“Catherine” is not just the finest episode of Masters of Sex yet, but perhaps the best hour of television I have watched this year (and yes, I sat awestruck through the latter half of Breaking Bad’s final season). We’re only five episodes into Masters of Sex’s run and we’ve already reached, to coin a phrase used commonly by Dr. Masters, an exciting plateau in the lives of just about every major character on the show.
In terms of stinging comedy and devastating drama, “Catherine” is a crowning achievement of acting, writing and directing. I can imagine Showtime sending this episode to Emmy voters to consider both Michael Sheen for Best Actor and Caitlin FitzGerald for Best Supporting Actress next year.
About 10 minutes in, “Catherine” reaches a balance of comedy stemming from the quirky conservative sensibilities of the period and a deep level of interest in the dramatic lives of the characters. It reminded me of Kinsey, Bill Condon’s excellent biopic of the famed sex researcher than was both dramatically satisfying while providing the nervous giggles associated by couth responses to crude sexual questions.
Near the start of the episode, a chaste couple sits in front of Dr. Masters’ desk. They are confounded that they have been unable to make a child. “Children must not be in God’s plan,” one of them coos. When the doctor inquires to the positions they have tried, the couple looks confused. They just lie there together, they say. It is a relief to have Johnson and Masters share a big laugh over that – even the smug, uniformly serious Masters jokes that the couple should follow his 10 commandments.
The execution of the scene, comedically timed to a tee by director Michael Apted, is so refreshing and playful that it would seem as if Masters of Sex could be a formidable player in the Best Comedy category at the Emmys. Under Apted’s direction, there is a foregrounding of many two-person long takes and the episode flows more smoothly as a result of this expanding shot length.
Despite the show’s bitterly funny first half, its second half is devastating, as Libby loses the baby. When the chaste couple tells Masters at the start that “children may not be in God’s plan,” he scoffs in amusement. As he and Libby realize that their son is gone – she even tells Johnson that “God cannot be that cruel” – Masters might have wished some sort of angel to be on his side.
Both Michael Sheen and Caitlin FitzGerald are superb in this episode. Finally, Sheen gets a chance to transcend some of the doctor’s more robotic trappings from past episodes. He does not know how to respond to losing his daughter, whose name he proposes halfway through becomes the episode’s title. Although it seems as if his sex study is the baby he is more excited for, Sheen finally gets a cathartic moment at the end to moan in agony.
Meanwhile, FitzGerald has been the show’s emotional anchor since episode one, and she – finally – gets to be an episode’s pivotal focus. She moves from sharing giddiness with Johnson to stare at the babies in a nursery and with hearing her baby’s heartbeat at the start to sobbing to her husband in a hospital bed by the end. FitzGerald is heartbreaking, as usual.