Maybe the premise of this show would have been better suited to a shorter season. I’ve been disappointed to see Masters Of Sex settle into a pace that feels like a ‘50s medical procedural instead of the groundbreaking drama I think it could be. Week to week, it seems to lack a certain punch or pizzazz that might keep me interested. As much as I liked the pilot, I’ve been meandering in and out of focus in the past few episodes. “Standard Deviation” is a scattered episode with too many pointless plot elements and an unsatisfying denouement, and if I weren’t reviewing the show, I’d be tempted to abandon it (to binge-watch later).
That said, what brings me back is the characters, and in particular this week, Michael Sheen does fantastic work as both a cynic in the present narrative and an idealistic researcher in the flashbacks. It’s nice, after all of the setup last week of Masters’ conservative character, to see him taken down a notch or two in “Standard Deviation,” an episode that forces him to think outside the box. I wasn’t quite expecting for this show to be so fully about Masters—I like Lizzy Caplan’s Virginia Johnson, and I’m waiting to learn more about her—but the contradictions in his personality have been the driving force of the last three episodes.
Through a series of flashbacks, we’re introduced to the idea that Masters set up his whole life as a respectable doctor so that he had a stable foundation for pursuing his true passion, the research of human sexuality. It’s noble, and hard to believe (even if it is true), but Sheen sells it pretty well. He’s a naive, eager genius in the flashbacks with his future provost, enthusiastically watching bunnies copulate as he takes notes. It’s a stark contrast to the man he is now—contained, unruffled, and barely embracing the joy of discovery in his research.
Perhaps the biggest development in this episode is that Libby finds out she’s pregnant. It’s more tragic than joyful, though perhaps we only feel that way because that’s how Masters feels as the realization dawns on him. Given what we learn about Masters in “Standard Deviation,” and what we’ve seen him undertake in his research, it’s the terror of a man who has suddenly realized how big the world is just as he’s confined himself to one square mile.
The thing is, Masters wants to have sex, like tons and tons of it, preferably with Virginia (it seems, though no one is ready to admit that just yet). He gets in his own way most of the time, but the frisson of wanting is always there. In some ways, the erstwhile prostitute Betty reads him better than anyone—after all, it’s her job to see the socially inappropriate desire underneath the socially appropriate exterior. In the past and the present, Scully spends an awful lot of time trying to convince Masters not to pursue his study, because it will just make him look like a skirt-chasing pervert. Scully instead tells him what he needs to do to look respectable. But the provost has the right of it, I think—Masters is a pervert (whatever that means). Sexual fantasy is outside of our comfort zones, almost by definition. Masters is a deviant, because desire makes sexual deviants out of all of us.
And that feeds back into the theme of tonight’s episode—deviation from the mean. Masters and Johnson do not have a historically supportive notion of homosexuality; in 1979, they claimed they could convert gay people back to their “normal” or “straight” selves. (That idea has been resoundingly debunked, by the way.) There are traces of that confusion and intolerance in Masters’ conservatism in the cruel way he talks to the gay men who volunteer for his study. Either for cinematic effect or to reflect real life, though, Masters comes around to acceptance. In part because he’s willing to recognize his own sexual repression as part of the same condition that keeps gay men in the closet, and in part because he discovers that his longtime friend and family man Provost Scully is most likely gay. He’s not above using the information as leverage to get his study, but he doesn’t sit down in the provost’s office for blackmail, but rather to argue compassion. “I don’t believe in shadows,” he tells Scully. “I believe in the light of scientific inquiry.”
It’s a little too convenient of a reveal, but it worked for me. And I was proud of Masters for bending his terrible rules at least a little, for an old friend, even though it looks like that friend might never really trust him again.
Masters Of Sex is still moving too slowly for my taste, wallowing around in what feels like very long establishing scenes when the meat of a much more interesting show is already on the table. In this episode, Betty bluntly points out to Virginia that Masters in in love with her, but as is usual with Betty’s take on the world, she seems to be a few years ahead of her time.
- In general, Betty is my favorite character this week. Annaleigh Ashford does a great job holding onto the hardness of Betty even in the midst of her struggle with her own fertility. And her pretzel king is played by Alias’ Greg Grunberg, who is fun to watch.
- Mae Whitman gets fitted for a diaphragm in the opening scene! I hope we see her again soon.
- Dr. Haas almost botches a delivery of quadruplets. I don’t know why else this plotline is in the episode except that it makes him look a little silly.
- There are also some prostitutes orgasming. Again, not sure why it’s in the episode.
- Not enough Virginia.
- Desire is a deviation that everyone experiences, so it's a standard… deviation! Right? No? Okay.