Masters of Sex season 3 premiere recap: Parliament of Owls
After two seasons of the absorbing drama being centered squarely in the workplace tracking the professional and personal dramas of William Masters and Virginia Johnson, Masters of Sex has taken a decidedly different tactic for season 3: focus on the family. The year is 1965 and the primarily fictitious children are supplying all kinds of challenges for both Virginia and Bill as they grapple with the impact their professional choices have had on their personal lives.
Welcome back Masters of Sex fans! If episode 1 is any indication, we are sure to be on a wild ride. The creators are clearly bent on exploring the contradictions between Virginia and Bill’s liberal-minded research with their reactionary parenting attitudes. Turns out you can study the clitoris at work but still be quite uptight when your son discovers his girlfriend’s at home.
Episode 1 begins four years after the end of last season—and is framed by Bill and Virginia’s presentation of their ground-breaking book Human Sexual Response to a group of skeptical academics and journalists. It’s the moment the duo has been working toward for 12 years, and it is vital to their future and the future of their work. “We are the sexual revolution,” states Virginia emphatically after being accused of capitalizing on the free-love culture burgeoning outside the conference room doors.
The episode flashes back and forth between this moment and four months earlier to a summer getaway the two families take together—a time Bill can perfect the manuscript while also pretending to be an interested father while his wife, Libby, seems to have reconciled Bill and Virginia’s relationship. The two women play the sister-wife thing all too well. Meanwhile Virginia is dealing with her temperamental teenagers while also obsessing ahead of the presentation about her lack of bachelor’s degree, and what will happen if those that are scrutinizing them find out she still hasn’t completed it.
Bill’s shortcomings in all areas but science are laid out before us in Sunday’s episode. That scene early on when they first arrive at the cabin spells it out well. He is a patronizing partner to Virginia, especially when he tells her: “Not completing your degree has been your decision, right?” as if the monumental sacrifices she’s already made for their work (i.e. leaving her children with her ex-husband, George) are not already abundantly clear. He has no command of nor appreciation for his children and the chaos that accompanies them leaves him completely powerless and confused. Watching him boil as they swirl around him is particularly entertaining, especially when held in contrast to how Virginia and Libby are navigating the scene. I for one was thrilled when Howie bit him. His self-important narcissism is particularly exhausting.
NEXT: He’s not all bad, though…
But Bill is good for something and that something is talking sex. However bestowing sage advice on a troubled teenage girl might not be the best application. That doesn’t stop Virginia, who can calm the most anxious sex study subject but feels she needs Bill to communicate responsible sexual behavior to her daughter, Tessa. You could tell the creators thought they were on to something when they showed Virginia’s mortified face when she walks in on her son getting down with a new girl. I found it a bit false. I didn’t really believe that Virginia, who clearly made career sacrifices by having children so early and is completely facile in discussing sex, would suddenly clam up in front of her children. Yes, she’s not around them all the time and the guilt must be profound but you would think that she would feel a greater need to bestow her life lessons onto her children than hiding from them and abdicating that responsibility to Bill. I found her relationship to her son a bit more believable, and her breakdown when she finds out he’s planning on enlisting very poignant. She has lost control of him completely and is terrified of what’s to come.
But to me, the best part of this episode was Bill being called out for his awful behavior. First, Libby seems completely over his shtick and not even his tantrum about what room he needs for his work is going to get her to kick Tessa out of her bedroom. She probably enjoyed watching him spend the night on a lounge chair in the backyard surrounded by bugs. But it’s really his son Johnny, who sees him for who he is. He can’t make the kid dinner, and when Johnny catches him not really rejecting the advances of a drunk Tessa, he calls him a “f—er.” “You never kiss mommy and then you kiss Tess,” he shouts before running his precious manuscript to the dock and throwing the papers into the water. And we watch Bill cock his arm back—because he is furious as any father would be—and he pauses, just before he begins repeating the mistakes of his own father. Yes, he is awful, self-centered, and rude. But in that moment you hope that he has somehow realized his awful ways and might start redeeming himself.
The other story line that will be interesting to watch play out is that of Libby’s. She’s clearly about to come undone, popping pills and getting hysterical when Virginia’s son Henry is hit by a car. But she has discovered her limits and intends to stay in the marriage even though she knows it’s over. “A heart can only be broken so many times,” she says. “I want to spare my children a life of upheaval and pain.” And so she will stay. She will read Bill’s manuscript, be a devoted wife but allow herself to explore more about herself. And perhaps that comes from Virginia, who she clearly loves as much as Bill does. “We understand each other. Your home is safe,” she says before kissing her.
The purpose of Bill and Virginia’s book is to give readers information, freeing them of fear, filling them with understanding. Perhaps that will be the theme of this season, too, as the characters try to discover more about themselves as they contend with their ever-changing circumstances. How Libby, Bill, and Virginia deal with the bombshell dropped at the end of the episode will be a good place to start. What will happen with Virginia’s pregnancy? Will she keep the baby? My guess is with Henry planning on going to Vietnam and her guilt over not being there for her kids, she will, with hopes that she can start fresh and amend her earlier mistakes. But will her career aspirations get in the way? And how will it be explained? What does it mean for Libby? And where does Bill stand? It should be a great season with a lot to explore. Looking forward to talking about it weekly. Until next time…
This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.