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.
– 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?