One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
There’s always a stealth reason to stick with the flawed, but occasionally brilliant Masters of Sex. For all of Season 3’s faults (an uneven and severely unfocused 12-episode arc, for starters), the show pulled all of its safest tricks to keep longtime fans invested. That unfortunately killed some of the excitement for the opening of Season 4, because at this point, haven’t we seen everything?
Season 4’s first episode, “Freefall,” makes the case that the series is yet to peak, perhaps because at last (12 years in), Bill Masters is shifting the narrative of his own story, dancing nicely in parallel to Virginia’s struggle to maintain her rise as she grows more independent of the “brand” they’ve built together.
Thankfully set in the wake of last season’s cliffhanger ending rather than an abrupt time skip, the first episode oddly takes its time catching you up to the goings on of Masters and Johnson. Betty is swamped with clients, lawyers, and even a priest trying to snag a meeting with Bill and Virginia, who’ve spent the last few weeks in isolation from work (and each other).
Bill is still kicked out and beat down, with his prostitution charges kicked up by a drunken car accident that lands him in group meetings, where he meets Louise (played by Niecy Nash). It’s under her advisement that he break out of his overtly stated freefall and make changes to just “show up.”
He takes that advice to heart throughout this episode, essentially putting his hands up to the universe in basic surrender. It will probably come off to some watchers as trite and convenient, even for this show’s expectations. The writers’ plan is clearly to keep Bill’s spirits down (making him more sympathetic than usual) without removing his character agency. There’s still a real person in this story they have to guide along the entire season, after all.
That would be fine enough if it weren’t for the show’s odd, yet somewhat refreshing addition of faith into the equation. Bill purports himself a man of science, but Louise convinces him it’s worth being a man of something. The premiere harkens back to faith multiple times, usually without any obvious thread to call back to, that is until it becomes clear that Bill does have a semblance of religion sneaking into the way he identifies himself, citing the story of Mary and Joseph. Rather than star himself as Jesus, the “star” of that story, he tells the tale from the perspective of Joseph, a man who didn’t understand what was going on or why, but decided to show up.
For obvious reasons, Bill’s familiar downward spiral that’s begging for a quick redemption is among the least of the episode’s strong moments. As we catch up with Bill in the opening scenes, Virginia also gets time to make further sense out of her somewhat dreamy journey from last season. She has a clear idea of who she is as a wife this time (citing to one love after a quick romp that it’s for protection against men like him, and she means it). But more importantly, she’s taking clear, actionable steps to breaking out of her career dependency on Bill.
Virginia seeks this out in the form of a column she can write up for Playboy, but quickly finds that life after Masters and Johnson isn’t quite so accommodating. And Virginia can’t fake it anymore. There are frequent allusions to the Miss America Protest in 1968 to throw away bras (not burn them, as the show says cloyingly), and the message is clear that society places seemingly arbitrary restraints on just about everyone.
It’s easy to see how exasperated Virginia is as she tries to move on with her life because we also see Libby starting to embrace true liberation, eventually at one point with an honest-to-god counter-culture woman’s group willing to take her in. The music of the episode goes out of its way to drive that narrative home as well, kicking up when Libby cleans out Bill’s clothes (another amusing reference to his fall as an emperor with no clothes on).
In the past, Masters of Sex has struggled to tell its endearing stories with both nuance and surprise, often losing track of its supporting characters in order to lend more time to the tantalizing exploits of Bill, Virginia, and Libby. And as expected, that hasn’t changed much so far in Season 4, but that isn’t to say the show has stopped taking risks. This new chapter is at least getting a lot more dense in its narrative, balancing more ideas and pieces to put together than usual (there’s a reason Bill is called the puzzle solver, for instance). We haven’t even gotten to the “case of the week,” though mostly because the surprise is worth keeping hidden for your own viewing.
The point is that the show is trying new ways to establish itself as a period drama with something more unique to offer than the shock factor of mid-century sex norms that lost most of their impact late in Season 2. Now, Masters of Sex has the potential to put the characters though their own therapy, even if they’re not quite yet ready to take it seriously. Either way, this is the most entertaining the show has been in quite some time, but for reasons most would never have predicted. Like just about everyone in this episode, Masters of Sex has finally been liberated.
Masters of Sex Season 4 is one-half return to form, the other half a full-hearted experiment to breathe new life into the series that is sure to satisfy longtime viewers.