Fathers and Mothers
Masters Of Sex Season 3 Episode 5 recap
A good episode of the show. I don’t know why there’s such a dichotomy of episodes, either a dismal dirge of family dysfunction or the melee of office and cultural mores. In theory, there should be a mix of both and this episode is the closest we’ve come in a long time. It has all the hallmarks of greatness. There are sexual clients at Bill and Virginia’s office, a b-plot – two, maybe three* in this case! – that I care about, and excellent 60s-era fashion on both Libby and Virginia. In fact, the celebratory dinner reminds me so directly of the glamorous dinner held here in season 1 that I might have conflated the enthusiasm for this episode with that one, where Libby had her miscarriage – but I think it still warrants this.
What it doesn’t maybe warrant is this much cheering for simply being entertaining, since that’s supposed to be its job, as a show. I feel like Mindy Kaling, encouraging and cheering because my kid can brush his teeth.
But it was still a great episode. Virginia’s parents and their unflinching approval dressed in disapproval (or the other way round, depending how your mommy issues work) were a nice window into her day to day these days. I don’t know how that baby is magically being cared for, but if nature vs. nurture is a question, I’m just glad it’s not the person who brought up Tessa.
Tessa is the reason I couldn’t fully enjoy the third subplot, and Tessa is never, never acting like a normal teenager. Instead she’s in some sort of Lillian Hellman stage play all the time. It doesn’t help that she only ever wears her school uniform as she clumsily tries to manipulate her mother, which makes her less a real person and more a caricature. It feels like we’re supposed to think she’s a terrible, psychotic human instead of a hurt teenager, and it’s tone deaf in the writing – but I also suspect that she is not a very good actress, and it distracts me every time.
There’s that, and there’s the fact that Analeigh Ashford continues to be criminally underused. I wish she would have had more opportunity to be sassy to Will Gardner, since he’s also just marking time so far – something I expect to change next week, when he takes Virginia to dinner.
But when the show was good, it was very, very good. I really liked that the parents coming to town were a stark contrast to the looming thumb of judgment that Bill’s parents always were, and that they were mostly happy with Virginia. And young!
But mostly I liked that it showed how the things we believe to be true about ourselves and our families aren’t always. No, Virginia in beauty pageants isn’t a surprise, but discovering they were her idea does provide an outlet for why we got here. She doesn’t really believe that she used to like and care about the things she hates now. She doesn’t really believe that she might be responsible for getting herself into some of the situations she now finds so troubling. Which is saying a lot about who she is, overall. She’s repulsed by her mother, thinking that ‘get him to leave his wife’ is what she wants—and she’s equally as repulsed by herself for wondering why she does like the idea. Why, perhaps, she’s liked it all the time.
And Bill Masters – who is sometimes inscrutable and sometimes irritating just for irritation’s sake – is most fascinating when he’s dealing not with his sexual issues, but with his frustration at being controlled by those who are less ‘sissy’ than him. Only a sissy would be interested in feelings – even if those feelings are the kinds you get from sex. Bill is old enough – and successful enough! – to know it isn’t true, but he still needs to prove it over and over again.
The scene with Dennis really brought this whole show back for me. Michael Sheen’s face when he’s maintaining that grimacing smile, the slippery mask of propriety as he threatens the little bully – that’s what this show is about. He’s constantly trying and failing to cover over the person he really is, and then wondering why he bothers.
So, a juicy episode. The only problem with Bill and Virginia having triumphs, in his case, or revelations, in hers, is that the show necessarily turns its focus to being ‘for’ them and thereby I’m forced to be anti-Libby, who this episode carps and complains with no real point. That is, she has a point, but it goes unanswered and unsatisfied, and then she goes offscreen. I’m sure that’s the way lots of real-life wives have felt in this situation. So maybe it’s actually brilliant, I can’t tell.
But you can’t ask me to write about the lead characters on this show when Allison Janney is doing this kind of work. Her hopefulness and earnestness and desire and, I don’t know, pragmatism – and her entirely rational rage. I’m not sure exactly how to categorize how nuanced and talented she is. Her relationships with everyone in her orbit feel so genuine. She loves and lusts for and feels sorry for and is angry with all of them, but mostly herself. I am a notably bad actor, but if you’re a good one, maybe this is what it is? Having love and hate for yourself, or your character, in equal measure?
Beau Bridges is no slouch either. She and Barton are just as nuanced and layered after they’ve been apart for so long, because she can remember the intimacy, word intended, that she had for him. Beau Bridges is no slouch either. Do you see the affection in his face when he comforts her, and the pride that she left Graham? When he calls Vivian to tell her the truth?
This is what the show can be. I only wish it were, more of the time.