I have been writing about Masters of Sex for four years now, and sometimes I worry that I am running out of new ways to call it frustrating. Season after season, it has taken talented actors, compelling source material, and all of Mad Men’s leftover costumes, and from these promising ingredients made the television equivalent of unsweetened oatmeal. Knowing that, I walked into the Season 4 premiere prepared to breeze over it, not allotting it any more time than I had to. So naturally, Masters of Sex then played its most frustrating move yet and made me give a shit.
This season we will be running abbreviated recaps, since the depictions of actual lesbian acts are usually few and far between (and often they are terribly bungled, as when Helen and Austin had sex). But the show remains worthy of our attention for finally noticing what we as viewers have known since the beginning: that Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford) is one of its greatest strengths, and deserving of as much screen time as the show’s central triangle. MoS’s publicity photos have promised that this will be the case, and we have the reappearance of Sarah Silverman to look forward to, as Betty and Helen navigate motherhood.
I CONSIDER THIS A LEGALLY BINDING CONTRACT THAT ONE-QUARTER OF THE SHOW WILL BE ABOUT BETTY.
But even Betty, delightful as she is, wouldn’t be enough to renew my interest in this show were it not also making one other long overdue change: completely overhauling the character of Bill Masters. In life, Bill apparently remained an insufferable bastard until the day he died, but the show’s commitment to his curmudgeonliness has been an anchor around its neck. This season they have promised that we will see a new side of Bill, who is less likely to make viewers want to walk into traffic.
So. At the end of last season, Bill Masters had hit rock bottom. Again. He told Libby he could no longer live the lie of their marriage, and she was understandably offended since Libby’s lies are a lot more appealing than most people’s truths. He then threw himself at the mercy of Virginia, which was idiotic, since “mercy” has never been one of her redeeming qualities (those are brilliance, tenacity, and Lizzy Caplan’s face). Virginia elected to fly off into the sunset with her new, perfumed husband, breaking ties both personally and professionally with Bill.
Y’ALL CAN JUST STAY THIS FAR APART ALL SEASON.
We resume a few days (or weeks?) later, with Ginny still on her Vegas honeymoon, but sans husband. Whether they’ve broken up for real or he’s just away on business isn’t made clear in this episode, but the demise of their relationship was always inevitable, so let’s just go ahead and think of him as out of the picture. Ginny, meanwhile, is witnessing the birth of bra-trashing second wave feminism, but rather than participating in it, she sees it happening on television while she gets drunk and belts out “Stand By Your Man.” This image of Ginny as being the feminist Moses, leading women to the promised land but unable to enter it herself, is pretty powerful, actually, though I do hope she’ll be given more to do this season than sleep around and sip martinis.
Bill, meanwhile, now makes his home at the local bar, until the night he crashes his car into a giant metaphor (the show’s fondness for beating you over the head with imagery remains unabated) and loses his license and is sent to court-mandated AA. Now, alcoholism is the “in” disease of television right now and I’m a little burnt out on it, but I will forgive Bill going there because it is in AA that he meet Niecy Nash, whose presence is always welcome. Yes, even when she’s playing a black person with the time-honored duty of dragging a white person, kicking and screaming, into enlightenment.
REAL SUBTLE, GUYS.
Both Ginny and Bill’s journeys eventually take them to (of all people) Hugh Hefner, who provides them with (of all things) sound wisdom and advice. (They’re pretty much taking advice from everyone in this episode: bartenders, personal assistants, hobos wearing their coats). Hef gives Ginny a column in Playboy and gives the show the excuse it needs to bring them back together. This time, though, each of them insists it will be strictly professional. Though their eventual marriage is a foregone conclusion, I hope that the show has finally accepted that our investment in their will they/won’t they has been forced about as far as it can go. Masters and Johnson are more interesting as professionals than lovers, and I for one am excited to see them get back to work (I already care more about the shoe fetishist guy than Bill).
Of course, anyone who has kept up with my recaps knows that my real loves in this show have always been the smaller characters, and this premiere is no exception. Libby, for one, just gets braver and weirder and better all the time. This week, she celebrates her separation from Bill by throwing out all his clothes, as well as a garment of her own: her bra. Yes, Libby attends a Feminist Gathering and Pot Smoking Evening, hosted by none other than Deputy Warden Fig from Orange is the New Black. It’s a pretty delightful scene, and I was so ready for it to turn into that L Word scene where the housewives declare their liberation from their husbands by Doing It.
And then there is Betty, who has been holding together Bill and Ginny’s practice while they are off having their respective breakdowns.
She lies, cajoles, wheedles, and eventually just starts treating the patients herself. We don’t get much of a glimpse into her personal life, but she does get to pull Bill back from the brink with her always winning combination of insults and praise. She sparkles in every scene she’s in. Of course, she’s also a lesbian in the 1960s, so the roads in her personal life are all uphill. But as long as MoS can let Betty be Betty, and Libby be Libby, and Bill be someone else, this might just be the season we learn how to enjoy this show.
See you next week.