One of the dominant themes of Masters of Sex–both the series and the biography upon which it is based–is that ignorance and superstition regarding sexual development and functioning was a barrier to healthy sexuality prior to Masters’s and Johnson’s studies. Much of what people–even doctors–believed about sex in the late 1950s and early 60s was from Freud. (The series is a little fuzzy about timelines but it finally worked its way around to speaking the name “Kinsey,” whose own research in the form of self-reported surveys preceded that of Masters and Johnson.) In the biography, Masters’s and Johnson’s reported attitude towards the founder of psychoanalysis ranged from frustration at how deeply entrenched Freud’s theories were to outright contempt for those who put more stock in theorizing than observation.
It was a little surprising then to see Virginia quote Freud to the woman unable to consummate her marriage because of (it turns out) repressed childhood trauma. Bill’s own sexual dysfunctions (including a period of impotence following realization that Virginia had a “beau”) has been repeatedly tied to his childhood trauma, both in “Fight,” where he relates being beaten and in this episode where he repeatedly attempts to pass on treating his estranged brother’s (Christian Borle) infertility. Frank Masters acknowledges struggles with alcoholism, and his forthright admission of his personal demons provides a stark contrast to Bill’s perpetual state of denial. Frank’s marriage, at least through one episode, also provides a “mirror” (hey, that’s the title!) that directly contrasts Bill’s inability to communicate with Libby.
In other words, more than fifty years after Masters and Johnson demonstrated that Freud was wrong about the mechanics of sex, it is ironic that the show illustrating their work continues to rely heavily upon Freud to explain the psychology of people having sex.
“Mirror, Mirror” returns to a more measured pace after “Asterion”‘s frenetic forward leaps in time. Things haven’t exactly returned to Season One’s pace–witness Austin (Teddy Sears) going to Calometric when we all can probably guess that he’s going to land at the clinic eventually–but story arcs are now being spread out over a couple of episodes. This episode, like “Asterion” appears to be laying the ground work for explaining how and why the researchers move into treatment. One assumes that somewhere in the not to distant future we are going to have the publication of their research, but maybe not.
Can I say something about the visuals? Michael Apted was back behind the camera, and it showed. Apted directed the first three episodes of Season 2, but not the last four. Those four were some of the shakier ones in regards to maintaining a consistent look and feel, though neither was helped by the changes in sets. To cite just one example, the decision to eschew deep focus in the previous episode to obscure Virginia’s nude body on the bed seemed particularly skittish in a milieu where the camera (particularly in “Fight”) had insisted on making us look–sometimes uncomfortably–at what was going on. I realize that such a comment runs the risk of sounding voyeuristic (more nudity please!), but I don’t mean it to be. I do want to suggest the skittishness about nudity is one of the ways in which the last few episodes have been, while still TV-MA, tonally different from what previous episodes had previously been.
Apted is not exactly reinventing the wheel, but he is an experienced, skilled director. Witness the carefully balanced composition of the picture above, with Franks forward lean hinting at the minor but significant differences between the brothers. If the scene between Libby Masters and Coral’s brother tended to cross cut a bit too much for my taste, the increasing use of close ups to suggest the characters were psychologically closer together than their territorial space would otherwise suggest was the kind of thoughtful use of blocking to reinforce narrative that I was subconsciously missing in “Asterion.”
Even in an uneven season, Masters of Sex still has the ability to pull at your heart strings by reminding you just how much pain sex (or sexual dysfunction) can cause. When Virginia’s informal patient says “God saw what we did [she and her brother committed incest], He closed me up because of what we did….” it is hard to not want to reach through the television and offer a consoling hug. In a week where the dominant news story has been about leaked nude photos of celebrities, some of them apparently underage, it actually feels a little counter-cultural to watch a show that acknowledges sex has the power to scar us as well as titillate us.