Masters of Sex Episode 2.5 Recap: Giants

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Simply citing where a film or television series deviates from its source material is not in itself meaningful analysis. If I keep returning to Thomas Maier’s biographical history from whence the series derives its title, it is not merely because I find the book more enthralling than the series. It is also because deviations from the source material are one of the clearest windows into an auteur’s intentions. When looking at an original screenplay, one must ponder why a writer chose a particular story over any one of an infinite number of possible other stories. When looking at an adaptation, more focused comparisons are possible, and the question can be reduced to why the writer chose his or her version over one specific other version.

Not all the reasons for deviations are sinister or even bad. As I mentioned in my recap for “Fight,” the ambiguity over whether or not Bill Masters forced Virginia Johnson to have sex with him as a condition of employment would be very difficult to convey in a chronologically ordered television serial that implies (as most television series do) a reliable, if not omniscient, narrative perspective. There are ways in which visual narratives can take on a Rashomon quality (remember Boomtown?) , but they usually result in the structural elements of the narrative overwhelming the thematic ones. And one senses that the writers of Masters of Sex have other ideas they want to explore in addition to the vagaries of memory and the human tendency to revise history in ways that make us look more sinned against than sinning.

Even so, that ambiguity is important to the historical story, so it was encouraging to see the show circle back to it by having Virginia ask Bill point blank if continuing their “research” is a condition of her continued employment. He initially says “no,” but when she indicates that she is going to stop having sex with him he immediately corrects himself, saying he meant “yes.” Her sexual participation is “part of the job.” Also encouraging: in a show not known for subtlety, that exchange was placed in an episode where revisionist history is a bit of theme.

Dr. DePaul gets the better of Virginia in an exchange in which she accuses her assistant of being the girl who is mad that she didn’t get an invite to the prom from the boy she didn’t want to go with. Virginia is clearly mad that Lillian gave away her study, but it is equally clear to us (and to Lillian) that her frustration is motivated more by the loss of a fall back position than a genuine interest in the work. Virginia bristles that she has “never let [her relationship with Bill] interfere with my work.” That’s not exactly true, either in Maier’s book or in the show itself. (Dr. DePaul is a fictional composite, but Masters concedes in the biography that Johnson worked seven days a week and two to three evenings, expressing wonder, apparently common, about how she juggled other areas of her life, such as raising her kids.) It may be worth comparing Dr. DePaul’s condemnation of the affair to the slut-shaming Virginia had to endure after Bill presented the research to the first hospital–including the nude film that colleagues correctly guessed was of her–but I will save that for another day once we see if the series is going to allow Lillian, in her illness, to be anything other than a victim that Virginia remains loyal to and takes care of.

I also appreciated Lillian’s reminder that Libby Masters was injured much more by Virginia’s actual adultery than she was by Virginia’s metaphorical, professional adultery. (And the corollary implication that practiced dishonesty in one area of one’s life makes dishonesty in other areas easier to fall into.)  The show illustrates how the negative consequences of adultery (and other forms of dishonesty in marriage) can pile up so high that everyone except the people practicing it can do the math. One senses that Virginia is starting to see some of those negative consequences, particularly in the opening scene where Libby drops in on her with the baby, but is already feeling trapped. Bill, on the other hand, either has a greater capacity to delude himself or a greater capacity to remain indifferent to others’ feelings.

Speaking of dishonest in marriage, Betty, apparently having learned nothing from the revelation that her husband knows more about her past than she realized, immediately tries to reconstruct her relationship with Helen into something more palatable, first to Gene and then to Helen herself. In some ways Betty’s duplicity is the most understandable given the historical context, but one wishes the series would underscore her vulnerabilities as a wife and mother more (i.e. compare her to Libby) rather than introduce the bisexual elements (i.e. Barton, part two). Although Maier relates that one of the longtime sponsors of Masters and Johnson was a rich, religious Dallas couple who were inheritors of a potato chip fortune (Gene is the “pretzel king”), Gene and Betty are more or less composites, so it’s not as though there couldn’t be more interesting directions this story line could take besides another go round with “when will my secret be uncovered?”

Libby does some revisionist history of her own, claiming that Coral’s boyfriend banged on her door and was more overtly threatening than he was. In perhaps the most poignant and maddening bit of self-serving interpretation, Bill  shames Libby for washing Coral’s hair, claiming that if anyone had treated her in such a way he would have been furious. Libby’s increasing humiliations have been difficult to watch, but they are important, I think, in really forcing us to contemplate how much of Bill’s cruelty we can allow to be mitigated by (if not excused by) his obtuseness. Her attempt to entice Bill with “make up” sex echo Margaret’s first season appeal to the call girl for tips on how to please her man. It also undercuts one of Masters’ repeated justifications for the sex study being its ability to help married couples. In Maier’s work, that argument increasingly comes across as the way Masters sold the study to the public and made his work sound more respectable and altruistic than it perhaps always was. The show is starting to echo that. For all its heavy-handedness, I continue to appreciate that it doesn’t idealize or rationalize the adultery.

A concluding remark about the hotel bedroom scene. It was paradoxically more bold and more skittish than most of the sex we get on television. Since Bill insists that they are doing research and not having an affair, Virginia refuses to undress, subjecting him to the female gaze as she instructs him to pleasure himself while revealing his innermost thoughts. The reversal in the bedroom of dominant/submissive roles is pretty standard fare–something you might get allusions to in any episode of Law & Order: SVU. The episode takes it one step further, though. When Bill admits he is fantasizing about Virginia, she breaks the “research” charade and calls him over, directing him to partially undress her. He then proceeds to give her oral sex. It was the first time that the show seemed to be pushing the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope, though one supposes that writers and crew figure that if you are still watching half way through Season Two you can’t claim to be shocked at what you were “made” to watch.

It’s also worth reminding those who were made uncomfortable by this scene (as I was) that while in content it is a pretty clear inverse of  the one where Virginia is naked and emotionally vulnerable  in “Fight,” there are noticeable differences in how the two scenes are shot. The most obvious is that while we don’t get full frontal shots of either actor, the camera is much closer to and lingers much longer on the naked torso of Lizzy Caplan than it does on the naked body of Michael Sheen (or his body double). In the latter’s scene, he is shot entirely from the waist up, except for a fleeting glimpse of a nude, kneeling Bill shot from across the room as the camera bashfully retreats around a corner.

It shouldn’t be news to anyone that there persists a cultural double standard when it comes to nudity–that we remain much more comfortable with (or at least willing to tolerate) female nudity than male nudity. It is interesting, and ironic (though perhaps unintentionally so) that this double standard manifest itself in this particular episode. Are Michelle Ashford, Bathsheba Doran, and Jeremy Webb (developer, writer, director) mirroring in form their subjects’ tendency to put the most altruistic spin on some admittedly objectionable behaviors? Or are they, too, merely concerned with using respectability as a portal to go where other artists/scientists can’t because of taboo? I probably shouldn’t say “merely.” It’s my belief that in most areas of life people’s motivations are a mix of good and bad and rarely one or the other. One of the things I like about Masters of Sex is that it appears to acknowledge that.  “Giants” was probably a little more on the gratuitous side of that spectrum, though.

Previous Recaps:

2.4 Dirty Jobs

2.3 Fight

2.2 Kyrie Eleison

Season 1

About Kenneth R. Morefield

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