Masters of Sex: Season Two

Real talk: the main reason I watch this show is still that it is a mixture of unintentionally hilarious, appallingly dumb, and kind of a little bit good. The second season, to its credit, dumps a lot of the dead weight from the first season, zeroing in on the characters and plot lines it actually cares about. Gone are most of the speeches about what amazing-ass science this is, as well as most of the stories about tertiary characters dating each other. Masters’ gay boss hangs himself before “going to Spain” for most of the season, and the feminist doctor commits suicide to get the last laugh on her terminal cancer. (Personally, I thought that either of those characters had the potential to be a lot more interesting than the A-plot of Masters of Sex, but that’s not the way it worked out, so it’s just as well for everyone that they got written off the show).

The real focus of season two is the story line where Virginia Johnson rescues an emotionally unavailable man from the prison of 1950s masculinity by being good at sex. And, let’s be honest – that’s always what Masters of Sex really was.

I wrote about this on Bitch Flicks after the third episode, but the second season really drives home the point that Masters of Sex is, first and foremost, a romance. In fact, there’s actually a plot point or two about how Masters and Johnson have failed to produce any new research because they’ve been so busy talking about their feelings in hotel rooms, in between bouts of quasi-aggressive, kind of messed-up sex.

The best episode of the season – and probably the whole series, so far – “Fight,” consists almost entirely of watching them talk about their feelings in a hotel room. That’s what the show wants to be all the time, and it’s actually at its best when it just doesn’t try to be anything else.

Forget the weird, uncomfortable story about Masters’ wife, Libby, discovering that she’s racist and then joining the civil rights movement because having someone tell her she’s racist gives her a sense of personal identity (or something). Forget the weird, uncomfortable story where a male doctor is sexually harassed by his female boss and we’re supposed to think that’s funny. Forget the part where Sarah Silverman shows up to wreck the most boring marriage on the planet.

Forget all of that, because Masters of Sex is a romance – not a love story, a romance – about Virginia’s awesome conquest of Bill Masters.

If you are unfamiliar with the conventions of pornography directed at women, through the medium of romance novels, let me fill you in: there’s a part where the leading man and lady have sex, but there’s also almost always a part where they have a really good talk about their feelings. And the feelings talk is potentially even more important to the story than the sex.

“What is this witchcraft?” you say. I don’t know. I’m just telling you, that’s how it is.

Season two of Masters of Sex is a feelings talk of epic proportions. Like, there is literally a scene where Masters gets down on his knees and says, “I’m broken and you’re the only one who can fix me.” It’s emotional pornography – just take me at my word. The emotionally crippled man who needs The Love of a Good Woman to save him is to certain women what naked breasts are to Showtime executives.

Why does this bother me? Because it objectifies Masters in a way that I find creepy and uncomfortable. He exists in order to be the thing Virginia saves. He is her Princess Toadstool, but with more hard-R fucking.

Probably the most legitimately interesting story line on the show is Masters’ relationship with his dead, abusive father and the way that it continues to haunt him and colour his relationships with others. Season two introduces an alcoholic brother, whom we’ve never heard of before, who shows up in town for flimsy reasons and invites Masters to several surprise conversations about how their dad used to beat them. (He shows no awareness that this is not a topic someone wants to be blindsided with, which brings it back to Unintentionally Hilarious, but I digress).

The Masters family dynamic is, just as it was in the first season, one of the most layered, complicated parts of the show, and there is this amazing moment where brother Masters confronts regular Masters about their suck-ass childhood and, instead of bonding with his brother, or accepting him, or meeting his vulnerability with kindness, Masters instead gets really nasty and tells his brother he’s a weakling for being upset about this, and that he should just get over it already.

We know, of course, that Masters is really talking to himself in his father’s voice – that he feels ashamed for being upset, that he feels like he should get over it – that he’s projecting all of his vulnerability onto his brother, and then attacking him to make himself feel strong. We’ve already seen in “Fight” that he does the same thing with Virginia, but that she has enough self-confidence to stop him when she sees it happening.

The abusive father story is the most psychologically complex story on the show – but it’s also kind of manipulative. The main point of bringing it up all the time is to feed our desire – and Virginia’s desire, and Libby’s desire, and the show’s desire – to achieve emotional intimacy with Bill by forcing him to cry about all his sad feelings. Ostensibly it’s for his own good, since he’ll be happier if he can learn to connect with someone, but the way it’s presented, it seems like the focus is on us feeling good – or Virginia feeling good – because Virginia gets to be there for him. Because she is The One Person he can have a feelings talk with – the only person he can have a feelings talk with. She gets to have his emotional virginity.

Am I being too weird? Probably.

The point is that, as I’m watching Masters of Sex, I don’t feel like Bill’s story is about Bill – I feel like it’s about why he is an awesome object of desire for Virginia. And, in a certain sense, that’s interesting, because it’s a reversal of the way gender dynamics are usually presented on TV – it’s interesting because the protagonist in this story is really Virginia Johnson. But I also don’t like it any better than I like it when a woman is the object of desire, and her story line exists only to make her seem more sexy.

What I would like a lot more is a story about two people who are both separate, whole, independent entities – the heroes of their own intersecting stories. Then I wouldn’t have to feel weird, when I was watching them.

Image: Masters of Sex; Showtime | October 17, 2014