Season premiere review: 'Masters of Sex' - 'Parallax': To have and to Holden
"Masters of Sex" is back for a new season. I reviewed the start of the new season on Friday, and I have specific thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as I can buy an extra $100 worth of french lingerie every month...
"We have the work." -Virginia
"Parallax" is an episode that tries very much to live up to its title by giving us different angles on the immediate aftermath of Bill's declaration at the end of season 1. We revisit Bill and Virginia's night together multiple times, each time getting a new perspective, until we can fully understand the nature of this new phase of their relationship. That puzzle structure, with the same scene shown multiple times at different lengths, is one of those stylistic flourishes where the payoff really has to be worth the repetition, and here it absolutely is. As we hear more and more of Virginia's conversation with Ethan — where she tries to justify abandoning a perfect nice guy (who would have still supported her professional aspirations) by pointing to the study itself — we realize that Bill's declaration has changed nothing between them. They are still lying about why they're together, with Virginia inadvertently crushing the eavesdropping Bill, and Bill in turn reverting to the role of the "happily married man" who is doing this only for science.
It's always a tricky thing for the show to make us feel sympathy for Bill — especially in an episode where he's just so awful about the new baby, his mother's continued presence, and more — and yet the slow teasing out of their night together accomplishes exactly that. Virginia doesn't intend to wound Bill, but she does, and now they are playing a married couple in a hotel a half hour north of St. Louis, neither able to talk about their feelings for one another. It could play out as a shameless hit of the reset button, but instead simply feels like the latest two-step in a relationship that is never going to be less than complicated.
And building "Parallax" along the narrative spine of Bill and Virginia's new arrangement as Dr. and Mrs. Holden (they can only act like a couple when they're assuming other identities) is helpful, given how much of the rest of the episode involves sending off supporting characters from season 1 and introducing some of their replacements.
Beau Bridges and Allison Janney have CBS sitcom commitments, and Rose McIver's going to be in the CW's "iZombie," but the Scully family isn't simply abandoned. Instead, we see Barton continue going through his sincere but misguided gay conversion plan, which includes both a terrifying electro-shock therapy session, then using gay porn to try to pump himself up for sex with poor Margaret(*). Bridges and Janney are both so heartbreaking in that sequence, because we know the love between them is real, even as we know that there is no circumstance under which he will ever desire her, and that's all she wants at this stage of her lonely existence. The scene where Margaret and Vivian prevent Barton's suicide attempt is incredibly harrowing for its matter-of-fact presentation (the great veteran director Michael Apted knows when to turn the camera on and get out of the way). I'll miss these characters while they're gone, though I know the show isn't done with them yet.
(*) I suppose it could have been even more humiliating than asking her to turn her back to him; he could have asked her to put on a suit and tie, and/or a fake mustache.
Broadway giveth, and Broadway taketh away: with her run on "Kinky Boots" wrapped up, Annaleigh Ashford returns as Betty, and is instantly a delight again, as well as a convenient plot device to get the study up and running at a new hospital, while Jane heads out to Hollywood with her boyfriend because Heléne Yorke is now starring in "Bullets Over Broadway." I wish we could have a show that featured both characters — each of whom adds some distinct comic spice to what can at times be a dour show — but I'll take them one at a time if that's what the show biz universe is allowing.
Ann Dowd is currently appearing on every show on television (in this hour alone, she was also on another "Leftovers"), which means Bill's mother has to be chased out of town, following a brutal sequence where Bill cranks up the music rather than responding to the baby. That scene is Bill at his coldest and most cruel, even as it's clear how damaged he was by his own father — and by Essie's inability to stop the abuse — and it shows our man as a very poor father and son at once.
The generosity of Betty's Pretzel King husband also introduces us to our first major new character in Dr. Douglas Greathouse, played by Danny Huston. Huston's fresh off of another show set in this exact period (Starz's "Magic City"), but turns off the scenery chewing antics he used in the previous role, while still making it clear that this guy is a creep whose interest in the study is nowhere near as pure as Bill or Virginia's.
And fortunately, we're not losing the supporting cast wholesale. Langham's still around, and has stepped up his cheating to an impressive new level — his wife's sister! — until Mrs. Langham has had enough and publicly humiliates him over the hospital PA system. And though it doesn't pay enough — which forces her to moonlight as a Cal-O-Metric saleswoman (and struggle due to her preference for improvisation over scripted dialogue) — Virginia is still thankfully working for Dr. DePaul, and their relationship has become another backbone of the series, even as DePaul still keeps a part of herself (like the cause of her black eye) hidden from her secretary.
Excellent stuff. Season premieres — especially ones with this much cast turnover — can get bogged down in exposition, but so long as the series has Sheen and Caplan at the center of it, it's likely always going to be rich and satisfying and very, very complicated.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com