After the exceptional time-propelling hour of last week’s Masters of Sex, Showtime’s drama was pointing in a brand new direction, as if it had started a brand new season. Well, it turns out the sophomore year of the prestigious period drama is still inconsistent, with great scenes improving messy episodes and messy subplots dragging down great hours. “Mirror, Mirror” is not a bad hour of Masters of Sex at all, but it feels weightless and of little consequence. With acting this superb and characters this absorbing, it should be hard to completely discredit the episode; however, many of the plots are not as fulfilled as they could be.
Masters of Sex is not quite up to the level of Mad Men’s exceptional pacing and storytelling. While the AMC drama usually lets its historical framework create an atmosphere and spirit that shifts the direction of the story in subtle ways, Showtime’s series is simply content to let the characters try to control the history. The issue is, this season has seen very little movement with the study or the civil rights quagmire. We may have catapulted into the 1960s last week, but the stories still feel locked inside a calm, comfortable 1950s-style package.
The two major subplots that get traction this week involve two characters that have been hiding in some way: filmmaking guru Lester and finicky secretary Barbara. In the episode’s most memorable scene, director Michael Apted and screenwriter Steven Levenson cross back-and-forth between their embarrassed revelations: of impotency (for him) and vaginismus (for her). “Just like everything else in my life, the action seems to be happening to somebody else,” Lester tells Bill. Both him and Barbara are look weak and discolored from their lack of action in the scene, with the camera moving closer to their faces as they speak with Bill and Virginia, the conversation becoming more intimate.
As per the episode title, Bill is like a mirror image for Lester, hiding behind his own sexual incapability and frustrations. Meanwhile, Virginia soaks up the information from a later session with Barbara to pretend to be her in a late scene, so as to give her the help she needs without revealing her identity. These sections work very well within the show, and both Betsy Brandt and Kevin Christy are exceptional in their roles, showing deep vulnerability in their reveals. (An early scene, when Lester talks about his father’s funeral in the room next to subjects participating in coitus, is awkward humor both in tone and placement.) It is interesting to see that Bill reacts to Lester’s opening up about his difficult sexual history and alludes to having dysfunction become a part of the study in the future.
However, on the flipside, Bill does not react very kindly to a visit from his brother, Francis (Smash’s Christian Borle). A plastic surgeon who is having trouble conceiving a child – a similar struggle awaited Bill in season one – Francis takes a trip out to St. Louis so that his brother can provide assistance. While Bill shows a bond with Lester this week, there is something amiss with this familial relationship (not that the rest of his family bonds are so stable, either). The fact that Bill goes to great pains to hide that Francis is his brother is either a plot conceit that does not work or something that will be revealed in a later episode.