Showtime promised Masters of Sex to be the fall’s most exciting new show. Standard Deviation, directed by Lawrence Trilling, is the first episode to reach those lofty expectations. It strikes a masterful balance of dark humour and heartbreaking drama and also manages to ask daring and thought-provoking questions about gender, especially given the show’s period context. There is also a certain comfort in knowing that it only took three hours of the series to get to the “deviant” outliers that would have to be a part of any all-encompassing scientific study on sex: homosexuality.
In this episode, Masters and Johnson are working as partners but are still not entirely compatible with each other. He still sees her as an errand girl in charge of organizing his experiments and showing people around the hospital while he helps to deliver quintuplets. Johnson is eager to prove herself as an assistant, but a condescending Masters is just as quick to point out the lack of professional schooling she has. As she struggles to navigate the woman’s place in the office and broader society, she must confront that she is still working underneath Masters’ wing instead of being his other wing.
Sheen is still smug and taciturn as Masters – although his deadpan reactions to watching his subjects stimulate themselves are delightful to watch. The episode does feature flashback moments that show a similar passion from him to the one that Johnson exerted in past episodes, a fervor for the discovery of the new. These flashbacks from 11 years earlier show a post-grad Dr. Masters consulting Barton (Beau Bridges) as he proposes to study human sexuality.
Like Mad Men, Masters of Sex deals heavily with the potential and limitations for female liberation, in both the workplace and broader mid-20th century American society. Johnson, meanwhile, is frustrated by her lack of progress alongside Dr. Masters, and yearns to become as impressive as a female colleague of Masters, who studied at Harvard and now works at the hospital. The female doctor undermines Johnson by treating her with the same subservience as Masters does, but Johnson is still thrilled that a woman can hold such authority.
Despite Johnson’s ascent to being his assistant, there is still some disdain from other secretaries about having a woman in power at the hospital. “No lady doctor is looking up my skirt,” quips one. Although the sexual revolution is a decade away, there is still an orderliness of having the man as the, ahem, master.