In 1970, the real-life Masters and Johnson were on the cover of TIME Magazine. Last week’s episode of Masters of Sex took place in 1958. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Dr. William Masters, you already know that a certain amount of fictionalization has gone into Masters of Sex. With all due respect, Michael Sheen he is not. Recognizing they must loosely stick to historical accuracy while still creating entertainment, the showrunners have come with a clever way to speed up time on Masters of Sex.
This week’s episode ends in 1961. It’s disorienting at first, since roughly half of the episode takes place in 1958, just five months after Johnson is fired from his post at Buell Green. But something shifts: the work gets done and the drama gets pushed aside. Three years of Bill and Virginia funneling their sexual tension into arguments over study participants and their corresponding notecards would be agonizing, particularly in a season imbibed with intimate character studies. Instead we get the professional and personal highlights: Bill starts his own clinic, staffing up with Virginia and Betty (a forced method for keeping the show’s most dynamic supporting character intact after her divorce); Libby pushes Bill into having a second child (a daughter); Bill eventually lets his mother back into his life (after she finds a way to give him money without him having to accept it).
The years roll by with cutesy cues from Betty, who passes her CPA exam and only seems to grow more nuanced over time. I’m very pleased to see Annaleigh Ashford making what I hope is a permanent home on Masters of Sex, which I suspect means we’ll be seeing more of Sarah Silverman as well. (I can’t say the same for Austin Langham, who continues to shoehorn his way into plotlines despite being three workplaces removed from any of these characters. I don’t care about his porn-star girlfriend, and the only thing his desperate plea to his ex-wife made me feel was symmetry with Bill and Virginia’s inability to forget their own past together.)
As for Virginia, she spends these three years throwing herself into work, as well as the arms of handsome placeholders whose names she cannot recall. Back in ’50s, Bill effectively dismantles his whatever with Virginia by slut-shaming her. For a man who, in Gini’s absence, starts seeing a prostitute instead of fucking his eager wife, he hides how butt-hurt he is by Virginia’s dating life with judgement. He claims disgust the night he came to her door, because of all the suitors her kids meet while she “struggles to keep clean sheets on the bed.” Bill Masters may be a prick in the exam room, but he’s an even bigger ass when his heart factors in. Several years later, after many neat scotches and off-color comments to Virginia’s then-beau, Bill begins to reveal his feelings to Virginia in the secluded corner of Dr. Langham’s birthday party. Fingering her, he starts apologizing… until we realize he’s role-playing. He wants Virginia to apologize for not being exclusive with him. A married man. She really should have slapped him.
Since Masters of Sex would be nothing without Bill and Virginia tangled up naked, they take up their “participation” in the study at some point down the line. But it’s more than Masters, straight-faced and deep-voiced, telling Virginia that he’s going to “reacquaint himself with her body” in their old hotel haunt. Alone in their office together beforehand, Virginia and Bill have a moment that makes you think, “These two characters are absolutely meant to be together.” “You have more of me than you know,” she tells him, explaining that the revolving door of suitors is a way to cope with her loneliness. Bill reassures her that, despite having a wife, he is still very much alone.
“It’s much more pleasant to be around Bill when you’re around,” Libby later tells Gini amidst an invitation to the Masters’ beach house. Of course, the real Masters and Johnson married in 1971, several years after their groundbreaking work went mainstream. What’s to come is out there for the spoiling, but the journey should be more interesting now that we’re in the decade of their breakthrough.