Masters of Sex: Standard Deviation Review

In the face of the many deviations from what is considered "normal" in sexual behavior, including within his own marriage, the great Bill Masters may finally learn a simple truth: Sex does complicate things. What a novel concept, paritcularly for premium cable.

For someone who struggled with high school chemistry, Masters of Sex has convinced me to love science! And if you’re sticking with what’s become the best new drama of the fall, then you are probably digging the quest for analysis too. Now that the characters of Masters of Sex have decided this story is more than a passing fling, this week was about getting to know everyone involved on the series a little bit more (not to mention the uglier side of 1950s life). The opening sequence reflects this changing attitude by going back to the beginning with Bill Masters when he was a young man who still had sex on the brain (really that should not be surprising for any youth). Cutting to 1945, we play fly in the wall to Bill’s spill on rabbits. Talking to Beau Bridges’ Sculley before he was the Provost, Bill is arguing adamantly that they should be able to study human copulation, as if they were breeding like bunnies.  And in a moment of illumination that feels closer to a two-hour biopic, as opposed to the refreshingly wide-open pacing of this TV series overall, Sculley lays out what absurd hurdles Bill will have to clear before he could respectably research this subject by the time he was 40. Challenge accepted! How little did Scully understand that when he invited Wunderkind Bill to St. Louis with him that Dr. Masters would have as much interest on the ins-and-outs of sexy time at middle age as he did during his 20-something scrappy doctor ambition. This is probably due to still not understanding that sex can be pleasurable (something it seems unlikely he has ever experienced in the show’s universe). Another doctor in the show’s 1956 who is making his name is Dr. Ethan Haas. After spending two episodes as the dopey monster who would dare (DARE!) lay a malevolent hand on the lovely Lizzy Caplan, he is finally changing things up from mucking his relationship with her to mucking up his relationship with the hospital. Despite merely being a fellow, he senses an opportunity for fame on the gurney when he discovers a patient who is going to have quadruplets. The general gist of this subplot shows that even in his professional bubble, his selfishness would put lives at stake, as he demands the chance to deliver this gynecological rubik’s cube, even at his young age and green experience. However, it also gives our fair Bill the chance to improve his image after leaving Virginia hanging in the air all last week. Never a physician who loves the spotlight beyond it giving him the leverage to shine his own beam into hidden places, Bill instantly sees this as a threat to the mother and saves the children’s lives by demanding he handle the procedure. However, the momentary attention that he clearly squanders with disdain has been taken from Haas, which will likely have dire consequences (but more than that on a moment). This is important, because the real meat of the night is the staff getting to know their own limitations. And our main arrogant male will find his, like so many of his ilk before him have done, by hanging with the prostitutes.  In the Cathouse of Science, Bill and Virginia come to the realization that this experiment cannot last forever. That is reflected first by the simple fact that all the test samples are women, which Betty solves by inviting her male friends of the night—a couple of guys who play for another team—over to be lab partners. Over the course of one evening, Bill and Virginia are exposed, in analytical detail, the habits of “homosexuals” (nice, heavy emphasis on the hard h, Bill), but also the tragedies of the women who ended up in this oldest of professions. The best scene of the night came when one courtesan revealed her first sexual experience at the age of 14 or so underneath her uncle’s hideous wallpaper. This episode proved incredibly important, because it displayed finally to Bill that sex is more than just the physical. Despite being married for a number of years, Bill hides behind his guise of science (which serves as an excellent punchline during the “self-pleasure” montage), but in reality it is so much more complex in how human beings interpret it. He goes behind his citadel of professionalism and blames his subjects, as well as the sexual persuasion of the male gigolos, as skewing the research because they are against the “standard” or normality” of most human behavior. And he is more than likely right about that, but just as it doesn’t excuse his palpable homophobia, it also finds him lacking in his compassion for a story of molestation and pedophilia by implicitly blaming the victim. His flaws are even greater exasperated when Virginia finally caves and tells Libby that Bill has a low sperm count, which is preventing a pregnancy. In a fascinating reversal, it is Ethan who finally facilitates the miracle (which may become a curse) for the Masters family when he artificially inseminates Mrs. Bill Masters (also saving Bill from a huge fight for at least one episode). The younger doctor who was established to be a cad and a fool proves that he is not cartoonishly gray, but also indicates a rising tension between the master doc and his top protégé. It is still unclear who ratted on Bill and Virginia about the couples testing in the second episode, but in either case, Bill is turning the younger doctor into an enemy. This can only be bad for his research or worse, his marriage. Still, we are reminded in this episode how important it is what Bill does. Despite his narcissism and chauvinistic condescension to Virginia, he at least sees in her mind a worthy partner for his work (or other means), even if he does not yet see a peer. This is also reflected in another “standard deviation” when Virginia finally meets a woman doctor, an aspiration that has only recently been rationalized by the former nightclub singer. Unfortunately, this new doctor currently seems as cold to Virginia as any male. I could see it being a defense mechanism from being in a male dominated field, particularly in the 1950s. Yet, I suspect there is still a level of disdain for mothering Virginia to be working, even amongst her own gender pursuing a career. I suppose we shall know soon enough. Whatever the reason, it makes Bill’s final decision, and his first truly morally ambiguous and cruel one within the patriarchal structure of 1950s America, the most audience-friendly and justified. He learns from one of the gigolos that Sculley, the man who has apparently been mentoring Bill since 1945, is a frequent John. The provost who would deny scientific exploration into sexuality has apparently been denying his own sexual exploration for his whole life. It is a surprising revelation, but very convenient for the show, because it gives Bill the leverage to blackmail his own mentor into reopening scientific research in the hospital. It is a curious scene when a man’s closested nature is used as a weapon to achieve an end for the audience. It also promises the end to Beau Bridges’ friendly smiles for the foreseeable future. However, in turn it broadens the layered nuance of a show whose central character imagines himself to be a crusader with a simple objective. Perhaps he is finally learning that sex complicates things. That would be a novelty for premium cable dramas unto itself. Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars


4 out of 5