Since its second season, “Masters of Sex” has produced great individual moments and episodes that don’t hold up as well when viewed as parts of a greater whole. The third season finale, titled “Full Ten Count,” follows that same pattern. Several conflicts come to a head that the whole show has been building to, yet so much of the episode is littered with the remains of story threads that have been lackluster at best.
Still, Bill and Virginia’s role reversal has been one intriguing thread to follow through the season, and it’s pleasant seeing Bill (Michael Sheen, "Frost/Nixon") acting a more kind, sympathetic and honest than his cold, detached role in previous seasons. When Bill defiantly tells Virginia (Lizzy Caplan, "Mean Girls") that he loves her, and later takes a cab to the airport to beg with her to come back with him, he’s worthy of being the romantic lead the show always asked him to be. It’s easy to become jaded about the cliffhanger when Bill stands sadly outside, his professional and personal future with Virginia uncertain, but the show invests the audience with empathy for him. That often wasn’t possible earlier on. This season has mostly revolved around a love triangle between sex researcher Bill Masters, his partner Virginia Johnson and fragrance industry businessman, Dan Logan (Josh Charles, “The Good Wife”). Last week’s episode served to finally make Logan a real character with flaws and complexities of his own, and “Full Ten Count” shows him impressively committing to Virginia, leaving his wife and proposing to Virginia. It’s nice to see Virginia actually taking a stand against Bill and choosing Logan instead of constantly waffling between the two men. Still, it’s hard not to sigh at the delay of the inevitable resolution when Bill and Virginia will end up together. Even if there was any dramatic tension left in the love triangle, history tells us Masters and Johnson get married. By now, new love interests and contrivances feel like unnecessary wheel-spinning.
Aside from the love triangle business, most of the finale deals with cleaning up the various threads left hanging. Bill finds himself in jail because a participant in his sex study, Nora (Emily Kinney, “The Walking Dead”), is a religious mole bent on framing him for prostitution and taking down the study. He’s also in trouble because his son, Johnny (Jaeden Lieberher, “St. Vincent”), made a comment about a boy at school that leads the police to accuse Bill of molestation. And in one scene designed to tie up a lingering loose end, Bill’s wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald, “Mutual Friends”) finds out her lover Paul (Ben Koldyke, “Mr. Robinson”) is gone for good.
All of these subplots have sucked up time that could have been better spent taking Bill and Virginia’s sex study to the next level, and none could have been predicted from the season premiere, an episode generally expected to set up the structure and overall arcs of the season. The show has introduced too many narrative cul-de-sacs to actually resolve the overarching story. The first few episodes promised a deep look into Bill and Virginia’s twisted relationships with their children, but the roles of Virginia’s kids, Tessa (Isabelle Fuhrman, “Orphan”) and Henry (Noah Robbins, “Aftermath”), proved superfluous. Tessa was a mustache-twirling antagonist who the story repeatedly failed to invest viewers in, and Henry signed up for the Army only to disappear completely from the story. As little as these characters ultimately mattered, though, it’d still make sense to conclude the season with some closure in regards to their relationship with their mother. Both characters are completely missing from the finale. Johnny’s lack of meaningful interaction with his father is even more frustrating, as Bill’s projection of his father’s coldness onto Johnny made a potentially fascinating story. Much like the love triangle, though, this story is left unresolved. Maybe it’ll be resolved next premiere, or maybe it’ll be dragged out for years.
Still, just like any other episode of “Masters of Sex,” there are enough impactful moments to distract from the glaring flaws. Dr. Barton Scully (Beau Bridges, “The Millers”) finally becomes comfortable showing affection for another man in public. Most prominent, though, is a final moment of closure for Bill and his wife. Bill and Libby’s relationship has been fairly one-note for most of the show, but this season has added the interesting wrinkle that Libby is aware of Bill’s affair and has accepted it. Finally, in the finale, Bill and Libby have the confrontation the whole show has built toward. After three seasons of deception, denial and dysfunction, Bill admits to the affair. Fitzgerald’s reaction is powerful as she laughs at the idea that she still wouldn’t have known, then hysterically breaks down as Bill abruptly suggests they separate. “It would be the one honest thing we do in years,” Bill says softly. After years of lies and quiet sacrifice, finally the unspoken becomes spoken. It’s a moment of pure catharsis.
“Masters of Sex” becomes more of an issue each year, as all notions of structure are thrown out in favor of uninteresting stories that distract from the sex study that made the show so compelling in its first season. It’s up in the air whether next season will be able to reclaim the scientific magic and aching human drama of the first, but if the show maintains its ability to create singular moments of beauty despite recurring story problems, it’ll always be worth watching.