Season Three of Masters of Sex Goes Full Soap Opera, Forgets Science

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Last season’s finale saw William Masters and Virginia Johnson developing (with a lot of self-experimentation) a new treatment for sexual dysfunction. That was in 1961. The third season jumps us forward to 1965, when the pair are about to release Human Sexual Response, their first book on human sexual physiology.


The very first scene makes it clear that their affair is still going strong – they’re in bed together the night before their press conference – and both have a serious case of pre-talk jitters, which they’re trying to soothe with comfort sex, stress eating, and the walking-around-rehearsing-what-you’re-going-to-say behavior familiar to anyone who’s had to make a big public presentation.

So when they start the press conference by simply opening the floor to questions, it seems kind of daring, in a nerdy tightrope-walking anything can happen context. Will there be accusations of pornography? Loose morals? As it turns out, no, not really.

Historically, Masters and Johnson did hold a series of 2-hour meetings with the press to discuss their work, but most science reporters left impressed with the couple and their results. Some of the choicer lines from the book reviews that came out of those meetings are actually used in the episode. Johnson’s pre-talk practice lines as she dresses paraphrase real-life JAMA comments about teaching reproductive anatomy but ignoring function. And one reporter, at the close of the episode, delivers lines from a real-life review of the book: “If we are inclined to regard sexual union as something so sacrosanct that it should not be open to investigation, we should remember that a similar view was taken regarding the stars in Galileo’s day.” Let me tell you, any day your research gets compared to Galileo is a good day.

As a result, most of the drama in the episode is built on Masters and Johnson’s fraught relationships with their children, as seen in a series of flashbacks to a lake vacation four months earlier. If their scientific work is about to be an amazing success, their home lives are a rolling disaster.

Johnson’s now inexplicably late-teen children (I know kids grow up fast, but a prepubescent child does not get to be almost 18 in just four years except in a soap opera) are making all the bad choices. She walks in on her son mid-coitus with his new girlfriend; her daughter is stealing cigarettes and drinking. Masters’ wife is getting through each day on tranquilizers, his son is a walking mass of insecurity and suppressed rage, and I kept waiting for his young daughter or the baby to fall into the lake when no one was watching.

And since the galleys for Human Sexual Response arrive right before the big mixed-family family vacation, “the work” becomes the child that’s getting all the attention. It throws Masters into full dick mode: instead of setting the galleys aside for the weekend, he brings them along and locks himself into the front bedroom with a red pencil and an endless supply of coffee.


The results are pure soap. After a “you’re not the boss of me” argument with his mother, Henry Johnson walks right in front of a car and gets hit, triggering a full blown PTSD freakout from Libby Masters. Later, at the hospital, Henry reveals that he’s planning to enlist, triggering an “I don’t want my son to die in Vietnam” freakout from Virginia. While most of the adults are at the hospital, Johnson’s daughter takes the opportunity to get drunk, take off her clothes and kiss Masters. His son sees this, and during his freakout grabs the precious galleys for the book and throws them in the lake. You knew they were going to wind up there eventually, didn’t you? That was Chekov’s lake.

In the aftermath, Masters does seem to soften, asking his wife to read the book and give him an honest opinion of it. And Libby Masters pretty much admits to Johnson that she knows about the affair, and will put up with it to spare her children the pain of a divorce. She’s probably making a mistake – but history puts their real divorce a few years in the future. Until we get to 1971, the adventures of this blended marriage still has lots of opportunities to give the children more pain.


Through both the first and second season of the show, one ongoing theme has been Masters’ and Johnson’s obsession with their study. Ultimately, their problem isn’t the science they’re trying to do, it’s their obsessive focus on it that’s mucking up the rest of their lives. I hope they get back to focusing on their obsession in the lab in the rest of this season, rather than its outcome on people who didn’t even exist historically (all of the children are actually made up for the show). The end of the episode, which hints at a pregnancy for Virginia Johnson, doesn’t make me think that’s going to happen.

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