Living the ‘American Dream’, Rejecting the Ideal: A Look Back at S2 of Masters of Sex

Things got even more complicated between Libby, Bill and Virginia in Season 2 of 'Masters of Sex'.
Things got even more complicated between Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) in Season 2 of ‘Masters of Sex’.

A few months ago I went out for a meal with friends and as usual we got to the part of the evening where we discuss what shows we’re currently watching. Frowning a little I asked if any of them had seen Masters of Sex and was regarded bemusedly by two of them as if I’d just confessed to a deep-seated love of Channel 4 porn documentaries. Thankfully my other friend slammed her palms down on the table and excitedly quizzed me over why I hadn’t thought to tell her before that I was also a fan. What followed was a heated discussion about the often literal ins and outs of the characters and our likes and dislikes about where things were heading as our other dinner companions politely drummed their fingers on the table. I’ve been mulling that conversation over for a long time now, and having worked my way through the whole of Season 2 and allowed it some breathing space, I’ve finally decided to thrash out a few thoughts on this intriguing, brilliant and sometimes frustrating drama.

“The curse which lies upon marriage is that too often the individuals are joined in their weakness rather than in their strength, each asking from the other instead of finding pleasure in giving. It is even more deceptive to dream of gaining through the child a plenitude, a warmth, a value, which one is unable to create for oneself; the child brings joy only to the woman who is capable of disinterestedly desiring the happiness of another, to one who without being wrapped up in self seeks to transcend her own existence.” Simone de Beavoir - 'The Second Sex' (1949)
“The curse which lies upon marriage is that too often the individuals are joined in their weakness rather than in their strength, each asking from the other instead of finding pleasure in giving. It is even more deceptive to dream of gaining through the child a plenitude, a warmth, a value, which one is unable to create for oneself; the child brings joy only to the woman who is capable of disinterestedly desiring the happiness of another, to one who without being wrapped up in self seeks to transcend her own existence.” Simone de Beavoir – The Second Sex (1949)

“Change your thoughts and you change your World.”

Just shy of a decade prior to where Season 2 of Masters of Sex picks up, in 1949 French philosopher, Simone de Beavoir, put forward the earth-shattering idea in The Second Sex that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”, thus attempting to free women from the chains of biological determinism that had previously dictated a woman’s place in society. Whilst her examination of the unrest amongst the female population in post-War Europe seems remote from 1950’s/60’s American culture, nowhere is there more evidence of dissatisfaction with the accepted norms of the era disseminating across the Atlantic than Masters and Johnson’s real-life, ground-breaking study into sexual behaviour in men and women. Obviously aware of the book’s utmost importance as a cultural zeitgeist, (it’s directly referenced in the second episode of Season 1, ‘Race to Space’), it’s here where showrunner, Michelle Ashford, picks up the mantel and uses real-life trailblazers to demonstrate just how little and how much has changed in the last fifty years.

A Man in Crisis: Bill has serious problems trusting people after his Mother failed to stop his Father physically abusing him.
A Man in Crisis: Bill has serious problems trusting people after his Mother (Ann Dowd) failed to stop his Father physically abusing him.

For the fictional Bill Masters, as with many of his contemporaries, the social and political, seismic shifts in society towards the end of the 1950’s and 1960’s have left him incredibly unsteady on his feet. Furthermore, being fired from his well-respected job as Head of Obstetrics at Maternity Hospital at the end of Season 1 and embarking on a ‘new phase of the study’ with Virginia, which is a full-blown affair in all but name, has left him vulnerable; financially and emotionally.  As we’ve seen throughout the show, Bill has an innate need to take control and assert that he “provides the roof”, as the breadwinner in his household and as the senior partner in the study, which is why he is so resistant to the financial respite his Mother offers him when their work moves out of a hospital setting and into premises of their own. It’s also why he continuously leaves Virginia out of the loop professionally. The more he stomps his feet and vocally protests, however, the more he silently questions everything, including his masculinity and the agency and superiority that are so fundamental to what he believes it is to be a man, including his virility, which is compromised when he discovers Virginia has been seeing another man since they started sleeping together at the hotel. As we learn in this season’s third instalment, ‘Fight’, on some level, this crisis of identity began to plague him as a child as he struggled with his Father’s mood swings and unwarranted beatings and insults, but things really come to a head when the two women in his life seek the professional and sexual autonomy that he’s not willing to offer them, initially at least. As Bill endeavours to keep swimming against the tide of change, whilst professing to be a pioneer, he utilises his wife and mistress as life rafts, unaware that his neediness is dragging them under too. Virgina remains the unconsulted, junior partner in their ‘work’, whilst Libby disappears behind her role as a wife and Mother. By freeing himself from the burden of expectation and allowing himself to open up, they too begin to shrug off their fear of the unknown and explore who they really are.

The Player gets Played: Flo (Artemis Pebdani) provides one surprise after another for Austin (Teddy Sears)
The Player gets Played: Flo (Artemis Pebdani) provides one surprise after another for Austin (Teddy Sears)

Whilst they have differing and in some ways opposing problems, Bill’s masculine identity crisis is also mirrored in his former colleague, Austin Langham. Notorious for his wandering eye throughout his marriage, after his divorce he starts a relationship with a hand model turned burlesque dancer who he treats as little more than arm candy, which ultimately ends in humiliation for him when he unwittingly discovers her career has progressed to ‘skin flicks’ during a bachelor party he’s attending. Floundering when his wife refuses to take him back and suffering at work because of his reputation as a ladies’ man, he falls into a dubious professional arrangement with Virginia’s one time boss, Flo, that not only involves him charming her Cal-O-Metric patrons as the face of the product, but also servicing her needs in the bedroom. In the same way he objectified all the women he slept with, he too becomes little more than a means to her sexual gratification; made all the worse in his mind by the fact that, in spite of his perceived disparity between their physical attractiveness, unlike Bill he has no trouble ‘getting it up’. In fact he seems to have no control of his sex drive at all. The final hammer blow comes when the diet pill company owner rejects his romantic advances after he finds out she’s the daughter of a hardware store millionaire with a hand in politics, and specifically the impending Kennedy administration. Calling him “blonde” and reducing him to little more than an aesthetically pleasing dalliance, who wouldn’t be able to keep up intellectually with her family were he introduced, she holds up a mirror to his own shallow behaviour, which proves thoroughly unpalatable to St Louis’ answer to Casanova.

Flo’s self-possession is also evident in Libby and Virginia, and it’s not just Bill’s epiphany that unshackles these two women from the constraints of their day to day lives. However surprising the friendship is between the two of them, it’s the realisation of the absurdity of their predicament that pushes them to push each other towards epiphanies of their own. Libby admires and begins to emulate Virginia’s ‘go-getter’ attitude, and in the season finale the importance of Libby posing the questions, “What if you just let go of everything that you thought that your life would be? What if we both did?” really can’t be understated. Not only is she no longer prepared to wait around for her jailer to release her, she’s actively pulling the pin from her hair and cracking open the lock herself, all the while encouraging her friend to hop over the wall with her as well.  It’s almost ironic that Virginia, the once seemingly fancy-free, commitment phobic divorcee, is more tied down than ever, – to the work and therefore to/because of Bill, just as the former strait-laced, borderline Stepford wife is sprouting wings and finding her own place in the World, outside of her marriage to him. As the former begins to finally tether herself down to ‘the work’ and deepen her relationship with her boss and lover, the latter steps out from behind her stifling persona as a housewife and starts to really find herself in her own affair with her former nanny’s half-brother, Robert (Jocko Sims), and her volunteering with CORE.

Either side of the wife/mistress divide, Libby and Virginia make strange, yet utterly compelling allies.
Either side of the wife/mistress divide, Libby and Virginia make strange, yet utterly compelling allies.

In both cases, facing what they fear, commitment and other people thinking ill of them respectively, they liberate themselves from the prevailing feminine ‘ideal’ of the period. When Virginia agrees to give custody of her kids to her ex-husband George, it finally liberates her from the impossible situation of finding enough hours in the day to juggle her career and looking after her children. Although it’s probably the most gut-wrenching thing she’s had to do, there’s no good, logical reason, outside of what societal norms prescribe, why Tessa and Henry’s father shouldn’t be their primary caregiver, especially as his ex-wife initially allowed him years of space to pursue his singing career whilst she provided for the kids pretty much single-handedly. In a similar vein, it’s a blessing in disguise that Gene (Greg Grunberg) found out about Betty’s (Annaleigh Ashford) real sexual orientation without a child having been thrown into the mix. She may no longer have access to ‘The Pretzel King’s’ fortune and the safety net that provided after years of being forced to look to prostitution for a living, but at least working as a secretary allows her financial autonomy and the freedom not to have to live a lie in order to get by. Being a mother and a wife, above all and detriment to everything else, is no longer enough for any of the women in this show, nor should it be when they’re capable of so much more.

“In it together. That is the key.”

Virginia comforting Lillian (Julianne Nicholson) shortly before she decides to take her own life.
Virginia comforting Lillian (Julianne Nicholson) shortly before she decides to take her own life.

This idea of sharing the load is a prevailing theme in Season 2, and lessons are there to be learnt from Lillian DePaul’s tragic death after her terminal cancer diagnosis. Determined to forge forward on her own in both her career and her private life, she ends up dying without ever having a serious romantic relationship and won’t even feature as a footnote in the work she’s dedicated her life to. The only real solace is that she eventually opened up enough to allow herself a true friend in Virginia, and ultimately wasn’t forced to take her last breath on her own after she chose to take her own life. Similarly, it’s the lies that Barton told Margaret about his sexuality that have imprisoned them both in a marriage that, whilst not loveless, has held them back from fulfilling their potential; romantically, physically and emotionally. The provost’s internalized self-loathing of his homosexuality also leads him to try and ‘cure’ himself with electric shock therapy and when that doesn’t work he attempts to hang himself, but is fortunately saved by his horrified wife and daughter, who had little idea just how fragile he was mentally. By the time we see Barton again in ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, after taking a break and going back to being an ordinary doctor, he and his wife have come to an agreement to be honest and open with one another, which although a compromise, allows them both peace of mind. It’s that same peace of mind that Libby finally attains after years of her fear and uncertainty brought about by a mismatched marriage and her husband’s infidelity, which manifested itself in her erratic, racist behaviour for much of this season. When she finally turns to Robert as she’s laid in his bed and verbalises the open secret that Bill has been having an affair for years, the truth does appear to set her free.

“It almost looks like love, doesn’t it? They reach for each other and hold on. Two of them against each other, sure, but it’s also them against that crowd.” Virginia’s description of the two boxers in ‘Fight’ also seems to encapsulate her relationship with Bill.

Likewise it’s the times when the two protagonists hold their cards close to their chest and feign total self-sufficiency that they’re at their most counter-productive. Bill’s former mentor really hits the nail on the head in the Season Finale when he tells him, “Always the one man show. Always your terms and your terms only. Well, it’s hell on the people around you and no picnic for you either.” The real advances between the two main characters, in their personal relationship and in their chosen field of work, are made in the moments of synergy they have with one another; visually exemplified when they’re laid side by side on the hotel bed after Bill’s been beaten by his brother, Frank (Christian Borle), in ‘Below the Belt’ and ultimately in that final scene in the office when they embark on a therapeutic treatment of Lester (Kevin Christy) and Barbara’s (Betsy Brandt) sexual dysfunctions. This is indeed what the frequent references to John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie and their successful election campaign throughout the season, specifically alongside Bill and Virginia, appear to back up. As Austin admits, “When I first saw a picture of Jackie, I thought now I know what the American Dream is, and John Kennedy, you’re living it!” and it’s this aspirational quality that the future First Lady offered her husband, who we now know was suffering from numerous health complaints including anxiety disorders, which runs parallel to the stabilizing effect Johnson has on Masters. In return he has offered her a foot in the door to a scientific arena dominated by men that she wouldn’t necessarily have been able to enter otherwise because of her background and lack of qualifications, in the same way JFK gifted Jackie a place on the World stage.  As in Bill’s dream in the finale, it’s together, and together alone, that they’ll move forward and receive all the plaudits they deserve, but first they have to overcome the ‘roadblock’ that prevents them from forging on with their work in the form of his marriage to Libby.

With the backdrop of John F. Kennedy's rise to power, Bill's subconscious conjures up what it would be like to experience the same kind of fame and adulation with Virginia by his side during a dream.
With the backdrop of John F. Kennedy’s rise to power, Bill’s subconscious conjures up what it would be like to experience the same kind of fame and adulation with Virginia by his side during a dream.

Problems

  • As I touched on earlier, the name of this show doesn’t always do it a lot of favours. Similarly the credit sequence never fails to make my toes curl, it’s so cringe-worthy. I don’t believe anything can or will be done about either of these things now, but they both continue to niggle.
  • Many people have been vocal about how unlikeable Bill has become this season. Having gone back and watched Season 1 recently, I must admit that in some instances he does come across as much colder. There were occasions where I’d have happily reached into the screen and throttled him, especially when his underhand tactics indirectly led to Virginia losing her children, but I can’t bring myself to outright hate him either. That may be subject to change as time goes on, in fact I have a feeling it will, but the vulnerability imbued in him by Michael Sheen makes his decisions and his treatment of the people around him understandable, if not always entirely acceptable. The thought process behind each action, even if flawed, is plain to see and I can’t help but feel that the titular character would be much more black and white in less skilled hands. The same goes for every character with such an impeccable cast, but especially Lizzy Caplan and Caitlin Fitzgerald, who’ve had some extremely meaty material to sink their teeth into this season and more than stood up to the challenge.
  • The real issue with Season 2 has been the pacing problem, which was often pretty disorientating and left me scouring for cultural markers to help me ascertain where we are on a fairly regular basis. As a case in point, ‘Asterion’ especially felt like a much longer episode that had been butchered in the editing suite and had forced together a number of important events that should probably have been allowed the space to breathe over the course of another two or three hours of television. I guess this is the danger when you’re trying to encompass several decades of people’s lives into a series with obvious time restrictions.
Losing Lillian is a huge blow to the narrative drive of the show.
Losing Lillian is a huge blow to the narrative drive of the show.

Hopes for Season 3?

  • Lillian dying was a huge blow for the narrative drive of the show, but most pointedly as a friendly antagonist to Virginia, who sometimes needed to hear things she didn’t want to from someone with enough distance to give her an unbiased opinion. Bill still has Betty to give it to him both barrels when he does something stupid, and clearly he’s still in contact with his former mentor and boss, Barton. Aside from her oddball friendship with fellow ‘lone wolf’ Austin, Virginia has no-one to confide in except for Bill and Libby who are about as involved in her current ‘situation’ as it gets. I’d love to see either a new character brought in, or perhaps her professional relationship with her therapist be developed further, which could be a great avenue into her childhood and her life before George came along.
  • I’m really eager to see where this juxtaposition of the Kennedys with Bill and Virginia takes us, especially in relation to what we all know happens in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Presumably it’ll mirror some kind of crushing set-back for them as a team, but who knows? I’m not sure how far along we’ll get chronologically next season, but surely Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968 will also feature heavily as a backdrop in Libby and Robert’s relationship too? It seems logical as their joint involvement in the Civil Rights movement is one of the ties that bonds them together.
  • It almost doesn’t need saying as everyone is eager to see more of Barton and Margaret in Season 3. Hopefully ways can be found to work around Beau Bridges’ and Allison Janney’s schedules to make their characters a more sustained presence in the future.

Written by Danielle.

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