As the most seasoned television watchers know, drama is at its most compelling when everything seems to be going wrong. When an episode can create exhausting conflict from every scene and make the audience feel as if nothing worse can occur for the characters, it is exhilarating television. “Fallout,” the tenth episode of Masters of Sex, is one of the series’ bleakest, saddest episodes to date, using the tensions of two nuclear drills at the hospital to make the characters look inward at their own forms of ‘falling out.’ Every scene is heavy with personal conflict, merged with the existential ennui that befalls any ‘end of the world’ scenario. As a result, even in an episode without the terrific Caitlin FitzGerald, we get one of the finer hours of the show so far.
The episode comes from TV veteran Lesli Linka Glatter, one of the best directors of the small screen medium (she was behind “Q&A,” the best ever episode of Homeland, as well as various Mad Men episodes). The overwhelming sense of dread that pervades Glatter’s Homeland episodes come out in the darkened offices here, when the two drills send the hospital staff bracing for their own survival as well as questioning their fate.
Beyond this double dose of paranoia, characters are cutting right at each other’s throats this week. Bill and Virginia are in cahoots after one of their study volunteers returns to tell Bill that she got pregnant due to participating. He thinks that since she signed a waiver to remain anonymous, it is not the hospital’s responsibility. Meanwhile, Virginia empathizes with an overwhelmed mother to-be and hopes to make things right.
Also ripping at each other is Ethan and Provost Scully. Ethan’s job is in hot water, as the hospital disproved his application to become a permanent staff (before, he was just on a fellowship). He thinks he lost it out because of breaking things off with Vivian, the Provost’s daughter. Despite the Provost’s dismay for his daughter, he was not the figurehead responsible for marginalizing Ethan – that would be Bill, who suspects that Ethan helped Libby get pregnant through an insemination.
The sharp, bitter tirades of dialogue in “Fallout” come from scribe Sam Shaw, now responsible for writing three of the series’ finest episodes (before this, “Catherine” and “Standard Deviation”). The escalating conflicts create a nimble pacing, as the strain of the characters reflects the outside pressures (i.e. the Cold War). What makes Shaw’s writing vivid is how the context of nuclear annihilation affects the characters. While the nurses at the hospital scurry to duck and cover during the drill, the two main males in the episode – Bill and Austin Langham – look above the façade and try to deal with their own problems.
Bill feels invincible and speaks condescendingly to nurses who are more ready to hide from a nuclear blast than they are assisting him with surgery. Meanwhile, Austin finds himself at a crossroads, of whether to worry about how he impregnated the test subject accidentally or to have a minor fling with a nurse, to satisfy his libido before the world explodes from beneath him. With Austin, the relationship between “la petite mort,” the French term for orgasm meaning ‘little death,’ and the larger context of nuclear annihilation is bridged.
As is common for Masters of Sex, “Fallout” continues to explore the room (or lack thereof) for women in a male-dominated vocation. In one subplot, Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) takes advice from Virginia to charm a close connecter with the trustees to widen the funding for her cervical cancer study. DePaul has already gone through humiliation in past episodes, on account of being the hospital’s sole woman doctor who is still threatened and marginalized by male forces that are more dominant. However, in her attempts to become friendlier to a hospital funder, he misconstrues her kindness as an invite for a fling.Next
Nicholson is another stellar recurring guest star, alongside Allison Janney and Ann Dowd. As she sheds her grim demeanor to turn on the charm, Nicholson’s wavering balance between her integrity and her need for friendly persuasion is the best she has been on Masters of Sex so far. DePaul is not the only female starting to feel the strain. Joining her is Virginia, who finds herself in a constant tug-of-war with Bill, and Margaret, pressed to figure out how to mend her marital strife (as her mah jong friends warn her, “The husband strays, the wife pays.’)
Two contrasting settings show Margaret trying to find her grounding. In one, she lies alone on her husband’s firm mattress, immediately after realizing that Barton is gay. In the other, she floats elegantly in a pool with Austin, as they contemplate their last night on earth. Janney continues her devastating work, much of it wordless, as a victim of a poor marriage trying to save herself, as the world around her tries to save itself. The use of two very different surfaces (the hard bed, the fluid water) that try to keep the characters upright and afloat express her predicament of falling even further.
This leaves us with Bill. Michael Sheen is still a questionable choice for an Emmy nomination since his character is turning so irascible, that he is starting to seem like a caricature of a stern, heartless busybody. Moreover, he is miserable to hear that his wife is pregnant. He is not exactly the friendliest chum on the block. In “Fallout,” he even punches Ethan and wrestles him to the ground, suspicious of his medical practices with Libby. Even in an episode where the onset of destruction makes everyone feel smaller, Dr. Masters still walks around with a shield of invincibility. He is as cold as the war permeating outside the hospital walls.
“Fallout” is the first Masters of Sex episode devoid of any sex, or even eroticism. All of the emotional feelings are underneath the surface, as characters wrestle with their own dissatisfaction as nuclear annihilation looms. The ensemble is dealing with the end of a sexual experience, from Bill and Virginia to Margaret Scully, and their emotional withdrawal might as well be the end of the world as they know it.Previous