Between Beyonce's visual album—a blow-by-blow account of her and her husband's lovemaking, as far as this critic can tell—and the hooking-up-for-warmth encouraged by yesterday's snow storm, sex is having a great weekend. Now, the question is, did Showtime's Masters of Sex season one finale end Sunday night with a bang?
The last three episodes of the show's debut season have hinted at greatness, but Masters of Sex isn't quite there yet. At its worst, the show feels like Mad Men without the subtext. Granted, the nature of the material—a scientific inquiry into sex—is going to bring certain issues to the forefront. On Mad Men, Peggy and Joan might have a conversation that circles around broader issues of sexism and gender inequality. But as scientists asking questions about gender, among other things, Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) talk to each other about these things explicitly. While it's awesome to see this on your TV screen, it can also leave you hungry for ambiguity and artful dialogue, those tip-of-the-tongue moments that force you to wrestle with the discomfort of not knowing just what another person is thinking.
Masters of Sex can get didactic with its desire for contemporary people to have more fulfilling, more open relationships with one another. It can feel too calculated, just like the space exploration metaphor the show's been working all season long. On the one hand, it's impressive that the series stuck to one metaphor for the entire season, which makes the series feel like a carefully constructed novel. But on the other hand, it's a tad on the nose. Like, get it?! Space is just as unknown as human sexuality! Golly!
But the show did use the greater historical context of the '50s to impressive effect in the tenth episode, "Fallout," during which the hospital is undergoing nuclear attack drills. It's maybe the season's best episode because it gets at something truly strange and off-putting through the absurdity of the drills (and thus, the absurdity of history). The metaphor enriches the material because it's tougher to pin down than Space Exploration = Sex Study.
The scene where Dr. Austin Langham, a.k.a. McGinger, having learned that he impregnated another participant of the study, wanders the hospital in a daze while the lights flash and the siren wails and a nurse attends to a baby doll is one of the best TV moments of 2013. Same goes for the conversation between Bill and Virginia that's interrupted by the drill; with the office dark, a spotlight illuminates the exam table where they've had sex, creating a powerful and weird image. That's rich stuff that we'll hopefully see more of next season.
As far as the next season goes, the finale leaves us with lots of juicy questions:
Will Virginia accept Ethan's proposal and go to California?
Will Jane make more "special" movies with the weird AV Club guy?
Will Libby just decide she's done with white people and start hanging out with the black folks at the hospital and her handyman?
Will Margaret get to feel the humming power of Ulysses now that McGinger's given her her first O?
Will McGinger help the woman he's made pregnant? Or will he just swear off sex with non-post-menopausal women?
Will Barton end up like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cukoo's Nest after the shock treatment? (Cause you know that shit isn't gonna turn him straight.)
Will Virginia's son ever go to the moon?
Will Bill and Virginia kiss? Or will it just be reverse cowgirl and the like?
We'll just have to wait until next year. In the meantime, always wear a condom. And tell your slacker friends to catch up on the most promising new show of 2013.