Besides Essie’s talk with Bill about him becoming like his absent father who slept around, the episode also has a tacked-on sequence where Libby goes into further detail to Bill’s mother about her family life. Her father also abandoned her and her mother back in the day, shaming Libby into telling others that her father died. As a result, she wants her life to have a happier ending by raising a family and doing it right. This scene seems largely written to compare her and Bill, but it feels insubstantial. Bill and Libby’s opposite ranking of family on their to-do list has already been a focal point in past episodes; as a result, its revisiting here through leaden exposition doesn’t amount to much of a story revelation.
And speaking of revelation, religion pops up in “Involuntary” as well. Dr. Haas turns out to be Jewish and this does not sit well with fiancée Vivian. She wants to raise her children Catholic. Upon going into an Orthodox Jewish temple, she is revolted that women are not allowed to pray with the men. So, Haas agrees to convert into Catholicism.
Of course, we get another pondering backstory about Haas’s relationship with his own parents and how he has doubts about changing from his family’s values. This subplot is full of very superficial views of religion – Judaism is depicted as too exclusive, while Catholicism too eager to accept new converts – but also seems like a convenient way to create a schism between Ethan and Vivian.
I may be coming across as too harsh on this episode, but make no mistake, the performances are still exceptional, without a single one bringing down the bunch. There is also plenty of strong work from two of the unsung heroes of the series, Heléne Yorke (who plays perky but privacy-obsessed secretary Jane) and Ann Dowd (Essie Masters).
As superb as Allison Janney has been the last several weeks, Ann Dowd is just as worthy of Emmy gold for her recurring role. Much of Dowd’s performance this week consists of observing the languishing love lives of the characters around her, and how they are either fluttering and failing. With nuance, Dowd absorbs what she sees – upon seeing her son give Virginia acclaim, fresh hints of disapproval cloud her face as she measures his imbalanced relationships with his wife and his new fling. She is also masterfully playful, as she tries to excavate information about Bill’s late nights by taking on an accusatory tone. “Were you hoping to shock me?” she asks, exasperated, when finding out the sexual content of his study. “You can’t!”
“Involuntary” is far from a terrible episode of Masters of Sex, but it insists on letting the backgrounds tell the audience about the characters instead of letting the viewer find out the motivations for themselves. For a series so interested in letting its characters solve physical mysteries, this episode has too much explaining to do.