At what point do we call Masters of Sex a runaway train? With only four episodes left in season two, the Showtime drama just keeps introducing new subplots and characters, making me seriously wonder: how can this wrap up into something cohesive? Or is that not a concern here? Whatever the intention is, it’s hard to follow two of the best Masters of Sex episodes ever in recent weeks — “Fight” and “Asterion,” the first a slow-burning character study of Bill and Virginia, and the second a wildly-paced overview of several years in these characters’ lives — with “Mirror, Mirror,” an episode that introduces new ideas without resolving any of the ongoing problems. (The new character problem here feels similar to what Nashville went through last season. A big ensemble cast of leads and kooky sidemen is hard to pull off in just a couple of seasons; it took Mad Men a few seasons to get its groove in this way.)
There is, at best, two loose themes at play this week: the psychology of sex, and sibling interventions. In the episode’s most compelling storyline, Virginia gets to know Barbara, Bill’s short-lived secretary who seeks out the clinic in order to unload her sexual inadequacy. For all the nay-saying I reserve for other new characters in the Masters of Sex universe, I’m so pleased to see that showrunners had a longterm strategy for Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt. Over the course of several sit-downs with Virginia, Barbara is able to tap into her repressed memories of youthful sexual trauma with her brother — issues that, if revolved, could allow her to have regular intercourse once again.
By now, in 2014, we understand more about the role of the mental in acts of pure carnal physicality, but 50 years ago, less was understood about the connection between the two. At Virginia’s urging, Bill digs into research on sexual impotence and the previously disqualified study subjects. He starts asking questions whose answers are not completely clinical, and with his videographer Lester as the model subject, it’s clear Bill is in over his head. Virginia, however, has a real gift for empathy and connection. After a breakthrough with Barbara, Virginia wisely decides that she wants to go back to school for psychology. For now, she has the incredibly naive idea of posing as her ashamed patients in therapy sessions, in an attempt to relay some bit of wisdom to them. Like Virginia doesn’t already have enough on her plate, she’s the middle-man for psychological analysis? I respect Johnson’s commitment to her work, but just no.
Bill has his own special sidekick this week: his younger brother Frances Holden, a plastic surgeon from Kansas City (seen in the photo above). Frank shows up out of the blue, his formerly close relationship with Bill not revealed in full until the episode’s closing scene. At first I found myself thinking, “Bill, you sly dog, you’re bisexual and this is your ex-lover from med school.” (Shut ’em down, now this is just a sick thought.) Like Bill would let an old flame make him this uncomfortable, of course this has to do with his family! Facing the same fertility problems as Bill and Libby, Frank and his wife seek out treatment from Bill, who fails to mention his own sperm-count blues and tries to refer them to another doctor. You can see Bill wanting to open up to his brother, but there’s something within him that won’t allow it. In this sense, Frank’s presence does facilitate emotional growth in Bill (or it will down the line, as Frank is sticking around), but I still don’t know about introducing another new character this season. (Team Bring Back The Scullys.)
Elsewhere, the storylines are less crucial and a tad forced. Another excuse to include Dr. Langham? He’s conventionally attractive, let’s make him the new Cal-o-Metric spokesman. Libby’s a bored housewife who may or may not be racist? Let’s have her do charity work with powerful white people who can help Bill, then let’s scheme up a racially-charged reason for her to run into Robert. (For the record, I still think those two are going to have an affair.) I don’t mean to dismiss the secondary Libby storyline — she does a good thing that doesn’t seem easy for her, by offering up testimony for a race crime she saw play out near Bill’s office. But this is a long, complicated, supplemental game for Masters of Sex to play; at times it can feel like the race conversation is happening because they don’t know what else to do with Libby, not because it had anything to do with Masters and Johnson. Obviously it’s a conversation worth exploring in any drama set during the 1960s, but I think it could feel more powerful here if leaned on less frequently.