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Sex and the Slightly Unreliable Narrator

Dear TV,

I’D HOPED Masters of Sex would resist following Mad Men down the sepia brick road to the land of overburdened flashbacks, and so far so good; five episodes in, it seems to have a comparatively sane relationship to its past. So far we’ve met Mr. Johnson and the original Mrs. Masters. Mather Zickel’s George Johnson supplied some much-needed texture and edge to Caplan’s likable Virginia Johnson (while demonstrating the need for that edge — the episode ends with her boss and ex-husband discussing her sexual magic while she waits, bedraggled and exhausted, at a bus stop. It’s an interesting counterpoint to Draper’s conversation with Betty’s therapist). Masters’s mother has been flawed, likable, and an obvious source of pain to her son. And oh, a live mother! Can we take a moment to rejoice that she’s alive, and not another fictional mother sacrificed to the god Help-I-Need-A-Motivation-For-This-Character? I hope we see more of her.

Here’s what’s working about these two figures from the past: their explanatory power is limited. Last time we talked about this show I made the case that it was refreshingly immune to Freudian narratives, and I mostly stand by that. Masters’s sleepwalking is certainly a symptom of emotional disturbance, but the cause is crystal clear by the end of the episode: he sees his mother’s late-in-life agency as a betrayal of his young self. There’s a sharply literal bent to the show’s portrayal of his childhood. I’ve toyed with the idea that Masters has a low sperm count through sheer force of will (mastery, if you like), but some commenters over at the AV Club speculated, pretty convincingly, that the knickers story more than accounts for Masters’s current infertility. Wear your boyhood shorts well into adolescence and the damage to your testicles will be as great as the damage to your psyche. No psychoanalytic metaphors here; Masters was almost literally castrated by his father.

Except he wasn’t! Libby got pregnant.

There’s resilience in the Masters gene pool, in other words, and this bothers William, who wishes his mother would have bounced back earlier or not at all. Getting Libby pregnant means the damage incurred in childhood was less irreversible than he thought. Nothing could be less romantic than the Masters’s efforts at conception. The part of us that longs for some acknowledgment of romance or chemistry, for confirmation of the myth that context contributes more to conception than the sheer facts of biology, is a little crushed when Masters’s clinical techniques actually work. They simply weren’t supposed to. We’re waiting for Libby to exit the show but she keeps reappearing, perceptive, gentle, pregnant. Less of a victimized drip than we (narratively) want her to be.

This show takes a lot of pleasure in exploring how fertility intersects with control, and it loves punning on Masters’s struggle with mastery — mastery of the self, of circumstances, of a career path, of the study, of Johnson. At first glance, this is a story about an obstetrician whose academic interest is in recreational sex — a man for whom fertility has been a lifelong pretext, the concept closest to what he really wants to study professionally but orthogonal to it. This seemed, when the show began, like a case of cruel irony: the infertile fertility expert! But it seems, in retrospect, that Masters’s fictive sterility was a source of relief to him. Masters didn’t want children, and his efforts at misdirection (Libby is sterile, not he!) were meant to perpetuate their childless state. This is only just becoming clear, four episodes after we learned about their difficulties. The real irony is that he was too good a fertility expert: his technique worked.

What we’re starting to see on the show, in other words, are hints of unreliable narration that force you to look backward at what seemed like stable ground. Ethan Haas’s assessment in the pilot was that Masters didn’t want to admit to a low sperm count because, well, masculinity. At this juncture, knowing what we know, it seems likely that Masters only wanted children because they completed Scully’s portrait of the family man. If he couldn’t conceive due to infertility (and why not make it his wife’s!), his immaculate professional credentials couldn’t be damaged by their absence.

This is an efficient show: most scenes achieve multiple narrative ends. That little flashback scene turns out to be about Scully’s closeted psychology too, of course: his concerns about Masters being labeled a pervert seemed like sensible advice, but turn out to be pure projection. (There’s Freud, sneaking back in through the window!) Scully sees the younger man as a version of himself, and prescribes him exactly the same course. Be yourself underground, he says, and keep up the perfect façade that will forestall questions. We may think we’re seeing the attitudes of an era, but we later discover that our sources (Ethan, Scully) were flawed readers of the circumstances we trusted them to describe.

It’s a testament to Masters of Sex that even the flashback contains the seeds of both Scully and Masters’s stories. Now, it may easily be that Scully’s advice was good, and that Masters has the preoccupations about masculinity Haas attributes to him, and that his reasons for concealing his low sperm count from Libby are as archaic as Haas thinks they are, but I doubt it. Masters so obviously houses his ego elsewhere.

The miscarriage is a test of Masters’s affective investments. It drives home our lack of access to Masters’s real feelings about Libby (and hers). Up to this point he’s been so calculating, cruel, and thoughtless that it’s genuinely difficult to imagine him charming her, or either of them falling in love. It’s a bizarre marriage, and we find eventually that its peculiarity stems from Masters’s own sense of it as performance/checked box. If Donald Draper married Betty to fulfill the American Dream in all its hopeful Aryan poetry, Masters sees the American Dream as an invisibility cape he’ll need to fulfill his professional mission. Don starts crooked and wants above all to be seen as legitimate, as belonging; Masters starts with legitimacy in order to go accrue enough respectability to go to a “cathouse” and remain pure. Both men basically want to disappear, but their relation to social contagion is quite different. (If Draper joined the study, Masters’s and Johnson’s work would have been done much sooner.)

What’s enjoyable about the show, in other words, is that it seems to be doing one quite conventional thing while also doing another. Masters’s interactions with Libby expose the pitfalls of the “mother of my children” logic that saw women in the 50s as angelic creatures and helpmeets. It’s almost impossible to regard such a person sexually. No wonder he finds it unthinkable to watch Libby masturbate; the angelic wife is incompatible with arousal or desire.

This is a familiar story about the period, and it makes for compelling fiction, but it’s not right here. Masters’ problems only appear to be the problems of the 50s Everyman. He isn’t a man of his time, he’s three standard deviations out from the thing Don Draper badly wanted to be. In that sense, these are both stories of men in Dream drag. Even his marital dysfunction is only apparently conventional.

Still, his feelings about the pregnancy and the miscarriage are outside his conscious control, and the sleepwalking is meant, I think, to show the limits of Masters’s self-mastery. His emotional discipline in the name of science is getting some jagged edges.

So what about Johnson? The trouble is that there’s so little to say about Johnson. Her problems with her kids don’t quite land. Her expressions of wry regret and her conflicted take on motherhood are interesting, but we don’t know why she feels about it the way she does. Will we meet her mother, I wonder? I look forward to learning what she does care about, beyond wanting to be involved in the study. It’s been suggested that Johnson is becoming a manic pixie dream girl. I don’t think she is — yet. But things are drifting in that direction; her origins so far are obscure, her wisdom innate, her background only marginally relevant. George Johnson is a little too starry-eyed about his ex-wife, and it’s a missed opportunity. We could have learned about her childhood, her flaws, her first marriage. So far, Johnson has been our only source for explanations of her background, her decisions, and her past. The only outside information we’ve gotten about her has concerned her sexual prowess. That’s a problem. In a show where every narrator has turned out to be a little unreliable, I hope she does too, otherwise the balance is going lopsided. We’d better see Johnson make some serious mistakes.

Sincerely (OR NOT),

Lili

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