Masters of Sex has returned to More4 this summer for its second season. An unusual and thought-provoking drama, it follows Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) in his pursuit to answer one question – what really happens to the body during sex?
At the end of season one, the radical research of Masters and his receptionist-turned-research assistant, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), was met with unanimous outrage when presented to the hospital staff, resulting in Masters’ dismissal and seemingly the end of the study. The second season picks up where the first left off, and the opening episode packs more sex-infused scandal into an hour than one could ever hope for.
What makes Masters of Sex so powerful is that sexuality is examined not just in the laboratory but in the day-to-day lives of the characters. Provost Scully’s (Beau Bridges) decision to receive electro-shock therapy in an attempt to rid himself of his homosexuality is a hard-hitting reminder of 1950’s American society’s brutal intolerance. Similarly, the harsh treatment Virginia faces from the hospital staff due to her involvement in the sex study reflects the stigma attached to the female anatomy, and how women were conditioned to be embarrassed by their bodies. The way the writers infuse rigorous scientific research with social commentary makes this show more than just an hour of people fornicating with wires attached to their temples. The depth of the plot encourages us to think about how we view our own bodies, and question whether the views explored in the show still persist today.
While Masters’ cold pragmatism may make him seem like the perfect embodiment of modern science, this episode reveals a more complex side to his psyche. Through his impassioned conversations with his mother, played by Ann Dowd, more is revealed of the abuse suffered at the hands of his father. Sheen does an impressive job at portraying the culmination of years of emotional damage; the chilling delivery of the sentence ‘I am my father’ is so convincing that we immediately feel concerned about his newborn son. Masters’ indifference to fatherhood is made clear throughout the episode. Could this apparent lack of affection be a conscious imitation of his father’s cruelty? Or is Masters trying to distance himself from his son because he does not feel like an adequate father figure? Either way, it seems that without the sex study to focus on, Masters is being forced to take a long hard look at himself for the first time.
One can’t help but feel sorry for the female characters in this episode, married women in particular. Masters’ wife Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) has to deal with her husband’s glacial disregard of their newborn child, and is also oblivious to the fact that he is sleeping with his research assistant. Scully’s wife, played by Alison Janney, tries desperately to cling to the scraps of her marriage despite being aware of her husband’s homosexuality; and let us not forget that Dr. Langham (Teddy Sears), the hospital’s serial philanderer, was discovered to be having an affair with his wife’s sister, and rightly embarrassed in front of his peers. The majority-female writing staff have cleverly depicted the alienated and unfulfilled lives of housewives in the 1950s, and how men see sex as a birthright, seeking to claim it wherever they can, in spite of their marital status.
Masters of Sex provides the perfect balance between drama and educational content, and Masters himself offers a refreshing outlook on human sexuality. At last, a man who isn’t afraid to delve deep into the mysterious yet wonderful world of the female anatomy.
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