As we round the corner on Masters of Sex‘s second season, the psychology of sex comes into full view. Finally. So much of the period drama plays too close to its time, an era when men didn’t discuss their emotions, even when it related to their health and sexual appetite. Good wives, like Libby Masters herself, swept their feelings under the meticulously vacuumed rug. But Bill, after a bit of unraveling over time, has come to a plateau: he’s impotent, and the cause likely has something to do with his alcoholism — which definitely has something to do with his father, the most obvious emotional void in his life to date.
With Bill’s brother Frank in the picture now, dispatches from childhood and the harsh realities of adulthood they inspired are unavoidable. Perhaps I’ve chalked up Masters’ drinking habits to Don Draper-drinking-on-the-job syndrome, or maybe it got worse with the show’s recent three-year jump-ahead, but it finally hit me like it did Bill himself: perhaps some of his problems — particularly his irritability and temper — have to do with his drinking. Like a typical man, he doesn’t realize there’s a problem until his penis stops working. Well, that explains why he’s been so into going down on Virginia and “solving” Lester’s bout of impotency (with a hooker, no less). It’s funny, Bill’s impotency early on in the season, with that alleyway prostitute, was a problem I chalked up to his love for Virginia.
I think Bill has maybe, possibly figured out that sexual dysfunction cannot be solved by muscle exercises alone, but the sad fact is that it’s not because he’s a progressive specialist on the matters of sexuality — it’s because he’s now gone through it himself. Chalk this one up to “Virginia was right (again),” though it seems her newfound interest in psychology is putting her in touch with her own emotional demons instead of just putting her closer to solving Barbara’s (this may help Virginia realize she wants to marry Bill, which she eventually does). Still, just a couple of weeks in, I find myself incredibly invested in Barbara finding relief from her preteen trauma of incest with her brother. Masters of Sex has tried to force viewers to invest in new secondary characters again and again, but it rarely works. Moral of the story: invest in the DEEP emotional character development early on, and never let Betsy Brandt go.
Christian Borle as Frank Masters. (photo: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME)
On the flip side of Bill sits Frank, his healed, humane foil who attempts to connect emotionally by taking his brother to an AA meeting. Bill walks out, and now that I reconsider that fact, I wonder if it’s because he realized his own alcoholism or because he’s an emotionally stunted rage-baby-man. On principle, I was like, “NO FUCKING WAY, NOT ANOTHER NEW CHARACTER” when Frank and his kind-yet-strong wife showed up last week. But I’m coming around, particularly after his wife inspires Libby to re-examine her marriage and confront Bill.
Speaking of which, Libby’s story is finally getting interesting. It looks as though she didn’t work up enough courage to confront Bill about his drinking, which may or may not be a point of confrontation that seems more manageable to her than his possible philandering (can’t decided if she knows yet or not). But she did make some headway on her racist biases, via Robert. She wants to help by testifying against the white assholes who committed last week’s race crime, but when she nervously stumbles over her words, Robert asks her to hold off from going to the police with testimony. Based on an odd sequence of events towards the end of the episode, it seems as though Libby runs to Robert when she can’t muster the nerve to talk to her own husband. (I absolutely still think these two are going to get together sooner than later.)
In the end, we’re left with a triangle of dysfunction: emotional scars, substance abuse, and sexual impotence are tied together in a way we understand now, in 2014. But Masters and Johnson just may have been the first to realize just that 50 years ago, by using themselves as guinea pigs.