MASTERS OF SEX 1.02 ‘Race to Space’

Episode Title: “Race to Space”

Writer: Michelle Ashford

Director: Michael Dinner

Previously on “Masters of Sex:” 

Episode 1.01 ‘Pilot’

Every so often a show comes along that frustrates, confounds and challenges us to keep watching it until we “get it.” “Masters of Sex” might be that show at the moment, at least for me. 

In last week’s pilot episode, we met the esteemed Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen), a man who takes a clinical, emotionally sterile approach to just about every situation he finds himself in, from being celebrated at an awards ceremony to counseling his wife about her fertility problem to propositioning his secretary for sex in the name of science. 

We also met Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the single mother and current secretary to Dr. Masters, whom he’ll eventually marry and publish a formative sex study with. Virginia appears to be the only person in Dr. Masters’ orbit capable of truly understanding and appreciating his work without taking offense at the subject matter. In fact, Virginia may be more invested in the doctor’s work than he is himself, as this week’s episode, “Race to Space” reveals. 

In the pilot, we learned that Virginia has two kids and in this week’s episode we get to see what her relationship with her children, in particular her grammar school-aged son, Henry (Cole Sand) is like. Virginia is a bit of an enigma, as she’s obviously a very intelligent woman who wants to realize her potential and yet she makes decisions are that are self-destruction, irresponsible, potentially hurtful to her kids and just plain dumb. 

In “Race to Space,” Bill promptly fires Virginia when Provost Scully (Beau Bridges) shuts down his study after learning it involves watching real live couples fornicate. He assumes Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto) went to Scully about what’s going on, as a way to get back at Virginia after she dumped him. Bill accuses Virginia of being irresponsible and indiscreet, just a few days after he asked her to have sex with him, in the name of science. Just a wee bit hypocritical, perhaps, considering he’s her boss.

Indeed, science and the furthering of it is the umbrella excuse for all kinds of bad behavior in “Masters of Sex,” from neglecting children, which Virginia does so she can get back in Bill’s good graces by helping out at Betty’s brothel where the study is now taking place, to infidelity when Dr. Langham (Teddy Sears) suggests he and Jane (Helene Yorke) continue to have sex, despite the shutdown of the study and the fact that Langham is married. Though she thoroughly enjoyed the experience of having sex with a married man, outside the comforting notion of advancing science, Jane considers it morally wrong.

The heightened sexual politics that rule both the show’s subjugated women like Bill’s wife, Libby (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and those women who consider themselves sexually liberated like Virginia and Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) at first seem a bit extreme, even taking into account the show’s 1956 setting. But in this second episode, with the show’s tone further established, it’s almost charming in a farcical kind of way. 

That’s not to say that Bill and Virginia are any more likable. Watching Virginia neglect her son and then get angry when he gets suspended from school doesn’t help and neither does Bill’s continuing coldness to his wife, who’s suffering over the fact that she can’t give her brilliant doctor husband children, when its presumably his fault. 

But perhaps that’s the point. By the end of the episode, both Virginia and Bill get what they want – the study reinstated – but at what cost? Virginia realizes she’s losing touch with her young son and Bill is alienating his loving wife. Both Bill and Virginia claim to love these people, but so far the only thing they show any urgent concern for is watching people have sex while hooked up to machines. 

However, Bill and Virginia don’t operate unchecked. Virginia’s nanny suggests she get her priorities straight regarding the kids and later, Virginia is disappointed to learn that her new nanny is bonding with Henry over a comic book he begged Virginia to read to him. And yet, sacrifices must be to further science.

As for Bill, he gets an earful from the show’s best character so far, a wisecracking lesbian prostitute named Betty. The savvy hooker makes a deal with Bill to let him run the study out of her cathouse in exchange for free medical care for the girls, double the pay and a gig at the hospital. But when she asks Bill to reverse her tubal ligation so she can have kids with a rich man she met at church, “of all places,” he refuses. Bill sends Virginia over to talk her out of it leading Betty to ask Virginia if only people of like her are entitled to happiness. There’s the science of sex and there’s the social science…

“Masters of Sex” has a lot going for it, aside from the word “sex” in the title of the show and the fact that it’s on the sex-friendly Showtime. There’s some great acting from Lizzy Caplan, Michael Sheen and Annaleigh Ashford, who steals this episode. Two episodes in and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it, but there’s certainly enough here to keep viewers coming back for more of this curious new show – aside from the “sex.”