Masters of Sex Season 2 Review: A Soaring Sophomore Effort

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Showtime’s steamy period drama improved upon its previous season in just about every way.

It might seem odd to compare an exquisitely subtle series like Masters of Sex to the violent, bombastic world of The Hunger Games, but please bare with me for a moment as I do just that.

The first Hunger Games film was decent in every sense of the word. It was mostly faithful to its source material, provided a star vehicle for Jennifer Lawrence, and offered some thrilling set pieces. Gary Ross’ purposefully shaky direction sometimes got in the way of the action onscreen, but his handheld, indie take on the summer blockbuster was wholly refreshing.

Then The Hunger Games: Catching Fire came out, and blew its predecessor out of the water.

The same can be said about Masters of Sex. While the first season was interesting, well-acted, and very entertaining, season 2 was just so, so much better. Some might argue that decision to focus more on the character’s inner-workings caused the study to be put on the back burner, but I found that the show had room for both. Yes, there were times when the study was hardly even mentioned, but it didn’t need to be. Almost everything Masters and Gini—or Libby or Betty, for that matter—did widened their knowledge of human sexuality, even if it wasn’t recorded on one of Lester’s videotapes.

“Parallax,” the season 2 opener, was a welcome return to the show’s complex arena of power and control. Masters struggled to move onto another hospital, Gini struggled to be taken seriously, and Libby was forced to do her husband’s work for her. All in all, a very successful premiere.

Episode 2 felt almost like a procedural, focusing on a patient of Masters who suffers from nymphomania. Still, what separates it from, say, an episode of ER, are the ramifications her condition had on the rest of the season. This was the first introduction to some sort of “sexual dysfunction,” a topic that continued to drive Masters and Gini’s work forward in episodes to come.

Far and away, the best episode of the season was “Fight.” I could talk ad nauseam about how wonderfully nuanced it was—or you could just read my review—but really, it’s something you have to see for yourself. Seeing Masters and Gini play around with gender roles was fascinating enough, but the icing on the cake was the comfort they gleaned from one another. Any episode that’s able to both hold a mirror up to some archaic societal standards, and give its main characters richer backstories is a great one in my book.

Following closely behind “Fight” is “Asterion,” which jumped through several years in the life of the study. Seeing the story and the characters progress at such a rapid rate was initially unsettling, but it gave way to some excellent development. More importantly, it set the tone for the rest of the season. Masters and Gini have always shuffled their romantic feelings toward each other to the side, but this episode gave us a first glimpse at their yearning reaching the surface.

The one weak spot of this season has been the show’s treatment of its background characters. Betty, who started out having some extremely strong plotlines, all but disappears into her secretary role after “Asterion.” Even worse are Flo and Austen, two characters who have nothing to do with study’s advancement. The worst episode of the season is easily “Below the Belt,” which saw the two of them engaging in a strange quid pro quo sex act. It had no connection to the central plotline, and only made the both of them seem very pathetic. I’m not sure what their role will be in season 3, but I certainly hope it’s minimal.

Somewhere in the middle is Libby, who’s narrative arc ended up looking more like the track on a roller coaster. Her power struggle with Coral was shocking and unfortunate, but it provided an intriguing new chapter for her character. Then, after “Asterion,” Coral disappeared and Robert served as her replacement, with Libby taking his side. It all happened a little too quickly, but by the finale things fortunately work themselves out.

This is really a minor frustration for a show whose two leads are so fantastic. Still, it’s a shame, because when Masters of Sex wants to focus on one of its ancillary players, it often does so with aplomb. Julianne Nicholson’s Lillian, Sarah Silverman’s Helen, Christian Borle’s Frank, and Betsy Brandt’s Barbara are all examples of how to properly structure characters within B-plot. They’re also all incredible performances. With the great Allison Janney only appearing in one episode this season, it’s nice to know that the show still knows how to utilize its guest stars.

Even with these flaws, however, the season managed to shine. Mainly because Masters and Gini’s evolving relationship was so thrilling. Episodes like “Blackbird,” “Story of My Life,” and “One for the Money, Two for the Show” allowed them to reach new levels of intimacy, and not just through their physical encounters. By the finale’s end, they’re all but ready to say the L-word to each other.

Ah yes, the finale. A lot of good things happened in Masters of Sex‘s final hour of the season, but I stand by my assertion that it was a little underwhelming. After Masters’ monstrous turn and subsequent redemption in “Asterion,” it was unfortunate to see him keep important information from Gini. I thought they had moved past that. Meanwhile, Flo and Austen continue to be a nonsensical additon to the story. On a more positive note, though, Libby’s plotline came to a close flawlessly, as she admitted she’s knows her husband has been having an affair for a while. The real life William Masters eventually left his wife for Virginia Johnson, so it seems like only a matter of time before their fictionalized counterparts catch up.

Just as The Hunger Games sequel was more compelling than the first film, Masters of Sex‘s second season vastly improved upon its premise and its characters. The forever-troubled researchers are now closer than ever to curing sexual dysfunction, and with secrets in the air, their relationship remains in limbo. The show is quickly learning from its mistakes, so I’m optimistic that next year’s entry will be even more enjoyable. Until then, we can all marvel at the overall triumph of these thirteen thought-provoking and entertaining pieces of work. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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