[This is a review of Masters of Sex season 3, episode 12. There will be SPOILERS.]
Ever since ‘Fight,’ Masters of Sex has found itself prone to using boxing as a metaphor for the relationship at the heart of its story. To its credit, that particular episode managed to use the idea of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson’s personal/professional relationship in an elegant yet obvious manner, one that was made less troublesome thanks to the episode’s structure – set around a boxing match, while at the same time featuring scenes that felt like the characters were going rounds with one another in a more figurative sense. It was the apparent highpoint of a series on the rise.
But as season 2 progressed that highpoint turned out to be the moment when the series began losing focus, and the show has been on a bit of backslide ever since. So when the finale of a surprisingly weak season 3 began with a far more heavy-handed use of the sweet science, it wasn’t a return to form so much as another example of how Masters of Sex had seemingly lost its edge.
‘Full Ten Count’ doesn’t just feel like a pale rehash of a high-water mark; it takes whatever nuance ‘Fight’ may have had and pummels it into submission. This is not so surprising, since season 3 has been defined by, if nothing else, a series of jumbled storylines, some of which went nowhere, others seemingly abandoned as soon as they began, and a handful of which that felt more like a cop out than anything else.
Season 3 had a rough go of it from the start. The story was hit with the dreaded time jump that inexplicably included the aging or addition of several children in the Masters/Johnson brood. This unnecessary extension of the cast led to characters like Billy and Libby’s two youngest children appearing in less than half the season’s episodes and being integral to absolutely none of them. Meanwhile, Virginia’s two children, Tessa and Henry began the season with unique storylines, only to have Henry be shipped off to Vietnam early on, and barely heard from again. Complicating matters further was Virginia’s third child with her ex-husband George, whom she remarried in an attempt to stave off potential controversy, as the book she co-authored with Bill was being introduced to the public.
The bumpy start to the season, complete with Tessa’s sexual advances towards Bill, and Libby and Virginia’s tacit understanding of where they both stood as women in Bill’s life suggested a lack of confidence and direction in the writers’ room. So often when a season doesn’t have a strong overarching storyline, it can feel like plot threads are being thrown at the wall to see what sticks. That was certainly the case with the early part of the season, as the increased focus on the children was almost immediately abandoned. Moreover, Virginia was pregnant for about 3-minutes of screen time before the season ushered in yet another time jump. Once the child in question was born, the show pretty much lost interest in babies and the bundle joy was hardly seen again, much less mentioned after Josh Charles’ Master of Scents and Flavors, Dan Logan, was introduced to be Bill’s romantic rival for Virginia’s affection.
There were other threads, too, that mostly came out half-baked, like Allison Janney’s brief flirtation with a polyamorous relationship, and her ex-husband’s burgeoning acceptance of his own sexuality, complete with a clunky progression of his romance with Rob Benedict’s Jonathan Laurents. The less said about Masters and Johnson helping a sexually frustrated gorilla at the zoo the better. Maybe the most fulfilling, but still underserved storyline revolved around tenacious clinic manager Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) and her quest to get her partner (played by Sarah Silverman) pregnant. Though sweet, the storyline was probably one child-centric thread too many in a season that literally had more kids than it new what to do with.
Perhaps most frustrating was the conflation of miscommunication and persecution, as the season’s latter episodes began focusing more intently on religious nut Ronald Sturgis and his attempts to use The Walking Dead‘s Emily Kinney to discredit Bill Masters. Of course, Ronald didn’t need any help, since Bill’s eldest son Johnny inadvertently exposed his father to allegations of misconduct with a minor, a late-game thread that derailed Libby’s chance at happiness with Paul, her neighbor with whom she’d been having an affair.
Even though ‘Full Ten Count’ does its level best to tie up all the still-relevant threads, too much of the season’s storylines were too diffuse to truly resonate. Had the season put more of a focus on Bill’s dreams about his father, perhaps the opening sequence would have packed the intended emotional punch, and not felt like a cheap way of instilling meaning in Bill’s acceptance of losing Virginia to Dan. It might have also helped build a better narrative foundation on which Bill’s troubled relationship with Johnny could have been constructed.
Despite the show backing away from Libby’s decision to leave Bill and marry Paul – which resulted in Paul up and leaving without so much as a goodbye, effectively denying the audience a potentially powerful dramatic moment – the finale managed a handful of emotionally wrenching scenes that demonstrate what Michael Sheen, Lizzy Caplan, and Caitlin FitzGerald are capable of when given the strong material they deserve. The most affecting sequence of the entire season happens between Bill and Libby, when he confesses his affair only to have it met with a kind of emotional brutality from his soon-to-be ex-wife the show doesn’t often have the opportunity to explore.
Season 3 ends by doing what it has done all season long: promise change without being fully committed to it and without articulating why it matters. There is the potential for the series to start fresh in season 4, and while starting over may get Masters of Sex back on track, it also underlines how this uneven and overly complicated season needlessly derailed one of Showtime’s strongest offerings.
Masters of Sex season 4 will premiere in 2016 on Showtime.