Late in the first season of Masters of Sex, a frustrated Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) says to Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), “There’s always something to prove.” It’s a line that’s been floating around in my head ever since, not only because it sums up Masters’ general approach to life (and is one of the reasons why he can be such a distasteful character), but because it also applies to the show as a whole. Masters of Sex had to prove itself during its first season — especially amidst the endless comparisons to Mad Men — and it mostly succeeded, save for some shaky plots here and there (ahem, Libby). Now it has to prove that it wasn’t a one-season wonder and that it can adapt to the new world that the Season 1 finale created.
To immediately put any concerns to rest: Season 2 is even better than Season 1. I think, without a doubt, that will be the general consensus across the board. The premiere takes place after Masters’ disastrous presentation — which Johnson likens to “a nuclear rain falling on us all” — that has led to his firing (and being compared to a psychopathic cannibal) and also his showing up on Johnson’s doorstep, admitting that he needs her. But it doesn’t immediately jump into bed, so to speak; instead, the premiere takes its time and teases viewers about what happened.
The biggest difference between the two seasons is, well, the sex. In the first season, the sex between Masters and Johnson was clinical — literally — and now the two are out of the lab, free of the wires, and exploring how they work together on a deeper and more personal level. Viewers have known that Masters and Johnson would get together from day one, so now Masters of Sex has to show us why they should be together. They offer each other things that no one else can, be it sexually or intellectually, and they’re drawn to each other in ways that make both of them uneasy. Certainly, this isn’t going to be easy — especially considering that Bill and Libby have just had a child, a child that he seems to have absolutely no interest in.
The first two episodes of Season 2 are good, but it’s the third episode that’s going to be one of the most talked-about hours of TV this summer. It’s an episode of sparring between Masters and Johnson — verbal sparring, sexual sparring, and actual sparring in the boxing match that plays in the background of nearly every scene — and it’s the one that puts their relationship into clear focus while examining the things that have brought them to this place. It sets up what is going to be a very interesting dynamic throughout the season, the way that every time Masters or Johnson inch too close to each other, they instinctively shrink away, uncomfortable with their true desires and the strange promise of the future. They’re now in the position of trying to unpack the heaviness of the word “us,” but neither knows where to begin.
Masters of Sex isn’t just about Masters and Johnson. Libby is still around, of course, taking care of the baby with the help of a black nanny (Keke Palmer), though this plot definitely needs some work. There are still patients who are very much the product of the era, confused about sex and pleasure and gender and everything in between. The second two episodes in particular feature colorful, memorable cases (and the requisite social commentary). At the top of the list of interesting side characters is the devastating duo of Barton (Beau Bridges) and Margaret (Allison Janney), who are still struggling with Barton’s sexuality and the toll it has taken on the marriage. It’s a story that’s packed with devastation.
It’s an admirable feat for Masters of Sex to continue to widen the scope of the side characters while still feeling very intimate when it comes to our main couple, Masters and Johnson. The move from professional to personal relationship is a tricky one, even if that professional relationship had already crossed that boundary plenty of times, but Masters of Sex handles it effortlessly.