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Masters of Sex S02E01: "Parallax"


Season premieres are almost always responsible for dealing with the fallout of the previous season's developments; that's the nature of the beast. But regardless of whether a season picks up right where the finale left off or jumps ahead in time, really great shows make their premieres something more than just "and here's what happened next." Showtime's Masters of Sex is one of those great shows, and the opening episode of Season 2, "Parallax" was one of the better premieres I've seen this calendar year. 

A magnificent script by showrunner Michelle Ashford's managed to have it both ways: The show zipped ahead in time to present the characters as supposedly changed people (more on that in a second), but it also weaved in flashbacks to that rainy night on Virginia's porch when Bill finally admitted that all he needed in life was her. This approach allowed the episode to check back in with what has become one of the best ensemble casts on television while still keeping most of the focus on the central relationship of Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (the newly minted Emmy nominee Lizzy Caplan). That's not an easy thing to pull off, particularly with the show's ever-increasing roster of actors and Ashford's choice to deploy the flashbacks from both Bill's and Virginia's perspectives, but everything fit together very well.

However, the strongest element of "Parallax" was how clearly it played with the idea of change and what happens after moments like Bill's confession on the porch. The last couple installments of Season 1 suggested big shifts for many of the characters—Bill admitted his love for Virginia soon after Ethan (Nicholas D'Agosto) proposed to her; Barton (Beau Bridges) agreed to undergo electroshock therapy to "cure" his homosexuality and save his sinking marriage; Bill lost his job because of the scandal attached to the study; Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) had the baby; and Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) returned with a new beau and a desire to have children. I could go on. Instead of sticking with those seismic changes or completely reneging on them like some shows are wont to do, "Parallax" went to great lengths to illustrate how the world doesn't necessarily change just because people make declarative statements or important choices. 


Throughout the hour, we were reintroduced to characters who thought they had found a new happiness or equilibrium in their life, only to relatively quickly see that newfound stability blow up in their faces. Barton's electroshock therapy was as gruesome and depressing to watch as you might expect, but his attempts to convince himself that it was already working were actually harder to watch. He pretty quickly returned to what is probably an old trick: getting aroused by looking at nude men and then trying to have sex with Margaret (Allison Janney) to make her happy. The Scully's aborted sex scene, with him lovingly trying to seduce her but then falling back on the same sexual position that he's always pushed for with her, was awkward, messy, and heartbreaking in the best ways. Bridges and Janney were just nominated for Emmys for their work on this show and that scene alone probably guaranteed that they'll be nominated again. And somehow, it only got darker for the family, as Barton then tried to hang himself in the family basement only to be discovered by his daughter Vivian. Yow. Barton has proven that he'll go to drastic measures try to keep his wife happy, but they didn't work; it's simply not enough.

Meanwhile, all-around cad Austin (Teddy Sears) couldn't hold back the gushing about the depth and breadth of his saintly wife's forgiveness after seemingly turning away from his philandering ways. In his conversation with Virginia, Austin placed a lot of the blame for his behavior on the study--which obviously gave him the opportunity to have lots of sex--but by the end of the episode, he was cowering in Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson)'s office while his wife announced on the hospital intercom that he slept with her sister. Austin is a very likable dude and maybe the study brought something primal out in him, but sleeping with your sister-in-law is about as dysfunctional as it gets. I guess he didn't turn over a new leaf after all.


At the Masters residence, tensions were unsurprisingly at quite a high. Would you have guessed that the birth of Bill and Libby's child wouldn't actually repair their extremely distant and broken relationship? Actually, what we saw here was probably worse than I could have imagined given the events of the S1 finale. I'll talk more about Bill and Virginia momentarily, but the former spent all of his time at home flat-out ignoring his crying baby. He wants nothing to do with the child for all the uncomfortable things it represents to him: his crappy marriage, his infidelity, his failed study, his impotence, his terrible relationship with his own parents, etc. Bill Masters isn't the most cheerful person on the planet you guys. Things were so bad here that Libby pushed for Bill to hook up with Dr. Greyhouse (Danny Huston) at another hospital, presumably because she knows that he's a miserable person and that work is the only thing that is going to make him slightly less miserable. So the baby certainly didn't change anything. In fact, he made things worse. Poor Libby.

Back to Bill: goodness was he on full-tilt here. His mother Essie (Ann Dowd, just straight killin' it on every show these days) walked in him turning the record player up so he could block out the screeching baby and suddenly Bill launched into own of his patented dickhead monologues. The self-flagellation and -hatred was on display as Bill acknowledged that Essie has no reason to wonder if he'll become his father anymore because he totally has--the sleeping around, the purposeful detachment from the baby, the lack of interest in his family, the whole nine. It was another tough but fascinating scene to watch. This isn't just an absent-minded, job-focused Bill Masters. He's actively ruining people's lives now and he knows it. The problem is that he hoped the doorstep admission to Virginia would change his life for the better, and well, that didn't really happen.


The flashback structure gave the episode the chance to screw with us a little bit, as it first seemed like Bill and Virginia didn't continue their relationship after a post-doorstep conversation sex session, then it seemed like they were carrying on a torrid affair, only for the last sequence to deliver one heck of a wrinkle that made their "present day" (as far as the show goes) frustrations both clearer and more evocative. While Bill arrived on Virginia's doorstep with the clear intent to pour his heart out, the lines between work and love continued to disrupt their characters' feelings and their ability to communicate. 

To prevent herself from being squashed emotionally again, Virginia chose to code her relationship with Bill as part of the "work" of the study, both in her awkward phone call with Ethan describing why she couldn't marry him and in a later conversation with Bill at a hotel tryst 30 minutes outside of St. Louis. That hotel conversation, the final scene of the episode, was a tremendous showcase for Ashford as a writer and both Sheen and Caplan's subtle performances. The performer's great facial reactions brought real power to the barely-subtextual meaning in the dialogue as Virginia explained that she chose Bill over Ethan because "it is a rare man who could understand that a woman would choose work over love." In an instant, Bill shut down emotionally and turned the tables on Virginia, suggesting that of course this was all about the study and that she needed to understand the terms of their relationship. This was a moment where Bill's prior mistakes, primarily when he offered Virginia money for their "participation" in the study, came roaring back to haunt him. She was unwilling to fully admit her feelings because she knows what happened last time, which only pushed Bill further away. Again, he made the big gesture, but it didn't work. Though he has what he wants with Virginia, it's only partially. They're both participating in this relationship with the knowledge that it means something more, but are simply too scared to admit that. Unfortunately for them, until they do, nothing is going to truly change. And even then, as this episode showed, change doesn't mean what you think it does.



NOTES

– I loved the runner with everyone in the hospital gawking at or coming onto Virginia because of her alleged "role" in Bill's film. While that certainly isn't something that's easy to laugh at, "Parallax" did a great job of creating a little comedy out of the situation when she kneed one doctor in the private parts and almost ruined a new research opportunity by assuming another doctor wanted to have sex with her as well.

– Betty made a brief appearance with her husband the pretzel magnate Gene (Greg Grunberg). No baby yet, but Gene was very interested in Bill's research, so much so that he made the big donation with strings attached that got Bill hired at Dr. Greyhouse's hospital. We know that Ashford's Betty is a regular this season, so she'll definitely be back. Hopefully Grunberg is around quite a bit, too; this is an interesting role for him.

– Virginia started selling diet pills to make some extra cash and it didn't go very well. She can't read scripts! CAL-O-METRIC is a great name, though.

– Dr. DePaul has a black eye. She's also drinking at work. Looks like being sick is actually pushing her to mix it up a bit.

– Two or three shots of people looking into mirrors in this episode. INTROSPECTION.

– Is there any historical reference point for the Holden name that Bill and Virginia are using at the hotel in Illinois? I searched around, but couldn't find much. 

– The opening credits are still the same, and still awful.


What'd you think of the premiere? 


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 9/27/2015

Season 3 : Episode 12

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I just finally checked this show out, and binged the first season and this episode. I'm definitely into the show, but it's another one with an unlikeable main character. Somehow I dislike him more than the character that physically assaulted Virginia AND THEN proposed to a young girl and dumped her. That's some impressive making me hate him. He's not good enough for Virginia, and he's not good enough for his wife or his son, and he's a complete jerk for convincing his wife she was barren, and he's a cheater, and he blackmailed his sweet old mentor to get his way, and he's mean to his secretaries. Just a total bummer overall. I mean, he doesn't even like his own kid. How would he interact with Virginia's? As a dick with no time for children, that's how.

I'm one of those people whose enjoyment of a show goes down when I can't stand someone I assume I'm supposed to be rooting for. So, it's a good show, but I wish he was a little more likeable!
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This show is still a bit under the radar but steadily gaining notoriety. I guess the vulgar title and opening credits didn't do it any favour. If they'd called it "The Study" I'm sure more people would have given it a go. Do I want "Masters of Sex" tags in my posts? No, I really don't. Still in spite of this really boneheaded 'creative' decision I think MoS is about to get big. It deserves a place right up there with the Mad Mens and The Sopranos. It needs to works out a few kinks, but it has a lot of things going for it. Great actors, great scripts, an "oooh boy" chemistry between the two leads I haven't seen the likes of since Mulder and Scully. And it is without a doubt the most feminist show on TV right now. Ground breaking stuff.
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Masters of Sex is a fantastic show, i'm glad it's back! I don't understand though how it went from "i can't live without you" to "yeah! of course it's about work!" in this 2nd season premiere. I understand they're both confused/afraid about/of their feelings and all the subtlety around it but how much time has passed from the scene at the door in the rain and the one at the end of the episode in the hotel? I recall Libby said it was her 3-week baby check-up at the hospital, am i right? It's not as if they went their way for a few months and met again with faded memories of what was said or felt on that rainy night. I just feel a little bit played with on this one. I'll keep an open mind but don't push it guys! :-) Other than that, Masters of Sex hasn't lost its power of making me laugh one minute and cry the following one. Can't wait to see what happens next! Love from France.
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I absolutely love this show and I'm so glad it's back, but those opening credits are just awful. They'd be more appropriate for a comedy or something, but they really don't do any justice to the feel, writing or tone of Masters of Sex. I'd hoped they would introduce a new starting sequence this season, or even just leave it as the office door closing, but no such luck. Maybe next time.
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Well at least the Emmys got one thing right. Lizzy Caplan is amazing. The show is fantastic.
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Really great season premiere! All of Barton and Margaret's scenes were heartbreaking.

I really like Dr DePaul, I hope she's featured more this season.
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I adore the opening credits. I respect the review above but I felt the flashback / flash forward structure was only moderately successful. Best elements remain the Beau Bridges (in the performance of his career) / Allison Janney marriage, Ann Dowd, and Annaleigh Ashford. Lizzy Caplan, for me, a little off.....and where was wonderful Nicholas D'Agosto? I hope he hasn't been written out.
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Greg Grunberg's appearance is very unsettling to me at the minute, is he purposefully being made to look bigger? As in, taller and broader, in order to make him look more like a mogul?
Very glad the show is back, and even more glad it's just as good as it was last season.
I don't get the hate for the credits, I quite like them.
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(Best read using Cliffie's accent in Cheers) Its a little known fact Norm that Michael Sheen had a contract to play soccer for Crystal Palace when he was a kid, but his family couldn't move from Wales. In the movie, That Damned United, Sheen, playing the role of soccer manager Brian Clough, executes a perfect trap and volley into the net with the ball-an actor wouldn't just be able to do that. Michael's proudest moment was playing for an international team against a celeb England select and he scored a goal...another brewski Sam if you please...
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Glad to have the show back. It was a very powerful episode. Masters is still a tough man to love. Watching him shut down his kid was hard to watch. And poor Libby, she really doesn't deserve what is happening. The scenes with Barton were all great, in an heart-breaking way. Solid acting and writing, as you said. I don't have any doubt Masters of Sex is going to deliver an incredible season once again.
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God I forgot how much I missed this show. Good to have it back on TV. Great start to the second season.
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* Well, Bill Masters is an incredibly terrible person. Is that really how a husband was able to treat his wife in those days? Why wouldn't she simply divorce him? She's still young and she looks as she looks. Why does she put up with him?

And how he treats the baby. The baby could have been dying in there and the scene almost suggests that he'd prefer to kill him.

In addition, he's continuing to cheat on her while she remains completely loyal to him.

* Virgina (I don't know her last name) is also relatively hard to root for. She's essentially been whoring herself so that Bill Masters will continue to involve her in the sex study. And she's not continuing to do so even though he didn't currently 'have' the study.

- Side note: it's possible that Bill only put her name on the study so that she'll continue to have sex with him.

Virginia does seem to love that other man who wants her to move to Los Angeles and be his wife. We see that Virginia is relatively broke. Instead of going to LA, she continues to be Bill's mistress. What does Virginia ultimately want from Bill. For him to divorce his wife and marry her? Virginia's reputation has already been tarnished because almost everyone in the hospital assumes she was having sex with Bill Masters and therefore will possibly have sex with other doctors.

* Regarding 'the affair', Bill Masters seems to feel at least some guilt about it in regard to his relationship with his wife. Virginia seems to have zero problems interacting with Bill's wife. And it's a little surprising that apparently no one in the hospital even hinted to the wife that Bill had possibly been having sex with Virginia.

______________________

* The flashback stuff seemed to mostly 'kill airtime'. There was no dramatic purpose to it.
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Bill Masters isn't a terrible person; he's a person. I certainly don't approve of his deception, but I sympathize with his situation. He's experiencing feelings (perhaps for the first time, despite being married) that he doesn't understand. The idea of a baby, which he had more or less backed off of after the first miscarriage, reminds him of all his failures and his crumbling and loveless (if friendly) marriage. Despite being a fertility expert and a renowned obstetrician, he ironically is entirely uneducated and uncomfortable with raising a baby, something that is reinforced by societal expectations in the '50s. He cannot relate to his child and he does not yet feel affection for it, but I don't think he'd "prefer to kill it". His whole life just exploded, and it coincided with the arrival of this baby, which he always seemed willing to give his wife for her but was never enthusiastic about. I love Libby, but her expectation that this baby was going to fix their marriage was just as unfair.

Virginia can just compartmentalize sex in ways that not many of the other characters can. Like her first lover, who was just there when she was ready, she sees the study as something independent of conventional sexual arrangements, especially since a large number of participants are married. It keeps her from recognizing the depth of her partnership with Masters, something he instinctively intuits but doesn't consciously recognize.

The only comment you make, though, that I genuinely disagree with is the suggestion that Masters included Johnson's name on the study only to keep sleeping with her. Whatever affection—romantic and/or sexual—Masters feels for her is matched by his respect for her contributions. It's one of the things that distinguishes their relationship and makes her attracted to him. It's, quite honestly, a respect that most of the other marriages don't even approach.
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I loved the long shot down the corridor on Bill Masters as it represents a culmination of both dread and resignation--that he knows he should reach out to his infant son but a) can't due to ignorance, b) fear of forming an attachment, and c) loathing to accept this little human interruption to his life that he knew deep down should never have occurred, all the time knowing or realizing that he had become his failed father.
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I didn't really get the time skip, I often feel lost in season premiers if I don't re-watch the previous season, the previous season didn't end particularly shockingly, or the "previously on" is done poorly. All of which was the case here, didn't last season end with Bill and Victoria at odds? I thought she was all angry and offended because he paid her? Now they're together? If the previously on had been done better then I wouldn't have had a problem but it was useless if you had forgotten some things being completely inept at catching you up or giving you a clear picture of what lead up to what we're now seeing. Ideally the previously on bit at the open of a season will be fully encompassing enough that even if you'd never seen the show you could follow what was happening, but that wasn't the case so I just spent the whole episode trying to figure out where we were left and when the flashback was taking place etc, etc. I found it very frustrating.
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Great start to the season. I loved the entire scene in the hotel lobby at the end. Clearly they both want more (for whatever reason) but gave each other an out, but the looks in their eyes were also a little heartbreaking, even if you do know how their real lives end up.
I got that bill cheating on his wife made him like the father, but how is he like his mother? I know he alluded to her being a bit oblivious to his fathers abuses, but I don't recall him calling her an absentee mother. Maybe he did and I have forgotten it.
I loved Virginia's scenes at the hospital. I have had a sales job with a script, the first couple times are always a bitch, especially if you don't care enough to study it like Shakespeare. I thought having her confuse a fat chick with a woman who gave birth was a bit heavy handed, but I guess it got the point across that she wasn't cut out for sales.
I am looking forward to gene the pretzel king this season, and not just because pretzels are proof that god loves us. But because we know they can't get pregnant no matter who the OB-GYN is, so that will build to what is going to be a great season 2 ender.
Barton trying to convince himself that the electroshock is working by turning his wife over wasn't as messy in my opinion as Cory's. He legitimately went to shock therapy in hopes of a "cure", and back then it was cutting edge technology that even licensed doctors endorsed. He wasn't necessarily looking for a one shot cure, but a treatment plan that took hold in stages, like a lot of gay men did back then. So turning her over and reaching completion would have been a successful step for his "recovery". 50 years later we know it would be a failure, but that is probably what it looked like for a lot of couples with a gay partner.
I am curious as to what they do with Virginia's kids, they have clearly aged more than a couple of months since the series started shooting, so soon they need to leave the island.
Anyway, I am looking forward to a great way to pass the rest of the summer on Sunday nights.

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Jeesus, this plus The Strain and The Leftovers on the same night must be tough for the DVRs.
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Simple, no more leftovers then :-)
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