Sunday, September 11, 2016

REVIEW: 'Masters of Sex' - Bill and Virginia are Struggling in a World Without Each Other in 'Freefall'

Showtime's Masters of Sex - Episode 4.01 "Freefall"

In the wake of their fallout, Masters and Johnson search for purpose in a world without one another and look to work as their personal lives crash down around them. Libby finds herself alone for the first time since her marriage and discovers some unexpected allies.

The new season of Masters of Sex opens with Betty frantically trying to keep the Masters and Johnson Clinic open without Masters and Johnson. The end of last season essentially exploded this workplace dynamic. Virginia decided to leave this life behind in order to run away and be with Dan Logan. Meanwhile, Bill had been arrested for promoting prostitution and Libby finally decided to leave him. These big plot points that the season ended on where important. They created an uncertain future for the show and the practice. And yet, the plot circumstances that led to those climatic beats were pretty horrendous. Nothing made a whole lot of sense at all. So, it was especially hard to care when these momentous things happened. It's a big deal that Virginia has left Bill to be with another man. It's a big deal that Libby has decided to leave Bill. It's a big deal that Bill is crashing without the two must important women in his life. But nothing landed well because the show lost sight of its characters in Season 3. So now, Betty is trying to maintain appearances. She wants the business to still appear strong despite the uncertainty. That's how the fourth season opens.

It's a chaotic first moment for the season. Betty is really struggling to keep it together. She's essentially lying to a bunch of people who came to the clinic for a reason. She doesn't know what to do because she doesn't know if Bill or Virginia are ever coming back. She can only keep this charade up for so long. So, that immediately sets the clock for this premiere to get Bill and Virginia back to the clinic. That move is somewhat troubling because the show committed to blowing up this partnership last year. And now, it wants to bring Bill and Virginia back together because the work is too important to stop now. The work is always too important. That has been a defining characteristic of their partnership for the twelve years they've been doing this research. It's okay for one of them to want to quit to explore a different life. And yet, that's not in keeping with what this show is about. So of course, this premiere spends its entire running time getting Bill and Virginia back to work. It's a way to restore the status quo and make things less chaotic for the future. It just seems to disregard a lot of things that happened last season. That's a good thing considering how misguided many of those plot twists were. But it still feels like a massive course correction in "Freefall."

It's abundantly clear what Bill has been up to since the end of last season. He's been falling further and further without Virginia and Libby in his life. He's getting into even more trouble with the law as well. He's drinking in order to cope with all of the pain. It's clear the moment he gets in his car after a night at the bar what's about to happen. But the show takes a really long time actually getting to it. He'll get into an accident and land in a court of law all over again. This is the new pattern of his life. The punishments are only getting more severe as well. He has to attend 90 meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous and volunteer at the school where his accident destroyed property. Him going to AA is much more interesting though. That's largely because he runs into Niecy Nash as Louise there. She's a firm believer in the program. She inserts herself into his life. She's determined to make him commit to this program even if he doesn't believe he has a problem. She advises him to show up where he's needed and see what happens. That's the simple wisdom she provides. That's what gets him to return to work. It's all fairly simple.

Meanwhile, things aren't so clear about what Virginia has been doing in between seasons. She left happy with Dan Logan. He is nowhere to be seen in this premiere. In fact, Virginia seems miserable in her new life. She finds herself longing to get back to her research. She's sleeping with random bartenders and crashing big presentations about sex. She knows what she's talking about. The presenter doesn't. This is a world she is comfortable in. This is what she is yearning for in life. Bill may have put her on this path but she no longer believes she needs him to be successful as a sex researcher. She doesn't need a man to subject herself to. She is fully capable of making her own future. That's the attitude she has right now. She's determined to stark writing a weekly column for Playboy magazine. Hugh Hefner wanted to be an investor in the clinic. Bill and Virginia turned him down. And now, Virginia wants his help once more. It's slightly weird just how prominent a role he has in this first episode back. He essentially serves as a mediator between Bill and Virginia. He invites both of them to his Chicago estate. He needs them to work together because they are a brand and not two individuals. That's how he sees them and that's what he wants to invest his money in.

So, Bill and Virginia get back together professionally because Hugh Hefner tells them to. That's a somewhat ridiculous and crazy statement. It's the show bending over backwards to get its main partnership back on track. And yet, this relationship won't be the same as it was. It can't be now. Virginia made her choice and Bill had to accept that. It means there is no longer any hopeless, romanticized pining after each other. That became a defining characteristic of their dynamic but it was never really an emotion the show maintained in an interesting way. Bill and Virginia's stories are inherently intertwined. It would be so refreshing though to see them co-existing but focused on their own stories of personal growth. The clinic needs a lot of help right now. The world is changing around them. They need to be a united front in order to lead the charge of the sexual revolution. Their work has made a difference. The audience is seeing that now with the transition into the 1970s. Bill and Virginia need to work to learn even more about the sexual proclivities of humanity. They agree to keep things strictly professional. This new dynamic could be interesting to watch. But it still feels like something the premiere forces to happen instead of being all that natural.

Elsewhere, Libby finds herself as a part of a group of women letting free and rebelling because of the changing times. Libby has been right there next to Bill and Virginia as their research changed the world. There were a lot of rough years for her. She knew Bill was having an affair with Virginia. Even Virginia knew that Libby was aware of what was going on. Their families were close. And now, all of that has been destroyed because of Bill's actions. He is on the road to recovery. He won't admit that but he's making the first step in choosing to partner with Virginia again without trying to romance her. But that leaves Libby all alone in her lawyer's office plotting to get as much as she can. She has so much pent up anger and frustration. Her lawyer recommends this women's group for her to attend. She doesn't think much of it at first. She is still a repressed woman of her time. She believed in the picture perfect family and the image of a wife serving her husband no matter what. That has changed for her though. She's leaving Bill. She wants absolutely nothing to do with him. He betrayed her and destroyed their life together. But more importantly, Libby just doesn't understand what the sexual revolution is actually trying to accomplish. Both she and Virginia are aware of just how sexist this society really is. If that's not clear to the audience, the premiere makes it so by featuring a scene where Bill's drinking buddy says that the women protesting have to be lesbians. That's a simplistic and sexist view of the world. It's common for the time. Libby doesn't know how liberating it can be to lose her bra. But when she does, she enjoys it. There's no telling where this story will go next or just how important it will be to the overall season. It could really drag things too if it becomes too superfluous. And that's a quality the show really doesn't need right now.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Freefall" was written by Michelle Ashford and directed by Colin Bucksey.
  • Virginia's parents apparently have her kids right now. Can they stay with them though? An extended visit for good? Tessa was really annoying and did not merit having her own story last season. Virginia is far more interesting without them.
  • Bill's first patients back are a couple where the husband is unable to get an erection. It's later discovered that he has a major shoe fetish. That's what's missing from their sex lives but he's too afraid to bring it up because he doesn't think his wife will like it.
  • The new patients at the clinic are played by Mad Men's Rich Sommer and Being Erica's Erin Karpluk. So that basically guarantees that these new characters will be important for the immediately future of the season.
  • Betty is the only person who decides to stay at the clinic while Bill and Virginia are missing. Both Lester and Scully decide to find work elsewhere because they need the money. It's an expositional line from Betty. But it could really streamline the storytelling for the future.
  • Louise is suppose to be seen as a good sponsor for Bill because they both happen to make metaphors about jumping out of a plane and needing to use a parachute in order to survive.
  • It's very potent and poignant when Virginia brings up women having to audition to prove their worth in any given situation as a potential topic for her new column. It's sad that that is still largely the case in the world of 2016 as well.