Masters of Sex Season Finale Review: It's You

By Cory Barker

Dec 16, 2013

Masters of Sex S01E12: "Manhigh" 


Guys, it has been so, so long since we checked in on Masters of Sex. Episode 2, to be exact. In the meantime, Showtime's freshman drama quickly grew into one of the year's best new series, delivering interesting stories and emotional gut-punches pretty much on the reg. Back when it premiered, there were questions about how Masters of Sex would work as a longform story, and the answer that Michelle Ashford and the creative team came up with was a great one: Fill the series with a slew of great supporting actors and supplemental stories with really moving payoffs that catch the audience (or at least me) off-guard. 

Michael Sheen's already racking up the award buzz for his work on the show, and rightfully so, but there are, minimum, a half-dozen people who have turned in award-worthy work in Season 1. I gushed over about Lizzy Caplan at the beginning of the season, and her work only got stronger as we got to see Virginia at work, at home, in class, and everywhere in between. Sheen's Masters is technically the show's lead character, but Caplan's Virginia is the center of its universe, pulling everything toward her without even realizing it. Caitlin Fitzgerald and Nicholas D'Agosto were sometimes saddled with repetitive stories, but both did really great work near the end of the season, when the show moved them out of that holding pattern. Teddy Sears, Julianne Nicholson, and Hélene Yorke were also fantastic whenever called upon. 

But people, Beau Bridges and Allison Janney just killed it. Killed it. If they don't win Guest Actor/Actress Emmys next fall, I will riot. In lesser hands, Barton's closeted homosexuality and Margaret's frustration and eventual awareness of her husband's true self could have been overwrought, especially given the time period. Of course, that's why you hire two great, professional actors to play out a story like this, but Bridges and Janney outdid even my high expectations, particularly in the last handful of episodes. The scene where the hooker told Margaret that her husband is gay was a master-class in non-verbal acting. Allison Janney is your goddess, bow down. 


I say all this not just to celebrate the great performances and stories told on this season of Masters of Sex, but to acknowledge them in the shadow of "Manhigh," an episode that mostly focused on Masters' first big presentation of the research and the subsequent fallout of that presentation. But that's not really a knock on the finale, particularly because the season was really building to a number of the moments the episode offered. The dissolution of Bill and Virginia's partnership—in all forms—had been hanging over the last few hours, forcing Bill inside his own head fairly often, where Virginia was often waiting to tell him that he was rushing the presentation or some of the research in hopes of keeping the hospital's attention. Meanwhile, without Bill, Virginia re-engaged with the ever-willing Ethan and kind of hilariously found another job in the hospital with icy Dr. DePaul. But the lingering feelings between Bill and Virginia—attraction, frustration, resentment, and probably a hundred others—had been drawn out for a while, with neither individual really that willing to budge. 

One of the strengths of Masters as a character and of Sheen's performance is that he's so rigid and internal to begin with that even though we (and probably he and Virginia) knew that he was falling in love with his partner, it wasn't so dominant on the surface of the character or the story. That allowed the show to tell a lot of different stories with Bill's lingering feelings in the background, where it was sort of a given that he wanted Virginia but found himself in this other relationship that he wasn't strong enough to get out of, especially once the second baby came. Over the last few weeks, that internal stuff has become much more visible to those around Bill, as he took to calling Jane Virg-Jane and stuffing his head farther into the work, despite the fact that he had a very preggo wife at home. 


"Manhigh" stripped everything away from Bill in pretty spectacular fashion. His desire to keep the interest of all the male doctors in the hospital led to a presentation full of the buzzy material—most notably, that penis size doesn't matter—but of course, none of them were ready for any kind of discussion about the female sexual experience. The horrified reactions to the vaginal wall film and then Virginia's self-pleasuring film were both telling and hilarious. This season had done such a great job of focusing on other parts of the story, and even other parts of the study, that it was important for Masters of Sex to remind us of the risks that Bill (and Virginia) were taking by doing this research. But because of that, Bill lost his cushy deal with the hospital and ultimately lost his job, although he protected Barton in the process. With no real place to continue the study—well, besides a brothel, and I'm guessing we'll be back there again come the start of Season 2—and a desire to stay far, far away from his home, Bill got drunk and went to see the only person that mattered, or so he claimed: Virginia. 

In some ways, I was a little disappointed that such a compelling, multifaceted season of television ended with a dude standing in the rain telling a girl how much he loved her, but at the same time, that was a huge moment... and not just because of any Bill and Virginia shipper feelings. No, it was huge because this was Bill, with nothing else to lose, finally verbalizing how he felt about anyone and not hiding behind his glasses, some files, or whatever the hell else. Obviously, we know how this story ends, but I'm not so sure that Virginia is just going to nod profusely and then make out with Bill's face. Masters of Sex also did a nice job of showing Virginia's complicated relationship with men, and though I'm fairly certain that she wants no part of a marriage with Ethan, that doesn't necessarily have everything to do with Bill. There are a lot of complications in place here, which made that final scene a great and frustrating cliffhanger all the same.


Meanwhile, the other arc that got some major burn here was Scully family conversation about whether or not Barton should have electroshock therapy to zap the homosexuality right out of him. As viewers, we obviously benefit from the passage of time and different perspectives on a wide variety of sexual orientations, which is what makes a story like this one especially heartbreaking. The best thing Masters of Sex did with this plot is emphasize that Barton actually does in fact love Margaret dearly; he's just not interested in her sexually. That made the story so much more complicated and moving, and it was at its apex in this episode, with Margaret imploring her husband not to undergo any dangerous 'treatment' that could erase his memories or worse, and Barton lying and saying that he wouldn't, only to admit to Bill that he had to if he wanted to save his family. 

With the Scully family drama, Bill and Virginia's relationship, and so much more, the first season of Masters of Sex smartly underscored that adults, many of them doctors or extremely smart people, had very little idea how to deal with sexuality, or all the complicated feelings that come along with sex. Everybody on this show is still learning (and 50 years later, all of us are), and thankfully there will be another season where we'll get to see them continue.



RESEARCH NOTES

– Libby had the baby, and good for her for not calling Bill immediately. I hope that Season 2 gives her more things to do separate from Bill, because she ended up being an interesting character. Her solo journey in Florida and the dancing lessons with the handyman were cool. More of that. 

– If you enjoy this show and didn't fist-pump when Lester and Jane made out, we can't be friends. The penultimate episode seemed to hint at Jane's interest in the new doctor played by Michael Cassidy, so that should be a fun dynamic to watch in Season 2. 

– I'll be curious to see whether Ethan actually returns in Season 2. If he's not going to be with Virginia and he's not going to work at the hospital, there's not a lot of room for him in the story, which is why he probably took the job at UCLA. But as I said, D'Agosto did some good stuff this season, definitely the best I've ever seen from him.

– Annaleigh Ashford's Betty is signed on as a series regular for Season 2, even though we haven't seen her in a long time. That probably means the study is headed right back to the brothel. I'm fine with that. Betty's awesome. 

– Just me, or did they really overdo it with the rain in the last few episodes? I get it, Bill is sad, frustrated, and angry. 

– I liked the finale's quasi-callback to Henry's interest in space from the first couple of episodes; nice little touch. 

– Two things I'd like to hear from you guys on: The show's time jumps, and its use of the time period. It seems like Masters of Sex covered about a year in these 12 episodes, and the jumps felt like a only minor inconvenience at times. The show also didn't over-rely on random references to the era, using them probably even less than Mad Men does. What'd you think?


How'd you feel about the finale of Masters of Sex, and the season as a whole?


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  • marcusj1973 Jan 06, 2014

    After a marathon weekend catching up on the last 7 episodes, all I can say is WOW!!! These people can act their faces off! So good that there's almost no need in mentioning how good each and every performance was which is both sad and the highest of compliments.

    The Scullys...GENIUS! That is all

    Completely lost in the shuffle, which is a testiment to the high quality acting, is Alexander Skarsgård doppelganger Teddy Sears as the letcherous Dr. Langham. I'll be awfully curious to see where they take his character, cause they could have a lot of fun with it. With Ethan all but gone and Dr. Lillian DePaul mortally ill, that only leaves new fellow Dr. Malcolm Toll as the doctor connection to the hospital. With only Zach from the OC and Grant from Smallville on his resume that I've seen, I'm not entirely sure Michael Cassidy has the chops to keep up. We'll see.

    Since the story of Bill and Virginia has already been told, there isn't much the show can do other than have Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan work their magic. I have little doubt their development will be anything but exceptional. But at this point, I could care less about historical accuracy since I have absolute faith in the writing team's ability with the fictional elements, so if they want to go off book a little and have some made up fun with these two...I'm completely on board.

  • ben45tpy Jan 03, 2014

    I've caught up, it's an impressive series despite the fact that most of it's set in a Doctor's office. I found the reactions to the presentation fascinating, misogyny can be a deeply buried thing. Hopefully next year we'll get more reviews, Cory's work here was terrific.

  • thomasmaier399488 Dec 20, 2013

    Showrunner Michelle Ashford has done a great job of picking up the themes in my book and expanding on them in television drama. In the "Masters of Sex" TV show, Dr. DePaul is a creation of Michelle and her writing team, though some of the ideas that DePaul mentions are taken from my bio of Masters and Johnson (like her outrage that Bill was allowed to use his surgical fees to fund his sex study while she and other male docs didn't get permission). Interestingly, with Dr. DePaul, the character Virginia is more saintly than the real-life Virginia, whom many of the docs and some female friends of Libby (Bill Masters's wife) described as a more manipulative Scarlett O'Hara type out to break up the Masters marriage. Of course, Virginia Johnson was all of the above and more, lol! One of the most amazing things, as I discovered for my book, was that Libby and Gini were friends. So we don't see any cat fights here, unlike so many shows of the past, though of course there is a ultimate sense of deep betrayal. Michelle Ashford's portrayal of all these tensions and dynamics from my book -- along with her own dramatic inventions -- has been fun to watch.

    Another big factor here is female sexuality. As her biographer, what always interested me was how Virginia Johnson's intellect and intuitive genius was crucial to the scientific work of Masters and Johnson, which focused so much around the power of female sexuality, like the capacity to be multi-orgasmic. M&J;'s findings seemed to suggest women could be a veritable fireworks display in bed compared to the male's single firecracker. Gini literally compelled Bill to consider what they were finding in their lab and present it to the world in a ground-breaking way.

    Unlike the ad world of Mad Men and the obsession with death of many other television dramas, Masters of Sex really is about the interplay of sex and love and the essence of life. The nobility of M&J;'s work -- as the cover of Time underlined in a 1970 cover story -- was helping to repair problems in the bedroom by primarily married couples looking to medicine for an answer, often with the hopes of having children. Virginia'Johnson's role as a female partner made all the difference for Masters. Characteristically, Virginia eschewed the notion of being called a feminist when the 1970s Women's Liberation movement asked her to join their cause. But in fact, she might have been one of the biggest proponents of women's rights for self-determination in 20th Century America. Call her an Accidental Feminist. She didn't get her due in life, but now that she's done (Virginia died in July at age 88) it's nice to see Michelle and Showtime rediscovering her for a new generation.


  • mad-pac Jan 21, 2014

    Who are you?

  • EsmeBuffay Dec 18, 2013

    I'm more interested in basically every other character than Bill or Virginia, I feel like they're more hopeful and fun people, in the start Bill and Virginia were both fun at least some of the time but it's gotten really heavy and melodramatic with them. I get it, they're unhappy/confused at the moment, but even depressed people find moments of joy (unless they're suicidal level depressed, which neither of them are) and I'd like to see that, at least one of twice an episode, just to keep me from wanting to kill myself.

  • rovincentius Dec 18, 2013

    What a beautiful show! That finally got the review that was so deserved. I agree with almost everything that the other commentators had to say before me. Strong characters and the beautiful backdrop of the 50's America. With all its prudishness and taboos. I also loved the scenes from the atomic attack simulation in the hospital. So sad for those who had to live those moments!
    It would be a shame if Masters of Sex wouldn't get at least a nomination in each category at the Emmys, I'm personally rooting for Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan and for Allison Janney and Beau Bridges as supporting actors.
    Can hardly wait for 2nd Season. Hopefully with more reviews here, on TV.com.

  • MarieLaureDep Dec 17, 2013

    This show is just magnificent. The cast is so good (Caplan, especially, is incredible) and the writing is so strong, it is just unbelievable. The only thing I was bothered with is how quickly Virginia got back with Ethan, forgetting the moment he hit her. Otherwise, the show clearly does not get the recognition it deserves. I cannot wait for season 2 and I hope awards season will give it some buzz.

  • i5star Dec 17, 2013

    Love this show! I was so eager to see the finale! Can't wait for Season 2!

  • LarissaPeixot Dec 17, 2013

    Love, love, love everything about this show. I bow down to Janney since The West Wing, so I'm very used to that.

    I have read an article about inaccuracies in the show so, I plan to read the book the show is based on so I can judge for myself. Either way, Maria never actually loved the Captain and, in reality, she had 3 or 4 out of those 7 children and it hasn't stopped me from knowing The Sound of Music by heart.

    Now I just wanna hug Barton and tell him it's okay, he's fine, he's perfect. Period pieces are a little hard to watch sometimes. (And, truth be told, for the story's sake, Masters of Sex does tone down the sexism quite a bit).

  • RobinRyschlic Dec 17, 2013

    I often find that you need to be in a specific mood to watch Mad Men to really appreciate its art. That is why I really enjoy the delicate and light-hearted drama that is Masters of Sex. Also I did not notice the time jumps but they don't seem to be that important to the plot anyway. However if it has been a year already, I wonder why we didn't see at least one character celebrating his birthday.

    Allison Janney, yes, give her an emmy. Her portrayal of denied love and pain is so relatable, even to me as a male viewer, that I can't help but get teary-eyed.

  • Mercedes_Cancun Dec 16, 2013

    Yes Cory, we can be friends, I fist-pumped too with Lester and Jane, those two are gorgeous together. Also, I expect from you weekly reviews in season 2.

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