After a few serious missteps so far in season three, Masters Of Sex rights itself with “Matters Of Gravity.” The episode highlights everything that still makes the show so valuable, drawing on its rich backstories (Allison Janney and Beau Bridges; Masters’ parental history from “Fight”). It’s a great episode, and couldn’t have come soon enough.

Masters is a bit too wooden for us to believe he had that inspiring speech hanging out in his back pocket, jumping right into Newton’s theory of gravity. But it’s a nice analogy to the grooves of gravity juxtaposed against the twists of love, the thing that guides and makes possible many of these sexual acts: the “curvature of desire.” It flows back to Dan Logan (Josh Charles)’s story about the woman with the gin and the orchid, the unchartable, indescribable force that pulls certain people together, no matter how improbable. Logan’s trying to put it in a bottle, but as Masters states, it can’t be qualified or graphed. But surely these efforts wouldn’t mean as much without it.

It’s a lesson everyone gets closer to learning this episode, as they also traverse the curves of the past. Margaret realizes her current situation is a direct and opposite response to her old one. The theme that Masters Of Sex weaves here with Margaret’s situation is one that Barton recognizes immediately and Bill, Gini, and Libby still fail to realize: A relationship made up of three people isn’t likely to work. One person is always going to be on the outside: Right now it’s Libby, and judging from her terse comments to Bill, she’s well aware of that fact. Margaret realizes she’ll never be happy in that setup (notice how Graham stands right behind Jo in their fight), and leaves. But all that Margaret has already gone through makes her decision all the more impressively defiant.

It’s what’s similarly effective about the way Bill deals with Johnny’s bullying in this episode: Without “Fight,” it would make no sense, and just seem extreme (which, make no mistake, it still is). But we already know the worst thing for Bill is to admit defeat, a lesson he has passed along to his son. Bill’s attack on his son’s attacker is cruel, but that’s one of the horrible things about growing up with a bully: You readily learn how to become a bully yourself.

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His own experience with bullying also helps explain why Masters is so bound and determined to work his way back into Washington University. It’s how he knows immediately that Doug must have an ulterior motive in coming to see him, and why he revels in the man who locked his lab having to crawl back to him. But in the end, as Bill finally opens up to Libby, his victory is hollow, as he’ll never gain acceptance from his father, the bully who still rules his inner life. At least it leads him to finally make long-overdue overtures toward his son, but it might even be too late for that.

Since Bill’s backstory has been so revelatory, it’s helpful to get more of Gini’s, with the surprise arrival of her parents, courtesy of everyone’s favorite Bad Seed daughter, Tessa. Frances Fisher has been playing cloying mothers since Titanic, but it’s hard to believe Caddyshack’s Noonan is now Gini’s dad. At first Gini’s mother appears just to be generically meddling, like so many TV mothers, until the dawning realization of horror at the episode’s end. Gini is momentarily thrilled her mother is finally proud of her (similar to Bill’s wish of finally gaining his father’s acceptance). Unfortunately, this momentary gleam is quickly followed by her devastation as she realizes that her mother thinks her greatest accomplishment is getting a married man to fall in love with her. No wonder she asks another married man out to dinner immediately afterward. But it’s an interesting revelation that it was Gini, not her mother, to put herself in beauty pageants as a child, pointing to her fervent ambition from the very beginning.

This episode also excelled by grounding itself, focusing on the study and its participants (with an extremely graphic sexual instruction on a dildo by Masters and Johnson): our two main players, and their patients and staff. It benefited from the lack of any nefarious and distracting season-three subplots.

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That’s why this episode title is perfect, and the question from the audience so acute: All the sexual acts don’t mean anything without the love behind them. Barton knows it, Margaret realizes she doesn’t have it with Graham, and Gini acknowledges that what she has with Bill is not enough. In fact, one of the most beautiful acts ever seen on this show is Barton giving Margaret what she needs. He calls Vivian to tell her the truth about her parents’ divorce, even though it will permanently change his relationship with his daughter. Graham talks about monogamy limiting love to something that can be qualified and distributed, and it’s clear that despite the guru he’s following, he has no idea of the concept. Barton knows Margaret better than she knows herself, and although she despairs that she’s alone after her relationship ends, she’s not, because he is still her family on a deep level. The love between Barton and Margaret is one of the most profound relationships on this show, and sex has nothing to do with it.

Stray observations

  • Betty cracking Bill’s back: gold. Also appreciate the Helen nod, so hopefully this means they’re still together?
  • “That’s not the point.” “It couldn’t be more the point!” All the accolades to Allison Janney for this episode (including an incredibly hot sex scene).
  • The book that gave Jo nightmares was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, and that farmhouse scene is indeed horrific.
  • As far as Masters’ and Johnson’s many offspring go, Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Johnny, is approaching Sally Draper-levels of kid acting (the gold standard).
  • Lester’s pathetic “Is failure an emotion? That would be my response,” gets him a sympathetic pat on the back from Betty.
  • Tessa’s actual purchase of a bow tie (?) to get her mother busted by her grandparents seems over the top even for Tessa, and is accompanied by a weird tribal drumbeat.
  • I am extremely fortunate to have the job I have, and part of that job involves writing about TV and getting paid for it. But when you critically follow a series for awhile, you can get emotionally invested in the show you’re reviewing. (Ask me about my ups and downs with The Mindy Project. Or the betrayal I still feel over Broadchurch’s second season finale.) Masters Of Sex, a show based on emotionality, brings that out in me more than most shows I watch. And as you may have surmised if you’ve been reading these reviews, although I still greatly admire the show, especially its cast (Lizzy Caplan in particular), I have been fairly frustrated with season three so far; I found myself not looking forward to reviewing this as much as I once did. So as of next week, I am handing the MOS reviewing reins over to senior editor John Teti, who brilliantly captured the final season of Mad Men, along with too many other awesome writeups to list here. I’m glad I got to go out on such an upswing for the show. I look forward to reading what John writes about Masters Of Sex—and your comments, as always.

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