'Masters of Sex' creator Michelle Ashford on the time jumps and inventions of season 2
“Masters of Sex” wrapped up an alternately excellent and frustrating second season tonight. I reviewed the finale here , and I had a long talk with “Masters” creator Michelle Ashford about the various big decisions of season 2, including the time jump, fictionalizing more aspects of the Masters and Johnson story and… Cal-o-Metric? All that coming up just as soon as I’m a doctor who also went to medical school…
When you and I spoke briefly in the summer during the TCA field trip to your set, you said you had not originally expected going into writing the season to return so close to when season 1 ended. Why did you ultimately decide to do that?
Michelle Ashford: I used the first season as kind of a year. It was setting the series up and so I thought, “Let’s take a year and see what these people are all about.” But I knew that I was going to have to move much more quickly through history if we were gonna tell the story properly. So that was always in the back of my mind. So when I thought about coming back for the second season, I thought, “Let’s just start three years later and make a big jump and people will catch up.” And then the more I talked about it with other people, I thought everyone would feel so cheated — they won’t know what happened at the end of season one. What was the next step? And so I ended up going back to, “Well, okay, let’s follow it.” But I didn’t want to follow it just literally, so I played with time a bit in that first episode. So you know that you’re eventually gonna see what happened, but you see it from her perspective, and then you see it from his perspective and you realize, as is true in life, nobody has the same take on any one given situation. You don’t leave things in a sort of cliffhanger situation and then not give people the satisfaction of seeing how it played out. But I still had the problem of we need to move through time and that’s when I thought, “Let’s take an episode in the middle and actually move (forward) right in the middle and see it.” I had never really seen it before and I thought, you know, it would be a grand experiment. It’ll either work or it won’t, but that was the notion.
So this was the plan when you started breaking stories, that you would do this time jump? Because I figure you couldn’t go into the season and then decide midway through, “Oh, we need new sets and new costumes.”
Michelle Ashford: Yeah. This is not to say it wasn’t a gargantuan hassle even knowing that we were gonna do it. It’s a big thing for a show to make a shift like that right in the middle. But it just had to be done and we got through it, and it was a little like watching sausage get made, but hopefully it was okay on the other end. The truth about this show is now those kind of time jumps have to be incorporated into the material in a more regular manner. Let’s say this (series) goes maybe six years at the most, their story is really fascinating all the way into the ‘80s so you’ve got to say, “How do you parcel this out?” That’s the thing that I’m wrestling with right now. But it does mean much more moving through history at a faster clip.
One of the reasons why I understand your impulse to initially just jump ahead three years is that not a lot happened from Masters and Johnson during the period immediately after the events of the first season. So how did you come up with material to fill that, and also either keep other characters in place or get them to the point where they were gonna be in 1960?
Michelle Ashford: Well it is true because in reality they met in 1956 and their book doesn’t come out until 1966. So they actually had ten years where they were just quietly under the radar gathering data. In my job as both a historian and as a storyteller, I have to look through this material and go, “Okay, so what were the events that were rich?” And another reason for not jumping ahead three years at the beginning of season 2 was because Masters ended up walking away from that hospital and a practice that he’d built over 20 years. And he did stop delivering babies and he did have to walk away from much of that – his hospital privileges, all that stuff. That’s a huge decision for someone, so I thought, “Well, let’s actually see that.” So I knew that that was rich material, the idea of really unpacking how that guy came to the realization that he had to let go of the safety net of his career and he really had to go out on his own. So that was interesting. And yet in that period in episode seven where we jump ahead from ‘58 into ‘60, yes, in terms of their work that was a pretty quiet period, in terms of them gathering data. But one of the most interesting things about their work in this period is the shift that occurred — and that’s one of the things that we knew that this second season was gonna have to be about — from gathering data to actually healing people. And that’s really what they’re known for. Certainly, their first book is just filled with data about how the human body works and all that was essential and it was laying the groundwork. But what they’re really known for is how they took all that information and turned around and approached a therapeutic kind of practice. I knew that was also really interesting and I also knew that must have been a very, very, very complicated process. So that’s what the back half of season 2 is about, is how did they come to the understanding that Athey needed to do that and how do you treat it when no one has actually come up with viable treatments in the past?
But also during that period, you had to do things like get Betty out of the marriage to Gene, and start laying the groundwork for Libby’s relationship with Robert which you then deal with in the second half. Was that difficult, knowing that you weren’t necessarily going to have a full season to play with?
Michelle Ashford: Look, it’s always sad when you look at tons and tons of film on the cutting room floor, metaphorically. And it’s really hard for the actors too who have to actually viscerally move through this, and I think sometimes audiences really want to see the step-by-step stuff. And there was an extra 20 minutes of material in episode 7 that just had to go. And part of that had to do with Betty’s breaking up with her husband and more of that was explained. Much more of Libby’s story was explained. There was just a whole bunch of stuff that didn’t get in there. But it’s the cost of, “Okay, we need to get to this new stuff,” and as long as the new stuff is really rich and interesting you just go, “This is the price we pay.” Now I’ve learned this about this show and it’s particular way of functioning: a lot of that stuff can come back and a lot of our actors can come back. So, for example, what happened to Gene? Well, we love Gene. We love the character and we love the actor. So we can look at that and say that people circle around — people come back around in weird ways and then you reconnect. I thought, since we’re moving through time, let’s make that a signature of this show, that people weave in and out, and you think they’re gone, and all of a sudden they’re back again. So hopefully we can actually deal with a lot of the unanswered questions as we go along. They’ll just be in a different form. Hopefully it’s like a big mosaic that at the end, people can piece it together and go, “Oh, I get how everybody went through this story.” And I will try. I hope it works.