One of the more subtle, but resonating, events of last season’s Masters of Sex finale was the revelation that Libby Masters does indeed know about Bill’s adulterous work with his partner Virginia. It was perhaps most shocking because Libby’s knowledge seems to span years, yet she has continued to be a good friend to Virginia. That friendship and how it has evolved during the show’s time jump to 1965 provides the backbone of this season’s premiere episode, which flips between Boston, where Masters and Johnson hold a press conference about the release of their book The Human Sexual Response, and a family weekend at the lake a few months prior.
During the years between Season 2 and 3, somehow the Masters’ yearly family vacation to the lake has come to include Virginia and her now-teenaged children. Whose idea was this? Based on Bill’s disdain for the entire trip, perhaps Libby suggested bringing Virginia along if only for a comrade to help her survive her husband’s alternating detachment, boredom, and scorn (the key ingredients in their marriage). At times the dynamic of three adults confined in a too small lake house feels like Big Love, with the women depending on one another for help rather than Bill. And help they both need.
Virginia’s son Henry is seducing young girls, while her daughter Tessa is plunging into adolescent rebellion with an awkwardness that is while realistic, is somewhat predictable. When Libby and Virginia must tend to an injured Henry, Bill is left alone to mind the children. A drunken Tessa throwing herself at her “strong male figure” Uncle Bill is cliche and only truly serves as a catalyst for Bill’s conflict with a rapidly growing Johnny, whose emotional separation from his father is palpable. Like his father, Johnny knows how to strike at his father’s weakness. Since Bill disclosed his own father’s violence last season, it has been inevitable that the audience would see him tested with his own children. Does the history of violence repeat? No, thankfully, though Bill’s near loss of control dances across Michael Sheen’s face in delicate torture.
Libby is also losing control, although she is trying to regain it through medicating for anxiety. When Henry is struck by a car, that control explodes in hysterical worry and accusations. Her revelation of her medication and fears, all tied to the Civil Rights movement deaths, raises the question of what happened to her activist lover in the interim. The obvious answer is he has died, but hopefully the writers have something more complicated in mind. This episode represents the best I have seen from Caitlin Fitzgerald and I hope they continue giving her the same type of worthwhile material.
Which leaves us with Virginia. The season opens with her in the Boston Ritz, restless over their upcoming press conference, and using sex as her sedative. At the conference, their work, writing, and her credentials are questioned by an industrious reporter, causing Virginia seek out a bathroom stall for a private moment to fall apart.
Lizzy Caplan’s performance has always been the driving force behind the series and the range she must play in this episode shows how far she is pushed as a character and an actress. Virginia’s anxiety at the work, concern at Henry’s desire to join the military, anger at Bill for infiltrating every corner of her life, glee at playing Life and dancing the hula with Bill’s sweet daughter, and guilt and confusion at Libby’s coy admission that she knows of their affair, but will not break up the marriage, are just the basics of what Caplan displays in this single episode. Even when she is weak, Virginia is a survivor, and the unconfirmed bombshell at the episode’s end could further test that survivorship.
However the season takes us, tuning in is always worth it if only to marvel at Caplan.
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TMN (in Canada) and Showtime (in the States).