When Bill and Virginia meet a new test subject for their study, they start by asking about their sexual history. Much of this second season of Masters of Sex has inquired about Bill’s sexual history, and what may have caused his impotence. The last few episodes, which have centered on the prickly relationship between the fertility doctor and his estranged plastic surgeon and ex-alcoholic brother Frank, bring this messy past life to the fore. Aided by scene-stealing work from Christian Borle, the series has ended its last two episodes on prolonged arguments between the Masters brothers. It is a major highlight in what has been a good yet uneven second season, in terms of both tone and quality.
That wavering tone and quality continues to be an issue, but with such angry and affecting turns each week, Masters of Sex remains some of the best drama on cable television. The latter half of season two, taking place in the 1960s, has emphasized dark, psychoanalytical character-study over the fresh comic energy of the actual study, the one that gave the show some zest in its premiere season. (This week, the not very coy double entendres in the opening title sequence were even more jarring when positioned next to the heavy, “previously on” segment.)
Near the start of “Below the Belt,” Masters’ office gets a blackout. As Betty tells her boss, late electric payments are building, and so he must find some tenants to keep the place running at tiptop financial and electrical form. Appropriately, much of the episode is dimly lit. Take the climactic verbal and physical altercation between the Masters brothers at the end – much of Frank is in shadow, while Bill gets some of the only fiercely emitting light. If the office is an extended metaphor for Dr. Masters, then perhaps Bill’s wariness to bring in new people to work nearby is a function of his own ego, as he wants to keep most of the spotlight on himself, not new businesses.
Like those flicking lights, Bill is also very unfocused. A few episodes ago, he hesitated to bring on sexual dysfunction as part of the study’s scope. Now, he insists to Virginia that his prime interest in the study is to find a cure for people like him, who suffer from impotency and other sex-related ailments, and win a Nobel Prize for that. Later on in the episode, he readjusts his focus to getting his work in a sophisticated medical journal, fearing his groundbreaking work (and Virginia’s, although he does not take her opinion too highly) will be forgotten if it isn’t published before one Dr. Joseph Kaufman. “You’re the only one who can fix me,” he also tells Virginia, a conclusion that he probably should not include in any scientific journal.
Bill’s confused state also rears its head when he spits some rather damning insults at Frank – “There is something inside you that’s weak… That’s your real affliction: it’s cowardice.” – but then admits while lying next to Virginia that he is ashamed that he abandoned his brother to the fist of his father. Sheen has done astonishing work this season and the writers have done an exceptional job opening up Master’s human side without abandoning his pettiness. However, “Below the Belt” is convoluted in the contradictions its main character espouses.