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What the Sex in 'Masters of Sex' Really Means

This is a show that has more of a lust for questions than for answers


Though “Masters of Sex” is ostensibly about the pioneering sex researchers Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), the show has let itself veer far from its ostensible inspiration. If the first season presented a relatively limited mix of subplots (and often felt muted as a result), the second, which concludes this Sunday, has thrown out a dizzying number. Among others, there’s Libby’s suburban housewife-ennui, encased in an off-kilter story about race; Frank Masters confronting his brother about their unresolved shared history of abuse at the hands of their father; former prostitute Betty’s run through a wealthy husband and an ex-girlfriend before becoming Masters’s employee; and then there’s the study itself, which changes locations seemingly every episode as Masters pisses off one hospital official after another. These multiplying plot lines aren’t just products of the show’s creators’ short attention spans; each additional one further complicates the shows central focus: not sex, but power.   

Each of the spiraling plots has been superficially conventional—unhappy housewives and workplace problems—but each has labored to tweak the power dynamics at the heart of the show. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the otherwise inexplicable story of the Calometric diet company. Initially introduced as a snake oil amphetamine that Virginia hawks to insecure housewives to make some extra cash, Calometric served primarily to introduce the character of Flo Walker (Artemis Pebdani, of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” fame) as Calometric’s chief. Flo hires the chiseled, all-American Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears) as the product’s spokesman, and forces him to have sex with her in order to keep his job. When Langham, an irrepressible cad, balks at the prospect, Flo claims it is only because of her weight: “If I lost 50 pounds and dropped 10 years you might be whistling a different tune.”

This plotline has been one of the most reviled of the season. But that very discomfort is the point. Television suffers from an epidemic of poorly thought-out rape stories that use sexual assault as an artificial way of raising stakes, but male victimhood is still criminally under-portrayed. This plot line isn’t quite in that territory, but there are undeniable elements of coercion. Flo is in this position of power over the downtrodden Langham, and she is matter-of-fact about her sexual needs to the point of aggression. And yet, she’s sympathetic. We have good reason to like a woman who owns her sexuality in a show that constantly reminds its audience of male privilege and prerogative. Even “successful” women are forced to be masculine. “Maybe I want to be Scarlett for a change of pace,” she says while forcing Langham to reenact the staircase scene from “Gone With the Wind.” “Because I have been Rhett for a very long time.”

The juxtaposition of these characters—Flo and Langham—and the ways in which they exist at the boundaries of their prescribed roles, is the point here: Flo pushes back at the way in which she’s been left behind by society’s standards of beauty; Langham has been burned by his sexual conquests and struggles to understand Flo’s desires, or to come to terms with her as a woman without relying on his sex appeal and blunt charm (his default mode). At times, their characters seem calibrated to balance each other—if the writers want us to identify with one over the other, they’re playing it very close to the vest. And that’s indicative of “Master of Sex”’s larger project. The types Flo and Langham represent usually exist in very different sorts of stories, ones where Langham chases and seduces women and Flo is more or less sexless. Like Masters’ study, giving Flo the power dredges things we might not want to talk about.

This focus on the power dynamics of relationships, especially played out in somewhat soapy adultery and workplace drama, isn’t exactly new for television (it’s particularly present on “Mad Men,” “Masters of Sex”’s spiritual ancestor). But what is new, in addition to their altered arrangement, is a sustained focus on how those relationships infect the body. Several of the show’s conflicts are built around Masters and Johnson’s starkly different approaches to this question—in discussing patient Barbara’s trauma-induced inability to have sex, Masters bluntly asks Johnson, “Why do you assume some sort of emotional breakthrough is going to relieve her physical problems?” Neither approach is right: Confronting her brother doesn’t relieve Barbara’s symptoms, but Masters’s medical solution also doesn’t help her feel mentally prepared to have sex. Libby’s volunteering with CORE and apparent commitment to the burgeoning civil rights movement hasn’t filled the hole in her life, but sleeping with another man might.

Or take Masters’s erectile dysfunction, which has been the closest thing the show has to a central plot as it nears the end of the second season. This has served as a center of gravity for the past few episodes, anchoring everything from Barbara’s story to study documentarian Lester’s encounter with a prostitute to Frank’s alcoholism in both “sexual dysfunction” and the broader territory of the bodily expression of psychological problems. One could even see Flo and Langham’s “relationship” in the context of the emotional problems that contribute to Masters’s inability to get it up; Masters, Lester, and Barbara are incapable of performing—Langham is forced to. 

But for all the influence that power wields over psyche and the body in this show, the lack of control that comes along with intimacy might be the only thing that heals these characters. Barbara only improves when she embarks on a plaintive, heartwarming courtship with the similarly suffering Lester. Even Langham starts to understand Flo’s pain as she lies in his lap, starting to let her guard down. In this, “Masters of Sex” suggests that, intimacy and acknowledgment of one’s limitations might be the solution to our myriad sexual and emotional problems. Will that sort of acceptance be effective for Masters and Johnson in the long run? At times, it seems like “Masters of Sex” runs its characters through the wringer just to answer Flo’s pillow talk question: “When has self-awareness ever changed a person’s behavior? 

This season of “Masters of Sex” has thrown pretty much everything it could at its viewers, often unsuccessfully. But it’s done so with a clear idea of what it finds interesting, and what kind of issues it wants to explore. “Explore” might be the most pertinent word here, because as much as the show wants to suggest some solution to diseases of the body, it hasn’t quite been able to commit. Masters can perform when he lies, totally emotionally spent, after fighting his brother, but he also comes very close when he lets himself be dominated by Virginia. Is it the lack of control that helps him, or the emotional honesty, or something else entirely? The possibilities of intimacy that Lester and Barbara’s relationship (and Frank’s AA meeting) seem to offer are certainly a tentative possibility. But it seems unlikely that the finale will settle on a single solution. This is a show that has more of a lust for questions than for answers.