Flying through three years in a single mid-season episode is an odd choice for any show. The standard, Mad-Men-style shift is to make the leap between seasons, and let context clues tell the story of what has happened in the meantime.
Instead, “Asterion” features a number of too-clever cuts to move time forward in it’s 59 minutes. Clapperboards with chalked-on dates, a changing lobby, a few altered hairstyles, and aging babies scream the change.
It was probably in part due to a desire to keep the relationship between Masters and Johnson at the forefront of the show, trying to avoid finishing off the season in a tedious will-they-won’t-they after Masters, crushed to find that Virginia has had a secret boyfriend, calls off the sexual component of their relationship.
What results is a muddle, one that confuses the reality of timelines and never really allows the tension we know the show is capable of.
In 1957, five months after the last episode, Masters and Johnson are in a new building, starting a new study and clinic, halfway toward a total goal of 10,000 recorded sex acts (not between each other, just generally, for the study). The building lobby hosts a Communist headquarters in a former haberdashery, and Lester, the great dildo-camera designer and medical film auteur, has come to film a man who looks exactly like Ross Geller ejaculate for distance. Virginia is dating Shelley, the man she met at the hotel. Libby wants another baby, Masters has used his home as collateral for a business loan, and everything is terrible.
Even Betty has lost the love of her not-so-endlessly-devoted Pretzel King, and has shown up, holes in both stockings, to help keep the books and act as a secretary. Masters gave her the job to “repair a debt,” and because without her the show would be miserable to watch.
Masters is in a foul mood beacuse of all this, and because he’s called off his sexual relationship with Virginia after discovering that she’s had a boyfriend this whole time. So he goes to the Plaza to have a drink and watch some context-delivering cues, like the desegregation of Little Rock High School. And then he tells Elliott, our favorite bellboy, a whole bunch of misery about how “Mrs. Holden” left him, and how she exposed him and loved him and then betrayed him. I’ll let his miserable words speak for themselves:
“You take a vow, you take a wife, and with that wife you enter into a covenant where you can stand exposed and you can show things you’ve never shown anyone, because your wife, she knows you, she sees you, and she’s not repulsed. She doesn’t recoil, she doesn’t leave. And the betrayal of that kind of wife who just comes in and opens you up … that is a wife who cannot cannot be forgiven.”
Apologies for the long quote but ugh, right? Come on Masters. Elliott really stood there like a champ.
Masters drives home drunk in time for the tail end of the world’s saddest first birthday party for little Johnny. Its almost enough to make you feel bad for her. She’s a sad, alone, pitiable woman but we should all remember that she is actually a horrible racist. It doesn’t come up in this episode or anything, but never forget.
Virginia confronts Bill and tries to smooth things over, but he says it wasn’t about Shelley, it was about her children: “I know better than to be another man who parades through their lives while the mother they do have tries to keep clean sheets on the bed.” Slut shamer. Bill is also getting blowjobs from prostitutes, but he can’t get hard, and Virginia has taken up smoking.
1958: We fast forward again — Libby has the second baby she wants. Betty is almost done with her accounting degree, and meets her in the lobby. The Communist Headquarters is still there, along with a “burlesque modeling agency”. Libby has come to yell at Bill, because she found out that Bill took a loan out against the house. She is angry. She calls Bill’s mom.
1959: A year later, Bill’s mom shows up in his lobby. He’s like “I don’t want your money, I told you to stay away,” and she tells him she’s been seeing the kids for a year, which means that Libby has been going behind his back. So he goes home and yells at her. She tells him everyone is
suffering but not everyone takes it out on the whole world. They proceed to go to some kind of big party in Austin (the Philandering doctor)’s honor, where his former hand-model girlfriend jumps out of a cake. They have been dating for at least a year.
Virginia is there with a new man, who absolutely wants to meet Masters, and hear about the study. Masters invites him to “join them,” that Virginia is a great study participant. He’s so blitzed Libby and Virginia bond over it while Virginia smokes and Libby doesn’t. Then Virginia tries to confront Masters.
As she looks down from a balcony at Libby and her new boyfriend, Masters pulls some sexy-time funny business and starts “apologizing” while moving his hands up her thighs “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being weak, I’m sorry that I lied, I’m sorry for shelly, Ethan and George … all the men who came before … but most of all Bill, I’m sorry for my faithless and fickle heart.”
I know, again with the long quote but, ugh. Bill. Then he tries and fails to get a blow job from a prostitute.
1960: CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, has moved in downstairs at the clinic, replacing the Communist Headquarters. Betty is a CPA, and is renting out parts of Masters and Johnsons lease to tenants, including Flo, the supplier of Virginia’s diet pills. On her way in, Virginia runs into Shelley, who calls her out for not caring about him, and barely even remembering who he is, even though they dated for like a year.
I’ll buy that Virginia doesn’t love anyone like she loves Masters, but did she suffer some kind of massive brain damage in the past three years? Because one year is actually one third of that time, which is a really long time.
Or maybe she does have brain damage, which is why she watches 3-year-old footage of her adjusting Masters tie and then she basically confesses undying love. Which is a problem. We haven’t spent enough time with these characters actually longing for each other for this confession to be as explosive as it deserves to be. Lines like “It’s hard to tell where you stop and I begin,” or “You have more than me than you’ll ever realize,” aren’t nearly as powerful if we have only dealt with 40 minutes of distance.
But the show’s gotta have them having sex, so Virginia gives him a key to the Plaza — confusing, since it would take like two hours to get the key and then drive back — and she tells him to meet her there.
Of course he goes (where it seems Austin has brought Lester to film a bachelor party for a friend). Masters makes her strip and says he’s going to kiss her on the mouth and all over her body and make her climax, etc. It’s more Secretary than 50 Shades, but pretty tame. Mostly bossy. He’s keeps his clothes on — maintaining that wall between them — but it reads as insecurity.
They decide to continue with the whole thing, but they need to find a free place to have sex, because the Plaza is expensive. Masters is happy to be having sex with Johnson again, so he goes down to the desk to find that his buddy Elliott is the night manager! Elliott is very happy that Dr. Holden is back with Mrs. Holden. Masters asks if he can be the doctor on call in exchange for free hotel rooms, and then Elliott says he’ll have to be Dr. Masters then and not Dr. Holden, because Elliott is very smart and has known what was going on this whole time. They agree!
Then Austin sees his girlfriend in a stag film and tries to go back to his wife, who tells him you can’t un-ring a bell. Which makes sense, since they have been divorced for three years, and he’s been dating his stripper girlfriend that whole time. He’s bummed.
Finally it’s Johnny’s third birthday, and its a big barbecue that’s still missing Burt and Margaret Scull, but has dozens of additional friends that the Masters family did not have at all two years ago. Libby tells Virginia that Bill is so much happier when Virginia is there, and that they should all go to a lake house together, and then Bill’s mom shows up and says that she’s so proud of him, and everything is great again. Except for Austin that is, and probably the Masters’ marriage because Bill’s mistress is about to go on vacation with his wife, but whatever! Until next week!