If the pilot and sophomore seasons of “Masters of Sex” haven’t aroused modern TV enough, season three penetrates even deeper than before. Eponymously, sexual tension has always been abundant; it’s the inner, personal tension that’s harder to create.
Season Three leaps 12 years ahead to 1965 when Dr. Bill Masters (Michael Sheen, “Frost/Nixon”) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan, “Mean Girls”) are about to publish their breakthrough book, “Human Sexual Response.” The episode cuts between the present at their press conference and a flashback to their lake house vacation with Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald, “It’s Complicated”) four months ago. The time jumps are slightly disorienting, though, as the show already illustrates character development brilliantly without the juxtaposition of past and present.
Bill and Virginia have plateaued into familiar — even familial — intimacy with each other, but their closeness alienates them from their families. Virginia cannot stop her belovedly bespectacled Henry (Noah Robbins, “Aftermath”) from dating a cougar, from getting hit by a car, or from enlisting for Vietnam. She cannot curb teenage Tessa’s (Isabelle Fuhrman, “The Hunger Games” series) curiosity for drugs or her sexual advances toward Bill. The formidable Bill Masters, too preoccupied with his own work, cannot make himself emotionally available to the children he never quite wanted. When Bill’s son throws his manuscript into the lake in an explosive moment, Bill — usually disciplined and calculated — has no choice but to accept that there are some inevitabilities he cannot control.
The episode delicately captures the essence of parenting and uses it to examine the duality that exists in every individual. Deep down, Bill has good intentions, but his evasion of fatherly responsibility reflects the traumatic neglect he experienced in his own childhood. In previous seasons, conflicts with their children have stood in the shadows of larger adult issues, but the new season may pit familial issues against their professional lives.
As Bill and Virginia head into the public spotlight, they force themselves to façade the friction of their private lives. They use sex to mask deeper emotional problems in their relationship. The pristine lake house attempts to mask underlying issues in the trio’s lives. Everyone zips up tightly and plasters on a smile, even in moments pregnant with discomfort.
The episode especially highlights the tragic complexity of Libby as a character. Thus far, she has doormatted herself, hidden beneath her own immaculate appearance and her feigned oblivion about her husband’s affair with her best friend. She has emotionally prostituted herself in an attempt at connection with any willing individual. As homoerotic as her scene in bed with Virginia is, the kiss — her desire to be desired — is more tragic than titillating.
However, Libby finally realizes in this episode that approval and love must come from within. She humbly and nobly announces that she will end her marriage with Bill. Though Bill is also a complex character to sympathize with, his separation from Libby is a long-awaited breath of fresh air. Their divorce is one of the first events that strips down to the naked truth. Season Three insinuates that Libby’s own revolution is coming.
A disclaimer at the end of the episode notes that the children’s plotlines are completely fictitious, a fact that other reviews condemn. However, the beauty of film is that fiction adds the dimension of modern interpretation. “Masters of Sex” is not meant to be a documentary or textbook. By adding fictional subplots and secondary characters, we identify how history is pertinent and relatable to society today.
The episode elucidates the “revolution” aspect of Masters and Johnson’s medical research because even 50 years later today, human sexuality is still taboo. Set amid the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, the show discusses multiple instances of female empowerment – when Libby independently ends her marriage, when Virginia insists on finishing her college degree – when women finally tear down the facades.
Whereas “virtuosity” was most commonly used in terms of sexual chastity in the ’60s, “Masters of Sex” defines it as personal morality — doing good as a mother, as a wife, and as a woman for herself.
“We are the sexual revolution,” Virginia says.
“You’re pregnant,” Bill adds.
In a climactic end, what Virginia chooses to do with her body in the upcoming season will shape the portrayal of feminism and sexuality on television here forth.