When Masters of Sex kicked off its run last September, it started out as a terrific yet tantalizing mix of period drama and tart sex comedy, like a television version of Bill Condon’s excellent biopic Kinsey. The series used a real-to-life sex study from two doctors – Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson – to explore the social mores of a bygone era and the sexual curiosities and desires of its central characters. Now, the show, a worthy recipient of several Emmy nominations for acting, is slowly moving from looking at sex in the way of nervous, giddy comedy to the consequences of our actions when our drive for that desire moves out of control.
In “Parallax,” Masters of Sex’s sophomore season kick-off from Sunday night, the characters are still reeling from the three big events of last season’s finale – the birth of Bill and Libby’s child, Bill’s dismissal from his post at the university and Bill’s proclamation of love on the rain-soaked steps of Virginia’s house. Taking place a couple of months after these big moments, showrunner Michelle Ashford (who pens this episode) spends much time in the hour filling the gaps and catching us up. Although trying to give all of the stories a thorough updating sometimes mars the episode’s pacing, it is still a stellar hour, and a reminder that this may have one of the most under-appreciated ensembles on television (even with the nominations it just received).
Bill’s marriage is still strained and he is out of a job. His baby boy cries in the other room, but he is too distracted by sexual fantasies of Virginia to tend to the wails from the crib. Without any work on his mind, he is still a mopey outcast, although not quite the iconoclast he hoped his study would cement.
Perhaps it was Bill’s prickly personality that snubbed Sheen from the Best Actor in a Drama category – to be fair, there is a lot of stiff competition – but he delivers what may be a series-best portrayal in this episode (continuing from what I deemed his “most complete performance” in my review of last year’s finale). Now that the character has time to think about his next step and he no longer has the patronage his job once entitled him, it is marvelous to watch Bill fall down a few notches and show notes of desperation and vulnerability.
He is still a mystery though, in some aspects. After he finishes sex with Virginia (in a flashback sequence) and watches as she answers Dr. Haas on the phone, he looks more defeated than invigorated. Similarly, during another flashback scene, when he discusses the next step between him and Virginia – they will see each other in a hotel, regularly, under the surname Holden – he tells Virginia that what they are doing is not morally bad and that he does not love her, as he has a wife. Under the surface, though, he (and Virginia) know about their mutual attraction and that the other one is lying through their teeth. Sheen’s continued exploration of this brilliant but bothered man could make him a more eligible contender at next year’s Emmys.
As for Virginia, Caplan is also game to show the character’s various complexities and loyalties. She is content working for Dr. DePaul, but the pay is not as lavish as her work under Bill and she yearns for something more. That part-time boost turns out to be as a pusher for diet pills, a job the characters clearly abhors once her boss orders her to stick to a script. Predictably, Caplan’s stilted delivery and bemused sigh after her pitch to one eager buyer turns sour and artificial, is as potent as usual for the now-Emmy nominee.
Last year, Virginia (and, as a result, the series’ representation of women) was the topic of a few well-received editorials about sexual liberalism and social standards at the time. Did career women of Virginia’s standing and influence really have the sexual appetite that the character showed in early episodes? It is disturbing, though, to watch her be the object of dirty doctors’ affections, although there is relief from Caplan’s disgruntled energy against the doctors advances. Many of them still think that she was the subject who masturbated in the video at Bill’s presentation. “I now wear the Scarlet Letter,” she tells one character, even if that will come to mean something more significant by the end of the hour.