Highlights from Season One of ‘Masters of Sex’

The first season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex concluded in December last year. The show was well-received, both critically and popularly, and it has been great to see series find its stride over the course of the season. It would have been devastatingly easy for a show that is ostensibly about the study of female sexuality to turn into a series that highlights white male gate-keepers, however Masters of Sex has managed to avoid this pitfall admirably. Michelle Ashford, the show-runner, put together a largely female writing staff, seemingly as a result the show has some of the best, most fully realized, three-dimensional female characters on television today. Below are some of the things that I have personally found to be highlights of the season.

 Cast of Masters of Sex

 

1)      Virginia Johnson

Lizzy Caplan has sparkled on the screen as Virginia Johnson. Virginia has been such a great character because she is everything that you never expect you will get to see a woman be on television. She has sex because she wants to have sex, not because she needs a man or because her life is empty without one, she seeks what she needs and makes no apologies for being who she is. She is also smart, ambitious and driven; over and over we see how Virginia wants to do great with her life. She wants to leave her mark on the world and is willing to put in the work to make that happen.  At the same time she suffers from self-doubt, exhaustion and confusion just like we all do, but she sets her boundaries and sticks to them and manages to maintain her professionalism despite the extremely trying circumstances in which she constantly finds herself.  It is nice to see the difficulties she has with juggling her children and her demanding job, dealing with a flakey ex-husband and watxhing her sometimes succeed and sometimes fail and trying to make it all work.

Over the course of the season it has become clear that it is she, not the cold, forbidding, and seemingly emotionless Bill Masters who is able to separate the work from her personal life. This is made clear when Bill suggests that they should participate in the study with each other.  She is interested in the data, proving conclusions and ensuring the success of the study. She will do anything to ensure that it is successful including being filmed masturbating and having sex with Bill so that they can explore certain hypotheses before deciding to study them with regular study participants.  However, when Bill does something that she feels is demeaning, paying her for the times she has participated in the study as if she was any other participant she understands quite clearly why he has done it, he has feelings for and is trying to assuage his guilt and distance himself from them when he finds out his wife is pregnant. She maintains her dignity by doing what she believes is right, resigning from her work with him and going to work with Dr. Lillian DePaul, someone who she believes is also on the verge of doing great things, even if they will not cause the stir that the sex study will.

 

 Virginia Johnson

2)      Margaret and Barton Scully

It came out mid-season that Barton Scully is a deeply closeted gay man who meets with sex workers in cars. His story becomes ever more nuanced over the course of the season. Bill uses his knowledge of him to black mail him into allowing the study to remain at the hospital, he gets stabbed by some homophobes just for parking his car in a known gay pick up spot and decides to seek treatment for his “illness” of homosexuality after his wife catches him meeting a sex worker at a hotel; something he decided to do after deeming that meeting in cars was too dangerous after the stabbing.

We become privy to how the nature of his marriage with Margaret is a hollow shell despite their deep tenderness and mutual regard for one another. After chatting with her friends over Mah Jong Margaret hears about the study and how it has reinvigorated a mutual acquaintance’s life. She decides to sign up because she is long tired of waiting for her husband to come to her bed, the scene that follows where Virginia and Bill question her about her sexual history and it becomes clear that she has never had an orgasm is near heart-breaking. It is impossible not to cheer for her when she begins an affair with the handsome and fickle Dr. Austin Langham.

The whole storyline is a sensitive portrayal of how deeply damaging stigma and homophobia is. Barton married Margaret because he needed to be perceived as “normal” in order to fulfill his career ambitions. As a result of those ambitions and not wanting to live on the margins both he and Margaret have been robbed of a full life.  This is one of the few storylines  have seen on television that covers homosexuality and homophobia in a period drama in a way that neither sensationalizes it or objectifies the characters involved, but instead is a nuanced look at how it hurts people.

This arc has also resulted in one of the best monologues about stigma and sexuality that I have ever seen on television. When Barton asks Dale, the sex worker that he has being seeing,  to participate in his aversion therapy, saying that he will pay him to sit across from him while he takes an emetic to make himself feel ill. Dale responds by elaborating the ways in which his life is difficult and how he often wishes he could change but ending with the line “there’s only one person who gets to be sickened by me, and that’s me. Everyone else can go fuck themselves.”  The whole sequence elucidates the complexity and pain of being queer in a straight world.

Maragret Scully

3)      Dr. Lillian De Paul

Dr. Lillian De Paul is one of the characters on the show that is completely fictional and not based on a real person. Initially it seemed as though she was going be a sort of female misogynist, a Margaret Thatcher type who makes it to the top and then instead of helping to break down barriers uses her position to shit on other women. Over time it became clear that De Paul’s coldness towards Virginia was in large part defensiveness based on the slog she has had firstly to become a doctor and secondly in trying to crack into the old boys club in order to get her project, free or low cost pap smears available for women in order to detect cervical cancer while it is still treatable, funded. She is deeply frustrated because she knows the profound impact her project can have on women’s lives and health with comparatively little cost.

She provides an interesting counterpoint for Dr. Masters as they share many character traits but their reception could not be more different. They are both aloof, lacking in charm and awareness of social niceties. In Bill these qualities are perceived as being unsurprising in a brilliant doctor. In Lillian they are simply more evidence of her freakishness and unwomanliness. As a character she explodes the notion of the female harridan superior because we see the struggles that she has had to deal with, and just why she has become the closed off and defensive person that she has, because almost anything else is construed as weakness by her male colleagues. Over time she comes to respect Virginia after realizing that she is not simply using her womanly charms as a substitute for hard work and their growing relationship has been interesting to watch.