'Masters of Sex' showrunner teases Masters and Johnson's 'cuckoo' lives after fame
Masters of Sex‘s second season found Masters and Johnson exploring sexual dysfunction (including Bill’s), Libby Masters getting involved with St. Louis’ racial politics, and the show entering the Kennedy era.
In the final scene of the season, against the backdrop of the JFK’s inauguration, Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) are resolutely moving forward with their work, but not without having endured a series of personal and professional failures of a sort. The CBS feature about them made sex an implication rather than a focus, presenting it as squeaky clean rather than scientifically rigorous. When Bill concocted a plan to kill it with the aid of his old friend Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), he ended up hurting Virginia, who was going to use the film to prove that her work’s respectability, and therefore keep her grasp on her children. Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald), meanwhile, is engaged in an affair with Robert (Jocko Sims), a member of the Congress of Racial Equality, where she has been working.
Now that the season is over, showrunner Michelle Ashford talked with EW and lookedback on season 2 and forward.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You end this season on a very low note for Virginia, with her essentially losing her children to her ex-husband. Why did you want to bring her to this point?
MICHELLE ASHFORD: First of all, it was true. Virginia Johnson’s work did affect her children. There are no court records of any kind of skirmish over custody or anything like that, but we do know it was difficult for her kids to have a mother that did this for a living, that there were repercussions to the work, and it was inevitable that we were going to get into this now those kids are getting older. This felt like the right time. That you would have to show the consequences of [the fact that] she’s taken on this work, but this work is really a tough thing for a woman in terms of public perception. So it felt like the right time to do that.
In this episode we see the return of Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto) and Barton in a way that really complicates how we’re feeling about Bill in that moment, because it’s a plan that he thinks is helpful whereas it’s actually hugely detrimental to Virginia. Can you talk about bringing them back for this particular storyline, which really shines a negative light on Bill?
It’s funny that it seems like a negative light. We found it a very interesting progression of a character. One of the things we’ve always talked about is, who can Masters really talk to? Who does he really confide in? And we realized his mentor was someone that he actually could talk to and that the loss of Barton in his life was a significant one. Yet he also did manipulate Barton and blackmail him, essentially. It seemed a perfect opportunity to have Bill then strike out and make another decision on his own without Virginia, thinking he is doing the right thing, and inadvertently having hurt her. It is actually a character who has progressed to a point where his mentor can say to him, “you have to stop behaving like this. You have to look at how your behavior has consequences.” I think the episode you realize for the first time he’s actually realizing, “My god, my way of doing things just is not the right way. It is not a good way for me because now I feel terrible and now she feels terrible and there’s something wrong with me.” In fact, in this season he says, “what is wrong with me?” I actually think it shows a great deal of character progression, because for the first time he’s looking in a mirror, and going, “Why do I proceed this way?” And that is the first step in someone who can start to change himself.
Should people expect to see people like Ethan and Barton return?
Yes, it’s going to be one of the signatures of our show that people will constantly loop in and around and back in ways that hopefully will be surprising and really entertaining. We have been really blessed with phenomenal actors that have come through our show, and one of the things I realized is, once we have someone we really love we don’t want to let them go. It’s true of life; people skip out of your life for a while and then they come back in a different form. So actually I’m very excited about the fact that we’re going to really use that in our show.
The tackling of race relations in St. Louis was almost sort of eerie this season, given current events.
What was your reaction to seeing those parallels?
Given production realities of television all that was laid out far, far in advance of what happened in Ferguson. As they start to move into a much more public life we need to take into account what is happening in the world around them.
One of the things that we stumbled across early on is that they have this remarkable black hospital in St. Louis called Homer G. Phillips Hospital. We thought, “Well that’s cool, and that’s sort of specific to St. Louis.” No other place had a thing like this. Once you start doing that research you realize that Martin Luther King, Jr. came through there and really heralded St. Louis as a place that was doing race relations the right way. Then we knew CORE had a very strong presence in st. Louis and then we found out about these housing projects called the Pruitt-Igoe. So all that stuff is real, and that was all happening, so we just became more and more interested.
And then, as always will be the case somehow, this stuff has to come through character. This led us back to Libby. We thought, “Here’s Libby, and all she’s wanted in her life is to have children and have a family and have this little unit work and make her life whole.” She’s ferociously pursuing having a baby, she finally gets it—even has to lie to her husband to get it. Then she realizes, “Oh my god, he’s not participating in this. I’m alone. I’m freaked out. I have an infant. What is happening?” It really puts an enormous amount of pressure on her. So when she brings in this domestic it is, “I want this domestic to be the other parent. I want to bond with this girl and have everything go perfectly and the two of us will raise this baby and everything.” But it goes wrong.
I remember saying to the writing room one day, I just want to talk about what happened after the O.J. verdict for a minute. I said, I remember sitting in New York when that came down and I was quite sure that it was going to go the other direction, as were probably most white people. That happened, and then seeing the reactions that they were taking all these shots of throughout the community—of people in the the black communities in Los Angeles and stuff. I remember being so shaken to my core and thinking, “Oh my god, we so do not understand one another, and in like a fundamental way.” There is a huge breakdown of understanding between the white community and the black community around issues like this. I thought, let’s have a character go through this. Let’s have a character be exposed to the African American community, all sorts of weird and ugly things start bubbling up because she’s under so much personal pressure, and let’s have it lead to a line of discovery where instead of running away from it and just going, ‘I don’t get that,’ she actually pursues it and it leads to something quite extraordinary and strange.
Then all of a sudden all of that stuff happened in Ferguson and it was like, oh my God, it still is the same. You realize these issues of race are so pernicious. They change so slowly, so slowly.
I was stunned when that happened because we actually wrote about the police force in our episodes and used the police force. It was eerie. But I can only say it came about from doing our research well, and going, here’s kind of the bubbling stuff in St. Louis in the late ’50s and the ’60s. Apparently, it’s not exactly been ironed out.
Is it something you are going to continue to pursue coming up on the third season?
We’re getting into the ’60s. There are a couple things that just have to be there for the ’60s. You have to get into the issues of race. There’s no way the Vietnam War doesn’t raise its head in some form and the women’s movement and things like rock and roll. You just have to take the pulse—it’s not like it’s not well trod territory. All these things need to start bleeding in but hopefully by doing it through a very particular point of view of someone in our show it will have an interesting take or a flavor or a perspective that we hope that will be interesting.
[In the finale] we use Kennedy’s inauguration. I knew from the beginning of the season that I knew that I wanted to capture for a moment the incredible hopefulness, and that’s why that particular speech was my goal, which is when he says the torch has been passed to a new generation because they in fact are on the cutting edge of something. What I really loved about it is, they are on the cutting edge but their whole thing has sort of fallen apart. They don’t know it yet and nobody else knows it yet, but we know it and that’s the very interesting thing about writing in history. The audience projects a tremendous amount onto things when they already know where it’s going.
With the time jump, there were some drastic changes with other characters like Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) and Austin (Teddy Sears). Can you talk about making these big character leaps?
I did know that if we’re going to go the distance here, we need to make some big time jumps. The question then became, how are we going to move through time? Normally you do it coming back after a season. You just come back and it’s three years later, which I did give very serious consideration to for season two. Then everyone started saying, there’s a little bit of a cliffhanger at the end of season one. He’s declared himself, now what? I went away from that but I knew we had to move. I have actually never seen it on TV where you watch, in one episode, characters moving through time. I thought, you know what, “Let’s just try it. It could be a gigantic bomb or it could be interesting.” It was a very tough episode, and I did learn a lot from doing it. What I was hoping for in that episode is the time jumps actually tell you something about which characters are stuck and which characters are moving on. So the ones that don’t change very much over those time jumps you go, wow, oh that characters is really stuck. Or you look at someone like Betty, who had dreams of being a wealthy wife in St. Louis to being dumped. For someone like Libby you also see, wow, there is a character who is really struggling now. Hers is a story of entropy, really. She’s stuck.
We’re going to have to do it again. We will use the device of coming back to a new season further down the road, but I don’t think that’s the last you’ve seen of episodes where people have to move. Hopefully we can be the show that figured out how to do the really cool time jump episodes.
Are there any milestones in the real life story of Masters and Johnson that you are hoping to hit next season? They published Human Sexual Response in 1966, is that something that you’re looking to get to?
That’s a really big one. That is the major major milestone coming up. Because that’s when their lives change radically going from all this underground stuff to becoming national figures. So that’s a huge one and that’s another reason why we need to move, because I wouldn’t feel remotely comfortable fudging that date. When you look ahead you go, well, once they become famous their lives went just cuckoo. They were out in LA with Hugh Hefner and all sorts of crazy stuff. You want to get to that stuff too. The next big milestone is the publishing of their book, and how that’s going to sort out remains to be seen, but it’s not going to be put off for too much longer.
Is that something you want to hit next season?
I think so.
There’s a moment with Libby and Robert where she says she knows that Bill is having this affair. Why did you want to make that revelation?
She is the character we know least about in terms of real fact. She’s been dead for a while. I don’t think Thomas Maier was able to talk to her about this, there’s very little in the book about her. So she’s a little bit of cipher. The shards, the clues that we have, she seemed like a very dutiful wife who was blindsided by this. But when you look a little bit deeper maybe not so much. I think she was probably blindsided by the divorce aspect—Was she blindsided about the fact that this was an on-going affair? I’m not so sure about that. Libby’s history that was put in the show was the actual woman’s history. She had an unbelievably tough and chaotic upbringing. She couldn’t find a family unit, so it was so essential to her that she wanted a family. We’ve cast it with an incredibly intelligent and astute actress. Then it becomes even for the actress saying, “My god, how stupid am I?” That led to lots of discussions about what kind of decision did this woman make to keep her family intact and allow this to happen. Virginia was so tied to Bill’s work. It’s not like she could put her foot down on this one. And I think the actual woman sensed that. I think she probably told herself a story that allowed her to get up in the morning, get through the day and go on vacations together and all this stuff that actually happened. There had to be those moments where she said, “I know what this is.”
It just felt like we had seen her go along for so long and it just seemed really delicious that she has a moment of just saying it out loud. It’s very scary for her to just say it but she’s in such a position of vulnerability herself that she just says, I know what’s happening here and it seemed really great to us. And it felt like, we’ve been waiting for that. We want to know what here is a woman who is smart and aware and has decided to make this choice and that’s where she is.
To close, the world of Masters and Johnson seemed to expand a lot this season. For instance, now we have Flo (Artemis Pebdani), who at first seemed like a one off character. Can you talk about your concept of building and expanding their world?
A lot of times these characters, we fall in love with them and know we want to see more of them and don’t want to see them go. And then they go and get other jobs. The Flo story is an interesting one because she was a character that was not going to have too much of a focus, because we wanted Virginia Johnson to have a lot of financial stress and have to do this moonlighting selling diet pills. We just picked, here’s the woman who is going to sell her diet pills. But everyone has moved away from that hospital except for Austin Langham, who is part of our gang, so we thought how are we keeping Austin here in the loop and what are we going to do about that. All of a sudden we realized, “Oh my God, wouldn’t it be curious—since Calometric has everything to do with women and women’s images and how they feel about themselves—for a guy who circles around women in the most superficial way if he got in this world?” I just remember it very clearly because I was driving one day and I thought, “Oh my, it has to be a reverse sexual harassment story.” A guy who proceeds so cluelessly through so much of his life needs to be on the receiving end of what men usually do to women. And all of a sudden there’s Flo. Now, she’s in there. Stuff like that’s really fun and surprising even to us how it happened.
Masters of Sex