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.
– 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?
AIRED ON 9/27/2015
Season 3 : Episode 12