Masters of Sex: “Below the Belt” Season 2 Episode 10 Review

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Masters of Sex struggles with its ancillary plots while simultaneously offering some major growth for its leading man.

The worst sin is to just give up. That’s the idea behind this week’s episode, which sees various characters either losing all hope, or rising to the challenge. The problem is, it seems like some of the writing staff have given up as well. With only two episodes to go until the finale, “Below the Belt” did very little to try and piece the larger world of Masters of Sex together.

Libby’s work with C.O.R.E appears to merely be a device so she can continue some sort of illicit flirtation with Robert. This aspect is compelling—both with its racial implications, and the potential it has for the dissolution of Masters and Libby’s marriage—but could be brought about in a far more organic way. Libby’s outbursts with Coral, though disturbing, directly related to her unhappiness at Masters leaving her in the dark. Had this Robert romance continued to be pushed through that avenue, it would be increasingly credible.

Meanwhile, this week offered a supremely ridiculous subplot with Austen and the Cal-O-Metric sales rep Flo, in which he essentially prostitutes himself to keep his job. I’m so confused about why this storyline was necessary. Not only does it make both Austen and Flo look bad—is he really willing to stoop that low for a job? Is she really that desperate for a man?—but it had absolutely nothing to do with the central action at hand. Since a majority of the episode dealt with Masters’ impotence, I thought for a brief moment that this B-plot would mirror the central action at-hand. But no, it turns out Austen’s junk works just fine. So this narrative arc ended up being a pointless detour.

It’s interesting that, in the same episode, we got such lackluster side stories along with the wonderfully budding relationship between Lester and Barbara. Betsy Brandt and Kevin Christy play well off each other, and their mutual despair does well to reflect the episode’s main theme. Here are two people who believed they were doomed to a loveless existence, but are able to regain some motivation through their shared commiseration. Had Libby and Austen’s plotlines offered the same sort of insight, this episode would’ve been a lot more cohesive.

Still, if you’re the type of person who watches this show for Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen, then all of this is of little import. “Below the Belt” delivered another fascinating look at Masters’ psyche, delving even deeper into his troubled past. After last week’s reveal of his impotence to Gini, she tries several times to stimulate him. She even has a discussion with the psychologist—who, thankfully, she revealed herself to—who leads her to question her own involvement in Masters recovery. So, plagued with self doubt after her therapy session and a depressing conversation with Betty, she’s ready to just give up.

What Gini doesn’t realize, however, is that Masters impotence stems from some greater psychological issues than just his jealousy over her brief relationship with Shelley. The return of Frank has awakened something in Masters that has both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, he surprisingly bonds with Essie over their mutual dislike of Frank’s judgmental nature. On the other, when he’s forced to finally confront his brother, things go horribly awry.

In the episode’s most devastating scene, Masters becomes the monstrous father that tormented him so greatly. He simply can’t cope with the fact that he abandoned his brother, who in turn became a replacement punching bag. Watching him goad Frank until he physically beats him is greatly unsettling, and it seems like Masters is going somewhere he won’t be able to come back from.

Though the majority of the episode preaches the virtues of never giving up, perhaps the opposite is true in Masters’ case. He spends the whole episode trying to fight against something. He tries to work with Gini to combat his impotence. He hires a PR man to debunk another sex researcher whose work has already been published. He literally fights with his brother against the notion that all can simply be forgiven.

When Masters arrives at the hotel, bloody and broken, he lies on the bed next to Gini and begins to admit his faults. He doesn’t know what’s wrong with him and finally says, “I give up.” It’s this moment of acceptance, of true vulnerability, that actually ends up liberating Masters. Now that he’s hit his lowest low, he can build himself back up.

I’m not sure it was necessary for him to smear some of his blood on Gini’s face—although I guess one could argue that it was his way of allowing her to share in his pain…I guess—but the episode’s final moments are tender nonetheless. This is was Masters of Sex excels at, and I sincerely hope that the season’s final two episodes can forget all the background noise and focus on what really matters. Grade: B-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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