“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.” When Ian Fleming wrote these words he was referring to threats to James Bond, not gorillas going to second base with Lizzy Caplan. Nevertheless, the core contention about the need for three examples to establish a pattern remains applicable.Tonight, after a season-long dry spell, Masters of Sex well and truly got its freak on, with three separate examples of the erotically off-kilter encounters that used to be its greatest attraction. All it took was a little animal instinct for the show to go bananas once again. (Roll your eyes at my gorilla puns all you want: I’m not the one who named the episode “Monkey Business.”)
We might as well start by addressing the ep’s 800-pound you-know-what. It’s…difficult, to understate the case considerably, to imagine that anyone in the Masters audience was clamoring for the series to include a storyline in which the pioneering authors of Human Sexual Response struggled to give a gorilla an erection. Yet what they came up with was pretty interesting, in the end. First, a lively cameo by Alex Borstein—aka the voice of The Family Guys’s Lois Griffin—as Loretta, the gorilla’s emotionally overinvested former trainer, created an atmosphere that was way more complicated than the goofy premise made it sound. She described her relationship with the ape the way you might talk about an opposite-sex best friend from college with whom you’ve, like, stayed up late discussing your masturbation habits yet never gone any farther with—a combination of sincere affection and appreciation with a slightly too-intimate undertone. Or in this case, maybe more than slightly, since, you know, she’s a human and he’s a gorilla. Borstein plays this fundamentally absurd exchange completely straight, a smart and necessary tactic.
Then Virginia and Bill—who by this point is pushing for the gorilla research, against which he’d previously knee-jerked in typical tedious Masters of Sex office-argument fashion, simply to keep Johnson away from perfume doofus Dan Logan—pay another visit to the beast’s enclosure, where they quickly realize he wants more than Gini’s encouragement: He wants her to put ‘em on the glass. Okay, so there’s the whole bestiality thing to contend with here, but try to put that aside. Honestly, try! One of the most erotic things about the show’s handling of Masters and Johnson’s research is its presentation of instrumentalized sexuality, of people making their bodies go through the stages of arousal and orgasm, like machines, for purposes external to the traditional demands of romantic or sexual desire. This forces a direct focus on the biological processes involved rather than their emotional underpinnings, and that direct focus can’t help but remind you how good those processes feel. Watching Gini expose her breasts to someone in order to help him have sex with someone else fits the pattern, even if those someones are a different species. And as an added storytelling bonus, it clearly dovetails with Gini’s concerns that she exists to facilitate the drives of the powerful, occasionally beastly male with whom she shares an office and a byline.
The other two examples of Masters’ reversion to perversion similarly treat the bodies of their participants as a means to a separate end. In the first, Jane—the blonde secretary who was one of the study’s earliest and most memorable participants before being largely sidelined—volunteers to be a sex surrogate for an old friend struggling with impotence. Heléne Yorke has always been a blast in this role, both sensual and oddly perky, and watching Jane make the case to her hapless husband Lester for having sex (eventually, anyway) with a friend as an act of empathy and kindness is equal parts hot and heartwarming. (It helps that the show finally explains what the hell happened with her and Lester’s on-again, off-again relationship.)
In the second, no-nonsense administrative assistant Betty and her longtime girlfriend Helen (played once again by a stuntcasted Sarah Silverman) handle the latter’s baby fever by opting against stealing random sperm from the clinic for artificial insemination and instead approaching Austin, the cheerful cad doctor who was Jane’s partner in that first sex-as-research scene, to do the deed himself. I’ve never been the biggest fan of this character, since the show never seemed to know quite what to do with him; his random-ass relationship with Virginia’s boss in the diet-pill sales program is arguably the series’ single most superfluous storyline, which is saying something. But it’s good to see how the sexual revolution seems to have led him to a happier (albeit sleazier) place, and watching from a distance as he and Helen warm up, likely literally, to Betty’s proposition that they have sex to make a baby is voyeuristically hot stuff.
Even if this was Masters of Sex’s first consistently sexy episode in ages, does that mean the show’s solved all its problems? Oh good heavens no. Just for starters, it’s telling that to create tonight’s festivities, the series had to rely on tertiary characters like Helen, Austin, and Jane, plus Jane’s brand-new friend, plus a character who isn’t even human. The core cast is bogged down in boring-ass office love triangles, parents-just-don’t-understand teen angast, and lives of quiet desperation. Any given episode, and certainly this one, feels like seven or eight completely disconnected storylines haphazardly mortared together by shouting matches in which Bill or Gini or Libby or whoever angrily stakes out a position they will reverse three scenes later. I think we can all agree that weird sex stuff makes for a much more compelling connective tissue.