Caitlin FitzGerald and Michael Sheen

This is a somewhat hollow-feeling episode insofar as there is some real emotional drama on the screen, but it doesn’t quite land. While the series’ third season has offered a few captivating hours, overall it’s hard to shake the feeling that Masters has lost some vigor. Even as the show nudges forward some of its stagnant storylines, it can’t inspire the same investment that it once did. Some essential ingredients of the early intrigue are missing in this third year, and Masters can’t figure out how to replace them.

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Take Virginia’s story. In theory, her realization that Tessa knows about her private life should be a pivotal moment for her—especially since she hears it from Dan Logan and has to suffer his judgment, too. But Masters has never consistently given us a reason to care about Tessa, as she too often turns into a mustache-twirling caricature of a teenager. As for Logan, it has certainly been a pleasure to see Josh Charles play the part, but irritating to watch the show give his character less substance each week. This is the third episode running that we’ve heard Masters mutter in the “previously on” clip reel that it’s “time for Dan Logan to go back to New York.” This week he finally does go back to New York, yet he’s still here! Twisting in the limbo of a writing staff that has no idea how to resolve his existence on the program.

So, yes, Virginia is doubly ashamed to have her secret-from-everyone-except-everyone affair with Bill Masters laid bare before her boyfriend and her daughter all at once (from Virginia’s perspective, that is). It doesn’t land, though, because we’ve seen these same basic story beats before, when Dr. Lillian DePaul revealed to Virginia that she, too, knew about the late-night “research” sessions. That was a wrenching storyline because DePaul represented a more ostensibly noble and prestigious career for Virginia, so the end of their working relationship meant that Virginia had, in essence, chosen a different path. You could feel the tectonic plates of her life shifting as that drama played out.

This season, conversely, Virginia has been defined by her passive refusal to make any meaningful choices at all. The sharp and incisive character has become dull and bewildered, waiting for answers to come as the world happens around her. And the same thing keeps happening. Bill plays nice, convincing her to get back into bed with him, and they develop another treatment protocol. She gets upset when she realizes how distant she is from her daughter. She dithers over what to do with Logan. I sympathize with the difficulty of Virginia’s effort to develop a stable identity for herself, but that’s all I can do anymore, sympathize. I used to empathize with Virginia—to feel that her cause was mine.

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What is the Masters & Johnson cause at this point? It’s hard to discern, which gives Bill less of a charge. Bill’s manipulative ways and emotional frustrations used to lend excitement to the show because they played against the accepting and righteous nature of the research he championed. You could root for his cause even as his chilly power plays inspired disdain. That friction was an essential part of the character.

It doesn’t feel like Masters is fighting the world anymore. He presides over a research center that apparently sustains itself via the intermittent flow of charlatans who tumble into his office. There are, presumably, plenty of other patients, but they are rarely seen now, a contrast to earlier episodes that would focus on the people who benefited from Masters and Johnson’s work. Those stories grounded the show and gave it an approachable humanity. But we hardly see anyone making their lives better at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation anymore. It is a dank, mostly empty place where practically everyone is miserable.

So it’s harder now to care about Bill’s jealousy and offhand sexual predations, because the character has lost that redemptive side. Michael Sheen certainly plays Bill Masters’ descent into shaggy self-pity with aplomb, but given that Virginia is already saturating the immediate vicinity with ennui, the show doesn’t exactly need a more drunken version of the same note. Plus, as noted above, his efforts to curry Virginia’s favor are a watered-down version of a dance we’ve seen from Bill many times, to the extent that it’s disappointing when Virginia goes in for it so easily. The aborted encounter with Nora, meanwhile, shows us that Bill views the women around him as ways to work out his own self-loathing. It also shows us that he is dependent on Virginia. These are two things that we already knew, and Masters doesn’t advance on earlier, more poignant explorations of those themes.

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The tease at the end of the episode, in which Nora is revealed to be in cahoots with the Bible-thumpers who have harassed Bill for months, is typical of Masters’ late-era “Let’s introduce a crazy scheme!” approach to plot. But I welcomed it because at least it offers the prospect of giving Bill someone to fight with again.

Libby, the show’s most shamefully neglected character, now provides mostly camp value, but she sure delivers in that capacity. At first, Libby feels put out because her next-door sex pal, Paul Edley, is injecting some domesticated downers into their fuck-eriffic fun: On his way out the door, he asks Libby to run, oh, pretty much all of his errands for him. Those slacks aren’t going to pick themselves up from the dry cleaner, darling! So Libby’s pretty angry about this sudden housewife business, but then Edley gets her kids together to give her a birthday surprise. This makes everything okay, and Libby’s all melty and beaming, with a smile that says, “Honey, you can take me for granted anytime!”

Because Libby has had an emotional experience, it is time for a Libby Story. No episode can pass now without a Libby Story, and it has become one of my most treasured scenes each week. This time, Libby decides to share her Story when Paul hands her a birthday present. “Did I ever tell you about my wedding?” she says, and you can tell that Paul immediately thinks, “Here we go. Must be that part of the episode.” Anyway, Libby’s wedding story is that she saw someone who looked like her at city hall the day she got married, and Libby sometimes wonders if that person has a better life, which she obviously does since she’s not married to Bill Masters. “I would hope that there was more for her in her life then there was for me in mine,” she says, Libbily. Then comes the trademark Libby Masters choking-sob peroration: “I can’t—I won’t!—keep going like this. There just has to be something better.”

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Something like Paul Edley! He proposes to her and Libby is filled with joy: Finally, one of her speeches actually worked. Then Paul can’t stand up because of his old football injury, everyone’s laughing and having fun, and they’re all going to go off and have a sitcom together. (Just kidding: Paul Edley will be discreetly killed by a car during the next Masters Of Sex time jump.)

Oh, and Barton’s back this week. He spends an evening out with the ultrasound technician, but then the evening gets a little too “out” for Barton’s tastes, so he hightails it through a side door while his buddy gets the tar kicked out of him. Allison Janney’s character, Margaret Scully, had some verve on her own without Barton, but I’m not convinced the reverse is true. Barton’s misadventures are exactly what you’d expect from a “closeted gay doctor in the ’60s Midwest” storyline. Like too much of Masters, it feels like it is going through the motions, which dampens any high points the show can muster. As Masters and Johnson could tell you, nothing kills the mood like the sensation of routine.