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Masters Of Sex: "Race To Space"

Illustration for article titled Masters Of Sex: "Race To Space"
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“Race To Space” didn’t really come together for me until the end, when Virginia is reading the comic book her son left on the kitchen table and imagining its hero as Bill Masters, caught somewhere between the earth and the moon. Up until that point the episode feels a little scattered and unsatisfying, offering a lot of foundational tension but not a lot of climax. But that final moment, where both Masters and Johnson are mulling over their own isolation, questing after something that neither of them fully understands, is rather beautifully structured. The song at the end of the episode is James Blake’s sublime “Retrograde,” a surprisingly modern choice for a period piece but one that captivated me nonetheless. Masters Of Sex doesn’t often resort to non-diegetic music, making the choice doubly interesting.

Primarily what I’m getting out of the first two episodes of this show is that William Masters is researching sex because he doesn’t understand it in the slightest. It’s hard to hate him, because he is so clueless about his own behavior, but he sinks rather low in this episode—firing Virginia on a whim, jerking his wife Libby around with fertility treatments, and steadfastly refusing to understand or even acknowledge his own sexual impulses (whether those are for Libby, Virginia, or the nice prostitute whose vision he treated). He’s not driven by malice, but his self-delusion is so pernicious that it makes him callous and bullheaded. Masters spends most of “Race To Space” freezing out anyone who tries to help him.

I think that Masters Of Sex is working to paint a portrait of Masters as an example of perfect sexual repression—a man who is so frustrated and disappointed by the messy complications of sex that he literally turns a microscope on it to try to dissect it further. Despite his frustration at his own humanity, Masters has deep compassion for the humanity of his patients, so it confuses him to no end that they keep running around pursuing sex for fun, when he finds it so deeply shameful or overly complicated. Presumably, the most repressed man is the one protesting mildly that he is not repressed at all. Maybe Masters keeps pushing the envelope on his research because he refuses to acknowledge that he is turned on by prostitutes or watching women masturbate or couples having sex. As prudish as the provost is, at least he can admit that he has those feelings of sexual interest.

Masters’ self-deception comes off as cruelty towards the women in his life who he sees on a regular basis. His own wife Libby (who is nicely coming into her own as a character with some weight) begins to realize in this episode that her husband doesn’t see her as a sexual being. (Bafflingly, he says that he loves her too much to watch her pleasure herself.) And Virginia tries to confront him about his inexplicable rage toward her—which she suspects has more to do with his jealousy that she slept with Ethan than any other sabotage of the study—but he can’t even locate his own hypocrisy, leaving her in a tentative limbo in regards to her job.

Hypocrisy is infuriating, and it’s hard to watch Masters go through these unlikeable contortions. At the same time, once this man lets loose, it is going to be quite a sight. We have seen Virginia enjoy herself during sex, but we have yet to see Masters get truly uninhibited. I don’t think he’s even taken his shirt off for us—which mirrors the prostitutes’ assessment of him, that he’s “just like that john who wouldn’t take off his shoes.” The pace of the episode could have been faster, but I imagine the rewards down the line would not have been as interesting, either.

Other than that arc, which is sketchily constructed at best, the episode is pretty scattered. “Race To Space” tracks Masters’ continuing efforts in getting his study funded and his dealings with the prostitutes in Betty’s brothel, who are his current patient base. Betty herself has resorted to a form of blackmail in bargaining with him, which you can hardly blame her for. Virginia struggles with raising her kids while also pursuing her career, as well as maneuvering her way back into her job after Masters fires her. As we’ve come to expect from her character, Virginia is tenacious and clever, and she essentially continues her work as if nothing has changed to let Masters work off his little tantrum. But it does all still feel like setup, so it’s hard to get too excited by anything yet. At the same time, the show is still wickedly funny and awkward and touching in ways that feel thrilling and unexpected. This episode is a necessary step for even a great show. Let’s see how it pays off.


Stray observations:

  • The prostitutes in the “cathouse” are really fantastic in general. Virginia flatters them by calling them experts in the field, as she tries to get them to sign up for the study. She’s not wrong. Betty has about as modern and practical of a viewpoint on sex as any woman might today. They also provide a refreshing cavalcade of frank women’s voices about sex, which is always nice to hear.
  • Jane, too, is proving herself to be a fascinating character. The handsome doctor whom she conducted her “study” with last week, Austin, tries to get her to continue their “study” in “private” now that Masters’ operation has been moved out of the hospital. She isn’t having any of it. Sure, she likes sex, but she was really motivated by doing something for science. Also, she’s reading Simone de Beauvoir. Austin and Ethan are so staggered by her that they don’t know what to do except laugh.
  • Ethan’s whole subplot, in which he tries to forget Virginia by sleeping with other women from the hospital, didn’t do a lot for me. It certainly illustrates the fickle nature of desire—he thinks he’s looking for a certain act with a woman, but he’s really just looking for Virginia—but right now, I don’t like him enough to be too interested in him. At least he apologized to Virginia, I guess.