There is something old-school TV about the very new TV Masters of Sex. Last season ended on an epic television trope — our lead, Dr. Bill Masters, Sex Researcher, stands in the rain at the door of the woman he has grown to love, former research assistant Virginia Johnson, and tells her that she’s the only thing in the world he can’t live without.
I’m pretty sure I saw that in an episode of Cheers and like six times in Buffy. “Parallax,” this week’s title, is also a high-falutin riff on some classic small screen fun: the he-said, she-said.
We open not with Masters at the door, but with the beeping, end-of-broadcast message on his television. He’s perched on the couch, and in the background we hear his infant son crying. For all of his ushering children in the world, we are reminded again and again in this episode, he is not father material. And while he sits there, we see a flashback to the moments right after he shows up at Johnson’s house: rain, quick undressing (Johnson is of course wearing fantasy-level underwear) — they have sex, he presses her arms down sexily when she touches his face — all the hot stuff you’d imagine an adulterer would be thinking of as he sleeps on his couch, his child weeping in the background.
We spend the episode ping-ponging between Masters and Johnson — parallax meaning basically, in this context, two perspectives on one story. Johnson is broke — the position she took with Dr. Lillian DePaul, pap smear advocate, meant a huge pay cut, so she takes to trying to sell “Cal-o-Metrics” diet pills. She’s being sexually harassed by doctors and also secretaries, apparently, who have leave a dildo on her desk. And Ethan, who proposed in last season’s finale, is upset that Johnson turned him down for her “work.”
Masters, for his part, is failing as a person, as we see him choose blasting an Everly Brothers song (“Bye Bye Love”) to drown out his son, refusing to even enter his room. He is unemployed until our old friend The Pretzel King, husband of last season’s cathouse/study-participant madam, steps in and insists that Masters gets hired at Memorial Hospital and that the sex study is fully funded. And he is having sex on the regular now with Johnson at a hotel in Illinois, where they are pretending to be Dr. and Mrs. Francis Holden.
We get a steady stream of flashbacks from the night of the rainy confession. Masters remembers the sex, his own need, his desperation, and pinning down Johnson’s arms. He remembers Johnson choosing him over Ethan, but not why. Johnson’s memories — of Masters including her name on the study, of her rejection of Ethan, not for Masters but for “work” — are slightly less carnal, and gentler.
They both spend a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of their relationship, one that has all the trappings of a traditional affair. But they rebuild for each the same compartmentalization they shared last season: that this relationship is one of “work” and research, and that this sex still doesn’t count as an affair because they are taking notes. The episode closes with them competing to see who could be the least emotionally involved. In their shared delusion, there is no such thing is an unquantifiable if you try hard enough, and any emotions they might be having are just variables they need to control.
Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan both excel at playing characters who are intentionally behaving as if they have no feelings. Sheen delivers us three amazing facial expressions — misery, distance and desperation, shifting fluidly. Caplan’s delivery is an oddly turned-down mid-Atlantic accent, fitting for playing a woman who is trying to find a way to assert herself. Together they have a slightly unsettling chemistry that, despite the weirdness of their characters, feels real.
There are, of course, regular humans in the show, with regular human feelings. Barton Scully (Beau Bridges)‘s tortured attempt to “fix” away his homosexuality is heartbreaking, but it’s Allison Janney’s performance as his wife Margaret that is easily the finest of the show. Scully’s attempt to prime himself for sex with his wife by looking at gay porn ends in humiliation for them both, with Margaret demanding he looks at her as herself, not as “a boy.” This humiliation, coupled with the failure of his first round of electroshock therapy, leads Scully to attempt suicide in his basement, conspicuously waiting for his wife and daughter to return home before trying to hang himself. Later in the episode, when Masters comes to tell Scully of his newfound success, Margaret turns with a hybrid of concern and sternness that is somehow also vulnerable for a quietly moving scene.
The greatest problem with the show (besides the eye-roll-worthy delusion of Johnson and Masters) is that the narrative stands so well on it’s own that sometimes the metaphor crafting can feel cheesy and forced. The clerk at the hotel where Johnson and Masters meet tells Masters he’s doing God’s work; later his mother says that his son deserves all the adulation of a messiah — perhaps references to the “miraculous” circumstances of his son’s conception. In another scene, Masters lashes out against his mother, saying that there is a magic that causes him to simultaneously be as awful as both his parents, and, when Olivia returns home to a quiet baby, she calls her husband a baby magician. While Burton Scully masturbates to gay porn, his wife reads Lolita in bed. For a show about two actual people who set out to disprove Freud’s assumptions, it’s a little much.
The show, emerging from the shadow of some other 1950s period pieces, struggled last season over the weight of trying not just be a show with a bunch of fashionable outfits and a constant stream of topless women pleasuring themselves with a camera vibrator named Ulysses. But it’s a show about sex. It’s heavy enough on it’s own.