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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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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.
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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.
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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.


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Who are you?
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Love this show! I was so eager to see the finale! Can't wait for Season 2!
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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).
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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.

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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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Captivated from the first episode. It has incredibly rich supporting characters. It achieves a perfect tonal balance, blending lightness with a definite weight as well. Moments that stand out, reflecting back on the season, off the top of my head:
  • George's voiceover at the end of, "Thank you for coming", with Virginia waiting for the bus.
  • Every moment the space race was referenced. Every bit of it was poignant and entrancing.
  • Particularly loved the scene with Austin and Margaret on their backs in the pool. She informs him that satellites aren't floating, but falling slowly toward earth. A beautiful, subtle moment with a double meaning.
  • Libby's boiling point in "Catherine", when she told Bill that they didn't make the baby together, but goddammit, let's lose it together.
  • The dancing handyman.
  • The tactful way they handled the whole Scully marriage. Acted to perfection, tragic, and believable.
  • Bill socking Ethan.
  • Vir-Jane.
  • Lizzy Caplan--the sun of the show's universe.
  • "IntROmission--intermission is what happens in the middle of Gone With the Wind."
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It did bother me a bit when the show made a time jump because I only ever realize it halfway through an episode. I think that the show brilliantly uses its time period since the show revolves around sex at that time, but for me, Boardwalk Empire is still the show that best uses its time period.
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Also, I was deeply disappointed that the reviews for the show stopped on this site but I'm glad that at least the season finale was covered. I have a question: do men in general enjoy this show? Perhaps, they find it too slow, seeing that it is a character study and the action is not really riveting ?
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I didn't think I would enjoy it, and this is why only now I got to the end. But I watched it all and found it quite interesting.
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I'm male and am enjoying the show: the writing, the acting, and the characterizations. I'm enjoying the portrayal of the discovery of human sexuality through scientific research and the associated sensuality without making it pornographic. I like the strong, somewhat minor characters like Jane who willingly participated in the Study in the belief of advancing SCIENCE.
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I'm a man and love the show, love the charcters and story. And I work at the hospital in St louis that this takes place so I love it that much more.
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I'm a man and I really enjoy this show, it's absolutely fantastic.
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Cory is a man and he seems to like it as much as I do - but I think in general not a lot of people are watching it...
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I adore this show so much and I miss it already!!! Michael Sheen is absolutely brilliant and I don't think I've ever admired any other actor's work so much (maybe except Gary Oldman's). Lizzy Caplan is stunning and she deserves all the praise she's receiving.

I'm not going to hide that the love story between Masters and Johnson is the most compelling aspect of the show to me, although I do love the supporting characters as well, especially Jane and Libby. I've waited for that scene in the rain since I saw the glimpse of it in the ahead promo, which aired after like second episode. Of course, it had to be the very final scene of the season but it was totally worth the wait. Masters' admission was so hauntingly beautiful and surprising, given how cold, stubborn and cowardly he could be. I don't know if people realize that despite all the sex they were having, Bill and Virginia never kissed on screen. I'm sure it was purposely done, but now I'm dying for them to kiss. It's silly, really, because I know where the story is going, yet the uncertainty and longing is killing me. Well done, show!
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I've liked the show, but can't say i love it. It kind of devolved into 'adult soap opera' territory as it added more subplots that don't seem needed. (like the Beau and Allison one). I don't know the actual history of M&J, so wonder how accurate it actually is, or if it's important to follow it to the letter.
Lizzy Caplan does deserve an Emmy nom. for sure.
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Couldn't agree more on your assessment on Beau Bridges and Allison Janney. Two highly skilled actors who accept supporting roles in order to help tell a very interesting story. Allison Janney also crushes it in a comedic role on Mom. She's been great for a long time.

I first remember Julianne Nicholson on Law & Order: Criminal Intent where she partnered with Jeff Goldblum. I was very impressed with her then and I still enjoy her work. She's in high demand, as well. I've seen her most recently portraying a federal agent on Boardwalk Empire.

I like Dr. William Masters, and I think he is portrayed with great aplomb by Michael Sheen. However, I watch Masters of Sex because I love the character Virginia Johnson and how she is portrayed by Lizzy Caplan. She comes across as centred, down-to-earth and very genuine. She is the type of woman I would love to have in my life and I root for her every week.

I enjoyed Season One of Masters of Sex very much and look forward to watching Season Two. It will also be very interesting to see how it fairs come Emmy time in September.
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I really love this show. I love Virginia and her desire to be independent and important on her own! Also, Dr. DePaul really grew on me. I didn't like her at first because she's so stuffy, but she and Virginia together are great to watch.
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I wasn't very interested in this show before it started because I don't like stories that I know how they end from the beginning (so anything historical, not really my thing). But I was hooked from episode one. As Cory said, this is an excellent bunch of actors doing an excellent job. I like every character. I can even tolerate Ethan. The creators have taken excellent advantage of how sex is linked to human relationships, reproduction, and social life. I hope this show gathers all the recogniztion it deserves in the coming award ceremonies and I am pretty sure that we will have a season 2 to celebrate.
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This show is brilliant and I can't believe it's already been 12 episodes! I'm really glad it's been renewed but I wonder if Allison Janney and Beau Bridges will be back.
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I hope they are back, their story can easily continue and his character is a close friend to Masters... have you heard anything about it?
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No but they both star as (main) characters on two network shows, there might be scheduling conflicts in the future. Just a thought.
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ouch, cross fingers!
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I LOVED it. I did fist pump, or clap, or something when they made out.

The only thing that bothered me is that I never thought, based on her ballsy behavior, or even just the fact that in the 50's Virginia would have practically been ostracized for being divorced ONCE let alone TWICE, I don't think that she would have ever gone back to Ethan. If she was a ballsy enough person to walk out on two marriages, she wouldn't go back to a man that smacked her around a little. No matter how vulnerable she was. Still liked the plot device.

I really enjoyed this show. Every week. Michael Sheen has been a favorite of mine for years and years and years, but his performance has been incredible.
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From what I got from her accepting Ethan in her life is that she did it mostly for her kids; and I know many women, including my own mother at a difficult time in her marriage with my dad, who did the very same. For a very short time, my father became very violent, beating both me and my mother very badly. It ended when he threw a cosmetic cream container on her face and it bounced back.He was so in shock that he never was violent with us over again.The pint is that during that brief time I did ask and was very afraid they would divorce and my mother telling me she never will because of me. There are no bounds to what a mother would do for her child. So I disagree with both of you, Virginia was never weak, jst a loving mother.
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I would think that if she wanted to do something for her kids, she would just be with their father, who she has slept with this season. I don't think kids are at all the motivation, or she would have continued a relationship with Ethan leading to marriage.
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I'm sorry, but just to clarify, in front of a violent father, the wise thing to do for a mother is to take your children away from him. I am glad it didn't happen again in your life. But see what doctor Master is holding against her own mother: she never did anything to prevent the abuse. You don't put your efforts in holding your family together no matter what. You put your children out of reach.

Virginia went back to bed with Ethan because she needed somebody by her side at that moment of sadness. After that, she is considering Ethan because he is good to her children (suddenly forgetting of his violent nature, what we were talking about before) and she's not home all that often. I don't see any relation with this situation and the one you are trying to describe.

While it is clear that Virginia loves her children, she is not putting their best interest first. Or she would not have participated in the study. And that's at the very core of who Virginia is in this show. She's the woman that wants to be something more than just a mother, and has to fight all the difficulties with irregular results. I'm really surprised that you haven't seen that.
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I had the same issue with Ethan. My idea is that the show tries to state how weak Virginia is feeling when she takes Ethan back. She wouldn't have done that when in her right mind.
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I got that, she was hurt, vulnerable, etc., but I just don't see it. Even in the freaking 1980's divorce was a BIG DEAL, let alone the 50's. Now, I'm not saying Ethan wouldn't have banged the living crap out of her, but if she cared so little about that time, I think it would have taken a LOT more than that to send her back to an abuser. I mean, if sexuality itself was in the closet at that time, I just don't see it happening. Maybe if they had clarified a bit, I don't know. Though I really liked Nicolas N'Agosto, I hated that character. Good riddance.
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yes, I guess having a young doctor so in love with her, given the circusmstances (she's been married, been a singer, and she's now a secretary) it is a way for the story to give accent to her charms.
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Yes, it bothers me too, specially because it is Ethan :)
There is a breaking point when Virginia and Bill split up and they both show weakness in their different ways. To make more dramatic the effects of their separation. I don't think Virginia needs Ethan at home, or Bill. But there is a link with Bill that the show has built up from the study, and that she might need.
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You are so right. I think it has always just bothered me when writers are like, "See she's strong! She's a single mom! She works hard!" and then, "well, she needed a man!" I don't deny that women are funny creatures and sometimes the feeling of someone wanting us are very powerful things, but I guess it just bothered me. I know the show is fictionalizing their lives, (and that is fine, I don't think I would like either of them much in real life, especially her) I guess I am just surprised at the constant turn of STRONG WOMAN to blubbering in tears and accepting any man just because of being hurt.
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Happy to report this made me feel significantly less suicidal after Homeland.

I have questions about the longevity of this show as well, but as long as they keep a strong supporting cast, I think there's hope. This has become my new "Can't wait til next week!" show. Very bummed we've come to the finale already.

PS. Hope next season you guys will cover it every week!
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I hope they will cover it too, but it doesn't look like so many people are interested (I am puzzled about that). Maybe next season, after a few awards, this will be perceived differently.
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We're obviously friends, I guess, because I did stick around and absolutely loved the show. I was very wary of it at first but then the mains and the subplots brought the series to life in a wonderful way. I can actually say that I like Masters and Johnson, which I honestly cannot about Kinsey after the movie made on his life. I was always under the impression that theirs was a working marriage of convenience and it never really occurred to me how much they deeply loved each other. I am very glad to have changed my mind on them.It is also a major relief for me to really appreciate how much I enjoy living in my times where I do not have to face the horrific life only a couple of generations ago had to go through.Great review,
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Fantastic season of television. You really hit all of the points I was going to say. Caplan has always skirted around on the outskirts of the fame that she truly deserves and I think this may be the series and the content to kick her into the upper echelon of actresses and shows people that she can handle deeper roles.

I am looking forward to see what they come up with for next season.
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I agree, she is excellent. She needs to be, because the story turns around her magnetic influence on Masters. Just being pretty would not cut it for this.
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