Just after I finished praising the first season of Showtime’s edgy drama, Masters of Sex, the second season has gotten off to a bumpy start. In truth, the final episode of Season One was probably its weakest, shifting pace into overdrive in order to reach a less than satisfying and probably unnecessary cliffhanger. The second season opener, “Parallax” (for which I did not do a recap), was clunky, but saved by strong scenes between Barton (Beau Bridges) and Margaret (Allison Janney) as the former begins shock therapy to try to “cure” his homosexuality.
Bill finds out about Barton’s failed suicide attempt not from Margaret but from the provost’s daughter, Vivian, who, we learned, broke her wrist trying to save her father’s life. The Bill-Vivian conversation was probably the best scene in “Kyrie Eleison,” the heavily-handed title of season two’s second episode. For those who have never been to mass and don’t have access to Wikipedia, I should say “Kyrie eleison” translates as “Lord, have mercy.”
That title is the sort of thematic underlining that the show has mostly avoided so far. In Season One, Bill’s blackmailing of Barton gave the argument that the sex study was (only) benignly motivated to help those suffering from fear and misconceptions an ambiguous quality that captured biographer Thomas Maier’s portrait of a complex, decent, but flawed individual.
Here Good Bill (doctor!) and Bad Bill (adulterer!) are pretty compartmentalized, with Libby muttering to her African-American nanny that she knows he had a “hard” childhood but is unaware of any of the details that he refuses to share. Meanwhile, a strict couple pressures Bill to perform a hysterectomy on their sexually active daughter. She initially consents, hoping that the procedure will curb her seemingly out of control sex drive and fretting about what kind of mother she could possibly be. When Bill fits her for an IUD instead, she does a 180, telling busy-body Betty (who snooped through her file) that she now understands that she isn’t defined by the worst part of herself. Another life saved from bigotry and shame through science!
In case that rushed subplot isn’t enough, we get an exchange between Bill and Betty where she, in frustration, demeans his study and he snaps at her telling her that the study is important because people are “suffering.” He doesn’t get to lecture her about suffering, Betty fires back.
Meanwhile Virginia continues to be ostracized at the hospital for her participation in the sex-study. She drags Dr. DePaul to the oncologist and dances with Dr. Langham, who was recently kicked out of his house by his wife who caught him philandering. When Masters of Sex is clicking, it is pretty astute about the way people mix as much truth as possible into their lies until they themselves have a hard time discerning the difference. Austin’s speech comes closest in this episode, with his let’s-eat-drink-and-be-merry appeal to Virginia straddling the line between pathetic self-delusion and flailing self-justification.
Where the series is hanging in the balance is in its willingness, or not, to see the sex research–and, especially, the behaviors it condones and justifies–as a double-edged sword. Showing how repression, fear, and ignorance ruin lives is not that hard, as the hysterectomy patient shows. What is harder is to acknowledge that while knowledge/science is morally neutral, its application is not. Do we know more about sex than we did before the Masters and Johnson studies? Yes, of course. Are we sexually healthier, as a society, than we were then? Any emphatic answer to that question is suspect. For the show to succeed long term, it will need to avoid presenting the researchers as too altruistic and the effects of their research as too uniformly positive.