Masters of Sex is often compared to Mad Men, and for obvious reasons. Both take place about a half-century ago with costumes and sets primped to match the period while also focusing on the social and political mores of the time. Mad Men, however, had some notoriously sexist attitudes in its early seasons, with the ad men of Sterling-Cooper not hesitating to make a joke at a lady’s expense, even when there were women in the room.
While this behaviour was commonplace on AMC’s drama, it is notably absent from Showtime’s latest hit. On Masters of Sex, the women are reaching their own apex of freedom. The sex study that the two protagonists are working on becomes a vehicle for women to explore their own liberties and limitations among a field headed mostly by men. On this week’s episode, “Brave New World,” there are some progressive pleasures front and centre, as Virginia opens up a new line of research with an emphasis on the female orgasm.
“Brave New World” opens with black-and-white archival footage of Dr. Sigmund Freud. Virginia is at a presentation where Freud’s daughter is the keynote speaker. Masters’ assistant is skeptical of Freud’s claims that women are frigid if they cannot achieve orgasm. She spends the rest of the episode plotting to debunk the psychoanalyst’s claims.
While the opening shot is in black-and-white, a scene toward the end of “Brave New World” shows moviegoers watching a film, Peyton Place, in marvellous Technicolor. In the audience is Margaret Scully (Allison Janney). Margaret tells Dr. Langham (Teddy Sears), who she meets outside after the show, that she wept throughout the entire movie. She responds to the evocative melodrama in that film, and in the copy of the Peyton Place book she reads, because her husband is unable to provide her with the same sumptuous pleasures that the entertainment provides.Next
Masters of Sex also takes a look at broken marriages this week, focusing on two that seem healthy at first glance but have bitter secrets at their centres. The first one is the Scullys. Barton, who is doing a miserable job of hiding his homosexuality, comes home late from work and sleeps in a separate bed from his wife. Margaret is flushed with embarrassment when she reveals to Bill and Virginia that she may have never had an orgasm. This void of loneliness fills her face in every scene that Janney is in – and considering what a loose-lipped, hilarious actor she is, Janney plays with quite an emotional range in this episode.
The other broken marriage is, as usual, the Masters. Even though Bill’s emotional breakdown at the end of “Catherine” hinted that the character would put forward a greater effort to mend his love for Libby, that is not the case. Although Bill and Libby fly off to sunny Florida to make them forget about the miscarriage, Dr. Masters’ mind is still at the university, thinking about the study – and about Virginia.
He is still more interested in calculating the rhythms of other couples’ intercourse – that of the virile senior couple whose humping he can hear through the walls – than having any sex of his own. “We obviously have different ways of grieving,” Libby snipes. In a scene right after, director Adam Davidson has Libby linger in the background, out of focus, as her husband speaks excitedly with Virginia about her hypothesis about female orgasm. From the camera’s perspective, it is clear how little attention Bill is giving his wife.
The advances that women are taking in the office actually concerns the sole female doctor on staff, Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson). She views this feminine revolution as one motivated by sexual desires and confidence rather than their dignity as working professionals. She announces to Bill that she is disappointed that the girls who participate in the experiment call Virginia a doctor when she has no degree, but that she is mistaken as a secretary after years of schooling and practicing.
Like the more rigid characters on the show, the stern DePaul dresses in bland, tidy colours. She is usually in white or a particularly drab gray. Meanwhile, Jane (Heléne Yorke) and Virginia, the forerunners of sexual fulfillment at the hospital, are in brighter yellows, greens and reds – that is, when their clothes are on.
Masters of Sex is using a greater variety of settings, but the writers are keeping the storylines penetrated on a more intimate shadowing of the characters. Episode writers Lyn Green and Richard Levine put an emphasis on creating spaces for each character where they are left alone. The only major setting that draws in room for other characters is Dr. Masters’ office, which Virginia occupies in one scene, suggesting that they will soon occupy each other’s lives.
One would expect Libby to dwell on losing the baby for at least an episode, but she pretends that nothing has happened. She is eager to move on. In a cunning scene change, we move from Bill talking on the phone to Virginia from his darkly lit home about her hypothesis that men may be completely unnecessary for a woman to achieve orgasm, to a brightly lit shot of Libby confidently cutting through a Florida restaurant shot, without her man, as vibrant tropical music plays.
It is up to interpretation whether Libby is on the cusp of gaining her own libidinal freedom. However, for the first time, as she speaks to that elderly couple in the neighbouring hotel room, we see her shedding her identity as Mrs. Bill Masters and getting a moment to unleash her own fantasy. A fantasy where she has two children and a dead husband. One wonders how Freud would analyze this scenario.Previous