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Masters of Sex S01E02: "Race to Space"


I discussed this a little bit last week, but with Masters of Sex's time period and subject matter, it could've been really easy to tell stories emphasizing the world's naive experiences with sex. Just the same, this could have turned into a Great White Man narrative, with one middle-aged stiff helping liberate the female sexual experience. Although heavy on Michael Sheen's Masters, the pilot did a lovely job of making sure that we knew that this wasn't going to be that kind of show. But just in case we still had those concerns, "Race to Space" focused so much on the women in this world that Masters mostly fell to the background where he could grump and try to explain his work to cops in the safety in less important story threads. For a show that features mostly men on the regular cast, the first two episodes have given us no less than four complicated, interesting female characters. That's pretty cool. 

After spending time with Virginia, sexual liberator, in the pilot, "Race to Space" emphasized some of the challenges in her life, most notably trying to balance this new job, some kind of education, and two kids all while being a single mom with not a lot of resources. The episode did a smart thing by having Masters's proposal about them participating in the study together hang over the proceedings, but also didn't take it to the exact place you might have expected. Virginia couldn't figure out how to talk to Masters about it--What would happen if she said no? What would happen if she begrudgingly said yes?--which kept distracting her from her kids. Although there's quite a bit of noticeable chemistry between the two of them, Virginia's hesitation is not just about that. She wants to be part of the study to do something great with her life and sleeping with her boss/partner, no matter what the rationale, is difficult to process. 

Unfortunately, she's not given the chance to have any version of those conversations she has imagined because Masters thought her sexual relationship with Ethan led to someone finding about the SEX in the sex study, leading to the project losing its funding and home-base. It's hard to interrogate certain things in this show since it's based on real events, but man is Beau Bridges' character fickle. There's probably only so many of those YOU'LL BE LABELED A PERVERT FOREVER conversations that the show can move through before it gets a bit stale. Now that we're in the brothel, I hope it stays there. ANYWAY, though the move had big consequences for Masters and his research, it ultimately led to more interesting things for Virginia within the episode. Immediately, we see the backdraft of what it means to be this kind of sexually liberated and open woman. Both Ethan and Masters have been charmed by Virginia's attitude towards sex, but as soon as she doesn't act the way they expect, it's scorched earth. Ethan hit her, and Masters fires her on the spot. But instead of moping around, Virginia uses her smarts and connection with Betty to get back in on the action the brothel, almost immediately making herself irreplaceable. This is going to be a show about Virginia helping Masters learn a lot of stuff about himself as they learn about sexuality within the study, but it was nice to see her get one-up on him almost immediately. He was wrong, she knows it, and she's proven that there's no way this study moves forward without her. 


Ultimately though, sizable professional victories and keeping a job weren't good enough to keep the Johnson household together completely. Mid-way through the episode, she found a new babysitter after the other quit (too many hours, not enough pay), which is all great. But the long hours at the brothel meant that Virginia didn't get to read the final issue of her son's favorite comic book with him. By the end of the episode, she's made the proper professional in-roads. Yet, she's alone in a hallway, reading her son's comic book that she missed out on. Being a modern woman, in any era, is not easy. 

Elsewhere in Masters of Sex femaledom, this was another great episode for Betty. The sarcastic, foul-mouthed hooker routine is a familiar character type, but Annaleigh Ashford and the script have done a fantastic job early on of making Betty multi-dimensional. Her integration into the doctor's office led to a few funny sequences, as did her conversation with Virginia when the latter came to the brothel ("usually we have a bunch of coochies lined up on the counter, but it's slow"). Most interesting of all was the news that despite her preference for women, Betty wants Masters to untie her tubes so that she can have a child with a man she met. It might have been better to see Betty's life as a lesbian before jumping right into this story, but it provided both Ashford and Lizzy Caplan some quality material. That last scene with Betty explaining her rationale to Virginia was surprisingly moving, and reflected the kind of complicated lives these women lived at the time (not that women's lives aren't complicated now, of course).


Libby and Jane certainly had less to do than Virginia and Betty, but their brief stories still reinforced the episode's focus on women standing up for what they want, consequences be damned. After some awkward moments in the pilot, I thought Libby was better-developed in this episode. She's still very affected by their inability to conceive, even if it's not her fault, and as this episode progressed, you got the sense she's realizing that her husband's research might have a little more to do with personal interest than initially thought. When Bill tries to keep her and the contraception tests at home, she pushes back and ultimately throws his research in his face by asking him to watch as she uncomfortably touches herself on the bed. I'm not sure if Libby enjoyed masturbating one bit, especially since she's so repressed, but it was a minor win for her independence in a way. Though Masters isn't necessarily mistreating her, the work has consequences for his wife and it's good that she isn't just going to sit around calling him Daddy forever. 

And Jane, forced with the reality that the study had moved to the brothel, had that wonderful moment with Ethan and Langham in the cafeteria. These two attractive, successful men were totally at her mercy, and she wasn't having it. The bit about a possible future where women don't men to find happiness was great, and a nice button on a comedic exchange (this show is funny in brief, subtle ways that I very much enjoy). 


As Masters of Sex moves forward, it's bound to focus on its titular character, and his relationship with Virginia. But for the show to really succeed, it needs to give the women in this world a voice. It's only been two episodes, but we're off to a really great start in that regard. Things are changing all around Bill Masters, and he's going to have to keep up.



RESEARCH NOTES

– Ethan running around the hospital trying to find a sufficient sexual replacement for Virginia was... something. I think we were supposed to see how stupid his search is, but I was a little uncomfortable with how repulsed he was by the woman he got with in the car. 

– I know I sort of criticized it above, but if Beau Bridges did show up every week, all blustery about perversion in the medical workplace, it would be entertaining. 

– With the suit-and-tie combo he was wearing for most of this episode, Masters looked like Pee-Wee Herman. Maybe calling him a pervert wasn't too far off, eh?

– After some brief Googling, it doesn't seem like Race to Space was a real comic series. I could be wrong, though. Where's the commitment to verisimilitude, show?


What'd you think of the second episode? Are you sticking with the show?


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 9/27/2015

Season 3 : Episode 12

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James Blake!
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Goose bumps.
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If you’d like to know more about Masters and Johnson -- or my book “Masters of Sex” which is the basis for the Showtime television series -- please contact ThomasMaierBooks [dot] com. On this website, there is a lot of material about the making of this new show from my biography. You can also obtain the book “Masters of Sex” at Amazon or the Showtime website.
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I'm playing catch-up, but so far the women come off as much more sympathetic than the men, in fact I can't think of one male character that isn't immensely slapable and Masters is the worst of them all - the way he treats his wife is reprehensible.
It's probably the series being true to the period, with all it's rampant chauvinism, and I really do appreciate the amazing female characters - it's so rare to see complex women portrayed on the small screen
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It's obvious that Ethan's storyline was about how he missed Virginia, but it was shitty how he made those poor girls feel! The first one is too prude and he makes her feel like shit because she won't blow him and then he finds the "sluttiest" girl in the hospital and makes her feel like shit because she will. I have no sympathy for his character after the first two episodes.
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It's still is an amazing and captivating show. As you said, I love how women are treated. It feels very fresh and modern compared to some other shows.
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This is shaping up to be far more of a character study than it is the story telling of a sexual study...fantastic!
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This show also reflects the period where it is harder for woman to get good job and to be a single mother. It also shows how a male boss could get away with more things. I am glad with the way Virginia tackles all her problems with wisdom. It put many men to shame. Betty is a wonderful character and the actress did a good job too !
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Rubbish!
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Staff
?
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Really liked this episode. Instead of tackling Masters' eccentric proposal from last week head-on, it remained in the background, like a huge pink elephant looming over every interaction between Masters and Virginia.
I also liked how, as you said, Masters was not the main character in this episode: women were. And just like that, this show becomes more about women finding themselves, finding their own desires and no longer being afraid to voice them than just sex. And that's really what the sexual revolution was all about: women standing up for themselves and demanding that men be okay with that. Absolutely LOVE this show!
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This is just a really good show. It keeps everything so subtle, the drama, the comedy. Most of these characters are so restrained, which makes it so intruiging to watch and wait for them to do something out of their comfort zones. Love it.
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This show has pleasantly surprised me: I thought it was going to be about women learning about sex, when it's really about men learning about women.
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Great way to put it.
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Hey, Maggie from The Nanny, how ya doin'? Playing a mid-20th Century hooker? That's nice.
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OH MY. Totally over my head.
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Rice from Beethoven* lol
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!
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Loving it so far. Its a refreshing change of tone for a show that is ulitmately about sex, to not feel the need to shove it down our throats. And I agree with you Cory, the exploration of how it was to be a woman in the era was absolutely welcome in this episode. I actually think Betty is my favourite character, I love how frank and honest she is about every aspect of her life. I feel immensely sorry for her feeling that she needs to marry a rich man and give him children in order to feel accepted by society, even if that means denying who she is. Its even more sad that her lover accepts the fate for her, knowing that neither of them have much choice if they want to escape their current realities.
I'm not sure how to feel about Masters and Libby's relationship. It seems a little like father and daughter, in the way that he belittles and acts so condesceding towards her. She seems to hero-worship him, while trying to hold her own in a relationship that is decidedly one-sided. I also find it odd that they sleep in separate beds. But maybe that was the norm at the time, who knows. To me it adds to the creepyness of their marriage. But perhaps it stems from the guilt Masters feels at putting his wife through so much grief and discomfort with the fertility tests even though it's actually him thats the problem.
It's odd how living in 21st Century Ireland has corrupted my view of smoking; we've had a ban on smoking in the workplace enforced here since the early noughties, so all I could think about during the cafeteria scene was how horrible it would be to be eating lunch while everyone smoked around you! (I'm an ex smoker, so its not a Rob Reiner in South Park kind of thing.) I just think smoking around someone who's eating is the height of bad manners, but I guess in the 50's everyone smoked so it wasnt a big deal.
More+
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Not to mention all the hard work Masters puts into having these women conceive... only for them to keep on smoking while they're pregnant.
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I saw the first two episodes a couple of weeks ago, so I got to watch football all day and night thanks to the Oakland game delay. But it also meant I got to see this episode before Lizzie Caplan and Michael Sheen did their big promotional pushes. And after seeing those, I am not quite that worried that the series will focus mostly on Masters and his relationship with Virginia. In a couple of interviews they kept pointing out that Virginia Johnson said she never married Masters, or her other husbands, for love; and while I am sure the relationship won't be given the full 20 years before the marriage that it apparently had in real life, I am also sure they are going to make it clear that the relationship doesn't just develop into some lovey dovey thing.
The assistant as the petulant brat, pining after Virginia and bad mouthing his boss will get tired soon. so I hope that ends or changes.
But it is still my favorite new drama this year.
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That ending took a turn for the sad, but I guess it shows the sacrifices of a working mother. This show is really growing on me, and all the performances are great, and I can't get over how great Lizzy Caplan is in this show.
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She's so good. Glad she's getting this kind of role to show what she can really do.
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I like it enough. I like Lizzy Caplan, and of course I know how the story ends; I really enjoy watching period tv shows and this fits the bill for now.
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