dad loves more than him, all it takes is an early morning drive to the publisher to get another galley print. (Bill can’t be brought down by domesticity – not yet.) In the press conference, the researchers are pestered by a red herring. David Buckland of the American Medical Association questions the book’s medical merit, moral code, and Virginia’s credentials, all to add extra drama to his grand reveal that he was never a monster at all, just a thorough journalist with unnecessarily combative methods! This was a weak misdirect, story-wise, but I can’t fault that last monologue. He compares the breadth and depth of human sexuality to the stars and Masters and Johnson to Galileo. Virginia looks ready to burst, and not just because she’s secretly with child.
My big takeaway from this episode though, is that the truths that the researchers have uncovered and the freedom those truths give people are not the magic antidote that keep us from hurting each other. A journalist worries that the study’s “emphasis on female pleasure” will mean that women will “feel free to say no,” (“This asshole.” – my notes.) and Masters and Johnson are both horrified that anyone would consider that agency a negative. “There is no universe where fear is a barrier worth preserving,” Bill states emphatically, and I love him for a moment. But there are lots of other things to be scared of besides the act of sex. “Whatever the arrangement between grown, consenting adults must begin with the truth,” Bill continues. He’d rather sleep outside in a deck chair than in bed with his wife.
“I’ve always wondered what it felt like with you,” Libby says to Gini after kissing her. And I don’t think she means sexually. She is well aware that Bill feels more free with his mistress, but hell if she knows why. The science can’t solve it all. The only moment of actual research we see in this episode is with the Einhorns, a bickering couple who need way more counseling than sex therapy. Would that Virginia would add to their expertise with that sociology degree, though it looks like that ship has finally sailed. There’s another baby on the way, and nobody looks thrilled about it.
- Lester has kids! And if he’s got those kids with Barbara, she’s become “Caligula in curlers.” Bless.
- Wardrobe moments of the episode: Virginia’s mod button-front dress and road trip chic head scarf.
- “Libby, you are her aunt, essentially.” Fuck you, Bill.
- “Mr. Buckland, we are the sexual revolution.”
- “Oh, a perfect lose-lose for me.”
- I don’t need all my characters to be likable, but here’s hoping that Tessa and Henry are relatively scarce this season.
- Come to me, Josh Charles.
We’ll be tag-teaming these recaps, so come on back next week for Kim’s review of episode 2!