This review contains spoilers.
“Death shall come on swift wings for those who disturb the king.”
There’s a scene in this episode of Masters of Sex where Ethan calls up Virginia, asking her for an answer as to whether she will marry him and move to California with her children for them all to be together. It would be an easy, happy ending for everyone involved, with a marriage that surely would have gone on healthily enough for years to come. But Virginia refuses Ethan’s offer. She tells him that she needs to say here, doing the work she’s doing, because “It’s where I belong.”
It’s a response that feels very rote and even like it’s following a script; “It’s not you, it’s me”; “We fell out of love.” But in an episode that is all about people being forced to follow a script and play it safe as they tiptoe through life, this is actually the moment that Virginia goes off-book and starts living recklessly.
Masters of Sex takes an interesting, slower approach for the start of its second season, in this moving-at-its-own-pace thought piece that sets out to explain the ramifications of Bill’s admission to Virginia last season that he couldn’t live without her. The premiere looks at what this means and who it affects, first by focusing on everyone else in the pair’s worlds, and then finally analyzing how the two of them are doing.
The episode becomes this whole kind of meditation on where Bill and Virginia are now in the wake of the finale (and there is very little time between the finale and this premiere), and if they’re better or worse. And technically, they’re worse. Bill is without a job and miserable at home; Virginia is denying her children an easy happy ending and cutting her losses selling diet pills while being a pariah in the halls of Maternity Hospital after it gets in the ether that she’s the woman on the tape from Bill’s study. But the unity that Bill and Virginia have now, at last, makes them feel like this is good; that it’s better than it is. And this is the parallax that is the episode’s namesake. But if things continue down this same path, it seems symptomatic of Bill and Virginia struggling and being in denial all season.
A parallax, which seems like a necessary thing to define, considering the episode is named after it, is the difference or displacement in the apparent position of an object when viewed from two different vantage points. It’s talking about alteration; about determining distance. But it’s an idea where misconceptions and denial are fundamental aspects of it. There’s parallax all over this place, with the mentioned apparent distance between Bill and Virginia with them no longer working together, but are now having this deep sexual relationship. It’s there with Virginia and her rejection of Ethan. And it’s strongly present with Barton and the impression that he’s getting “better” through his aversion therapy, when in fact it couldn’t be further from the truth deep down inside of him.
But as much as this premiere is about the idea of a parallax, it’s again largely about following a script and playing by the rules, with the most blatant example of this being that Virginia straight up takes a job selling diet pills where she is repeatedly reprimanded for not following her script and reading what she’s told to. You can see how much all of this pains her, and Caplan does great work showing Johnson’s pent-up frustration here.
In what’s definitely the most tragic material of the episode, Barton’s marriage with Margaret and his shock therapy to “correct” his behavior is the most painful example of trying to follow a script. Watching him flop lifelessly on a cot as electrical currents are sent through his brain, reminiscent of all the patients on Masters’ table that convulsed much in the same way, but from orgasms–both still helpless–is difficult, to say the least. It’s just devastating to see Barton vomiting on himself and exploding in anger as he tries to fix a problem that isn’t there, and can’t be fixed, as things only get worse and worse. I’m hoping that this season isn’t just chronicling the slow destruction of Barton, and Margaret’s grief as a result, but as it stands (albeit, one episode in) it’s pretty bleak.
The episode makes a point of showing the infertile Betsy following the script of ignorance to her husband while still pining for a conventional family and believing that birthing a child is what she needs to be happy. Even the increasingly fragile Dr. DePaul, an almost always strong, independent character is following the script of having “hit a medicine cabinet” as she’s trapped to suffer in silence. This is one of the weaker elements of the episode, but it’s clearly going to be fleshed out further in the coming weeks. While it’s still a pretty overused idea, it doesn’t feel like it’s being manipulative in this case, and that Dr. DePaul in general will bring a unique slant to the story.
The episode even bombards us with flashbacks to the epilogue of last season’s conclusion, where Bill and Virginia have sex, continually overlapping them and showing similar footage to the audience again and again. The presentation of all of this feels very much like following a script and even the nature of this important scene between Bill and Virginia being rehearsed. We see it unfold four or five times over, each time, carrying some of the same beats along, like the episode itself is trapped in structure.
The thing is though, Barton’s not the only one going through aversion therapy. Everyone is going through their own kind of it. Everyone is helpless to a larger controlling presence in their lives. So it’s probably quite telling when Virginia and Libby are having a discussion explicitly about how Bill can’t be forced into a script. While everyone else is being compromised and playing it safe so to speak, he alone is reckless. It’s no coincidence that the inscription on King Tut’s tomb: “Death shall come on swift wings for those who disturb the king,” is explicitly mentioned. Masters is this king; the one void of a script, and everyone is terrified to disturb their king. And as this premiere tries to move forward from the events of last season, there’s such a fractured wake of destruction that needs to be waded through; A Mummy’s Curse, if you will, a film referenced early on in the episode, whose lingering poison is not unlike that of Bill’s disastrous presentation at Maternity.
Everyone is experiencing this brokenness, whether it’s Ethan’s rejection, Libby’s doubts about Bill, Virginia’s diet pill job, her relationship with the damaged Dr. DePaul, or Barton’s total collapse. I spent some time talking about Barton’s story, but as some of the more powerful material in the episode, it’s worth exploring a little further. Bridges and Janney are both bringing the most to these characters that they ever have, and it’s truly terrifying to see Barton getting abusively violent with his wife, and almost nearly raping her when attempting consummation (while she was reading Lolita, no less), rather than the meek, indifferent liar to her that he used to be. Seeing Barton swing from these extremes of helplessness to aggressiveness, culminating in him trying to kill himself, is much worse than any of the shame and guilt that was tearing him up last season.
But as Masters seems to fit this role of “king” and having power while everyone else is trapped to a script, how solid of a foundation does his ruling have? Is it not starting to crumble, leaving him trapped where he is with even less than before? Masters’ crown is hollow as he has nothing underneath all of this, but acts cockier than ever here. This is perhaps more destructive than being forced to follow directions, possibly leaving him with nothing in the end.
When the episode shows you what Master is going through, it’s really at its finest. Expert work is done by director Michael Apted as he shows Bill lost amongst the ambience of a test pattern bundled with the crying of his child. Unanswered ringing phones are used to similar effect throughout the episode as Bill struggles to simply focus. We see him sitting in the dark numerous times throughout the episode, almost as if Masters is trying to blend into this ambience, that if he just loses himself he can maybe simply disappear from all of this. It’s certainly indicative of this that when Virginia experiences a flashback, it’s prompted by something related, whereas Bill retreats to these flashbacks in these moments of cacophony. Bill not only is capable of not being a slave to following a script, but by these flashback indulgences, he can escape scripts, writing, and everything entirely. There’s no other need to split up the one big flashback as much as it is, other than highlighting that this is an escape mechanism for Masters. As he rots in his throne at home, almost suffocating like King Tut or any mummy, he focuses on Virginia and himself. He focuses on the parallax.
And Sheen’s work in these flashbacks, as he and Virginia have crazy sex after he’s admitted his feelings to her in the rain, is incredible stuff. There’s a deep, deep look of need on his face as he begins undressing Virginia that is so raw and shows you how broken he too would be if she wasn’t apart of his life. If Masters is following any sort of script in the end, the script is Virginia. He’s intensely vulnerable when he’s taking her pulse post-sex. The show at many opportunities has highlighted how the bond between these two is the show’s strongest aspect, and it almost teases you with it here.
The only time that Masters and Johnson are together (except for one brief exception) are in the flashbacks, with the meatiest moment between them being them discussing their work. Here, Bill and Virginia are just as alive as they are when they’re having sex. The passion they have for their study (and each other) is undeniable. The show knows that we want to see them together; it knows that they want to be together, but they hold it off in the premiere to powerful effect. The point of all of this is that amongst all of this destruction where Bill isn’t even allowed by Margaret to confide in Barton anymore, and support systems are fraying across the board, Bill, Virginia, and their work is the only beacon of light they have to hold onto. It’s all they have, and they don’t even have time to see each other in this premiere because they’re so lost amongst everything else.
Meanwhile, the episode’s other large focus is just how miserable and powerless Sheen is with his seemingly perfect family life. Sheen does remarkable work showing his sheer disgust, and venom towards his baby. Masters is barely able to even look at him, and it’s some time before he manages to even make eye contact with his offspring. There are constant scenes of Bill’s child incessantly wailing, driving him insane, a Mummy’s Curse of its own, while others simply lament that “babies cry.” Scenes like where “Bye, Bye Love” crescendo in the dissonance of his baby’s tears do play a little on the nose, but Sheen carries it well enough to give the scene the weight that it requires, rather than seeming hokey. The best work is done in moments like this where Masters is trying to focus and the cinematography perfectly captures his powerlessness. There’s tremendous weight in seeing Bill dominated by empty space, relegated tiny to the bottom of the screen, or later on, when he is out running, and the crane shot emphasizes how small and looked down on, he is.
This is the dynamic that I’m looking forward to most this season, and it’s already so rich. There’s been such time spent on Masters complicated, unhealthy relationship with his father, and seeing him, knowingly go down the same path in spite of himself is deeply compelling. To see him yelling to his mother that he’s convinced that he’s become his dad, but also his mom too, in this chimera of pain, is devastating as he recklessly brags about the sex he’s been having with Virginia, using it as a weapon against his mother and family as a whole, as again, Masters goes off script of the conventional.
Masters of Sex is an incredibly dense show, and second seasons are always interesting places to see if series are able to carry the momentum that they’ve established, or crumble under the weight. Parallax is a slow, but necessary, start to the year, re-establishing Bill and Virginia and where they stand. More, in terms of a story sense could have happened (at times, I found this episode reminding me of the more boiled down, minimalist premiere to Breaking Bad’s fourth season, Box Cutter), but the material at the Scully house is enough to look past this, as well as how frayed, and pulled in Masters is already with his relationship with Virginia.