Masters of Sex Season 3, Episode 3
“The Excitement of Release”
Posted by Sage
It’s back to grown-up stuff (for the most part) on Masters in the season’s third episode, and it’s about time.
Human Sexual Response has hit the shelves and entered the zeitgeist. Not everyone is pleased, but Bill couldn’t care less about the opinions of the nation’s repressed prudes and invasive “decency” cops. So long as he’s getting the response he seeks from the minds and publications that matter to him, he’s in hog heaven. Bill’s pursuit of validation is very specific; no one can convince him to appreciate well-intended praise from meaningless sources (“My nephew wrote a book!”) or to stop scrapping for endorsements that aren’t coming. Success looks a certain way to Bill, and he can’t find it in himself to alter that picture.
When the episode opens, we find that the medical community is falling over itself to praise the work, and that good reviews are a potent aphrodisiac. Kim pointed out in her last recap that the sex has been missing from Masters season three so far, but this celebratory rendezvous promised to end the drought both for Bill and Virginia (“You haven’t tried to touch me in almost a year.” “8 months.”) and for the audience. “We killed Freud,” Gini purrs, and Bill is ready to ravish her. But even though most traces of George can be slid off Gini’s finger and placed on a nightstand (“That was easy.”), Lisa can’t be so easily forgotten. She cries for her mother, and Bill is left alone to again consider his place in Virginia’s life.
We know that he doesn’t like what he sees, and – as he often does when he’s feeling weak and impotent – takes it out on someone else. Meanwhile, it seems like it might be too little and too late for Gini to get a foothold with Tessa. The teen is acting out in school; there’s an emergency parent/nun walk-and-talk conference that Virginia has to attend. When Bill gives her grief for “letting” her family responsibilities affect her work, she knows exactly how to handle it. She placates him with a beatific smile, pats his head with a false apology, and goes about her business. She’s made her peace with Bill’s moods. But with Tessa, she’s bouncing and banking erratically around their arguments. She’s too involved in her daughter’s life or not involved enough. And Tessa plays her, claiming that it’s the very fact of having Virginia Johnson the renowned sex researcher for a mother that’s ruining her existence. Meanwhile, she’s giving dramatic readings to some Letterman’s Jacket on the bleachers and banging on about female orgasms.
We can assume that Virginia still hasn’t had a productive sex talk with her daughter. Tessa may be The Worst™, but she’s also confused. Without any wider context to the written words of Masters and Johnson, she’s interpreted the book’s thesis into a directive to get out there and be a sexual being herself. But in addition to being The Worst™, she’s also Not Ready™; she and Letterman’s Jacket have a disturbing encounter in his car, which leaves her visibly numbed.
I’m a little baffled as to what we’re supposed to take away from this sexual assault storyline. Isabelle Fuhrman acted the crap out of it, particularly that wretched hallway scene. (“I’d love to.”) Human Sexual Response is not for kids (as Bill would say), and teen-oriented subplots still feel so distant from the main action. And while the incident was very truthful and moving, it did put the blame for the violation of Tessa on the book, and on Virginia. (“It’s in your mom’s book. Jesus, don’t be a prick tease.”) Is that really what you meant to do, show?
Back at the office, Bill is projecting his wild fantasies about full college courses being developed around the book. This, he decrees, is the next step. Betty, who is now our swinging ’60s Donnatella Moss, has a different (and better) idea: many powerful men with powerful dollars have been calling to inquire about sponsoring continued research. Now is the time to take them up on it. Masters and Johnson will never be hotter than they are now. (Hear that, baby Lisa? Put yourself back to sleep next time.) The women ignore Bill’s protests and meet with the high rollers themselves. Bill is busying chasing another waterfall; a textbook order from Washington University would (in his mind) negate the shame that his firing engendered. (“Your book is a success Bill. You don’t need to tilt at windmills anymore.”) In fact, the whole nationwide college push might be the Trojan horse he needs to get the Wash U endorsement he really wants. There are plenty of bites on other lines, but “not a peep” from the former home of the study. Oh, Bill. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.
While Bill sweats and strains for the right kind of recognition, Betty and Virginia are hobnobbing with the rich and generally being fabulous. The candidates angling to be the patrons of the sexual revolution are the peddler of a popular hand massager (“It also helps, or so I’m told, to release certain pelvis pressures.”); Hef himself; and a perfume magnate played with class and barely restrained lechery by Josh Charles. (“There are two questions that have puzzled me my entire career: What is the smell of sex? And how do we get it in the bottle?”) In my opinion, Dan Logan should automatically win the bid. Josh is the most familiar of the three with Human Sexual Response, having been one of the main causes of mine since Knox Overstreet and Dead Poets Society in 1989.
Betty and Virginia are most impressed with Hugh Hefner’s pitch, because Holly Madison’s memoir hasn’t been published yet. Gini puts him through his paces (“Besides, I doubt this is the first time someone has questioned the sincerity of a man whose employees wear ears and cotton tails.”), but Hef dazzles them with Playboy‘s subscription numbers and the potential of having an established, highly visible partner in this noble quest. After sending them along to do the errand, Bill refuses to take the ladies’ recommendation. He makes some decent points about Hef using them to place the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” on the magazine, but, as usual, Bill has a ready public reason for railroading the idea and a shameful, private one. Getting into bed with Playboy won’t help him win over Wash U, and this phase is all about Bill’s vindication. Dan Logan is his choice. Virginia looks defiant as Bill and Dan talk around her in meeting #2 (the real one, as far as Bill is concerned), but she still casts a spell on their new investor. And he’s already told them both that he’s “not very interested in ‘nice.'” Allow me to translate Bill’s expression here: “Abort, abort!”
Welcome to Masters, Josh Charles! And welcome back to Beau Bridges, who returned this week as Bill’s former boss Barton Scully. Poor Barton. The sexual revolution came too late for him. With Margaret gone, he’s reset his closeted lifestyle. Bill looks stricken to see a kindly middle-aged woman standing next to his friend at the door: Judith, with the lasagna, from upstairs. He mistakenly thinks that Barton might still have some pull at the university, but they have long since shelved him. Barton fetches Chancellor Fitzhugh a drink at a faculty get-together while Bill makes his appeal. The Chancellor loathes Bill – how could he think that the book’s success has erased that? – and he uses Barton’s humiliation to get that point across. To Bill’s credit, he forgets his textbook quest as soon as he sees what they’ve made of this man. (That drink was thrown for Barton’s sake, trust.) The type of happiness that Barton claims he has isn’t the kind that Bill wants for him. It’s not brave, or real. There’s no legacy here. Bill lives enough lies to know that there has to be something left to believe in. “Come where you’re wanted, Barton,” Bill says as he offers him a job. “Where you’re respected.”
After two episodes of sharing space with Bill and Virginia, Libby is back in her own world this week. She’s become close with the new neighbors, especially Joy (yes, that is the Shakespeare girl from 10 Things) and her husband Paul. Joy confides in her friend that she’s making moves to leave Paul, and Libby begins to obsess over it. (“Obviously, my mistake was giving her The Feminine Mystique.”) Libby is a meddler. She’s lost a significant amount of control of her own life, so she tries to regain it elsewhere. But this is a special case. If Joy does it – if Joy can start her life over and put her own needs above her husband and kids – then Libby can do it too. She simply can’t stand to see a play like that work – not right next door. She wildly suggests that Bill tell Paul what Joy is planning, and even arranges a play date for them so he can do it. Instead, Bill discovers that Paul was a college football star and tortures him by having a childishly gleeful show-and-tell with his card collection. We see then that the same things that Joy doesn’t like about Paul – that he peaked as a young man and lost all sight of his dreams – are the things he doesn’t like about himself. (Joy is obviously a little jealous of Bill’s rising star, even as she commiserates with Libby about it as what she believes is the strain on the Masters’ marriage.) Later, Libby sees Paul’s empty car running in the middle of the night and races over to get involved in what she thinks is Joy’s great escape. No one is escaping that night: Joy had a sudden brain aneurysm and collapsed. Paul is a mess. Clearly he loves his wife, and maybe those sacrifices he made were all for her, even though they soured over time. She’ll live, but with “catastrophic” brain damage. That’s what it’s like to truly be trapped, Libby realizes. That’s when a life is over. And Libby is still alive.
“Who goes somewhere where they’re not wanted?” Bill asks Virginia this as they’re laying in bed after the Wash U fiasco. “You’re wanted here,” she assures him. They’re so much better here, in these moments. This is where Bill and Virginia shine. And that’s what’s missing for Barton, Tessa, and Libby. No one truly hears them, either because they’re too proud or afraid to seek out that intimacy. Bill and Virginia happened onto it by accident. And sometimes, it makes everything else feel possible. Lisa cries again, and Gini puts her between them on the bed to lull her back to sleep. First, Bill looks like Virginia just gingerly laid a landmine in between them. He can barely breathe. But Gini is beaming at him. She reaches out to Bill, and finally, finally, he reaches out to the baby. They lay there, just breathing. It’s tentative and fragile, but there’s comfort and security here. Everybody is wanted.
Odds and Ends
- “I’ve come to tell you that hell is a real place,” is my new response to anyone telling me anything I don’t want to hear.
- “All girls really like sex.”
- Jane is going to single-handedly dismantle the shrewish housewife trope and I am SO READY.
- The beginning of Bill and Paul’s man-date:
- Naming state capitals is just about the worst drinking game I can think of. You can’t even rebel right, Tessa, GOD.
- Betty, runnin’ shit: “Let me tell you somethin’ about your wife. She’s not a she-wolf, she is BORED.”
- Fashion moments: the mustard-yellow cap-sleeve number Virginia wore for the investor meetings; baby Lisa’s PJs.
Kim will be back on the job for episode 4, “Undue Influence.” And man, am I jealous. She gets to guide you through the return of the Janney.
Thoughts in the comments, please.