Masters of Sex ties up its messy but powerful and somewhat daring second season with an episode that is all three of those adjectives. It may be a little rushed and features a rather uninspired structural device, centering the storylines on the lead-up to President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, but the plots are fascinating, the revelations intriguing and the characters behaving in ways that seemed more down-to-earth than usual for the show.
Don’t get me wrong, Mad Men will forever be the finer period drama, as it is a show that creates connections that we only realize are attached as the episode ends, while Masters of Sex is a bit too obvious in how its subplots mirror each other. But the top-notch acting continues to impress and the wrap-ups to many of this season’s varying stories were consistently surprising.
That theme that keeps the characters on the same level here deals with what someone wants, as opposed to what they need. Many of the characters are lingering in the space between giving in to their most precious desires and keeping with the status quo. Bill and Virginia vow to come at their sex study with a different approach, hoping that they can study how simple touching and arousal can help to fight impotence. However, they cannot resist surrendering to their own libidos. (Appropriately, for an episode filled with emotional nakedness, there is more nudity in this final Masters of Sex than in any of the rest of the other hours this year.) In these early moments, the sexual tension between them has never been more palpable, and it’s only increased by the lack of it.
Speaking of that tug, Bill and Virginia are divided with the news feature that CBS filmed in last week’s episode. Their reactions to a rough cut of that bulletin is quite different, and episode director Adam Arkin frames their varying responses in the same two-shot. (One shot from the program even has a young couple walking together, bearing a striking resemblance to Bill and Virginia.) She wants CBS to air their footage, hoping that it will validate her work, making her a household name and a public figure that could be taken seriously. He despises it, bitterly mournful of how the network snipped even the slightest of innuendos to make their work seem too palatable, hardly the substantial results he imagined. Bill thinks the clip “has the gravitas of a toothpaste commercial.”
Also struggling with their desires and their differing reactions to mass entertainment are Barbara and Lester, trying to make a go of a romantic relationship although unsure of if and where sex will come into the picture. They want to be in love, but do they need to get hot and heavy to ensure this remains a steady relationship?
Neither is that interested in having sex: sleeping in the same bed is as close as it gets for now. However, in the moment where Barbara undresses in his bathroom and puts on his pajamas, slightly out of Lester’s view, we understand that there is a bit of a push to take things further. Brandt and Christy are terrific in this fine subplot, selling both the freshness and the awkwardness of being in tandem. The episode also shows their reviews of two different films they see on dates: he prefers the daring, liberated sexuality of an Antonioni art house film, while she adores a typical Hollywood romantic comedy. The sublime mix of both – a generic romantic life with some elements of risk-taking – is what their relationship should end up being like.