Masters of Sex 1.09 “Involuntary” Recap

By Shilo Adamson November 24, 2013

masters of sexAfter another one of their sessions in the exam room, Virginia and Bill compare the battle scars that have come from their time together, the bruises on her hips and the scratches on his back. She then reminds him to fill out her performance evaluation that’s due soon and the following day, after he helps Libby through some morning sickness she says was brought on by turkey tetrazzini, Bill and Virginia conclude that the markings on their body are from involuntary spasms. Rather than as a result of passion, they’re simply physiological, patterned responses to the act of sex, something that Bill can’t wait to begin studying. His plan? To film the responses, using Jane as their first test subject.

Ethan meets with Vivian for cake tasting and when she arrives, she mentions that a male patient disrobed in front of her and his penis looked like an anteater. Ethan then explains what an uncircumcised penis is and that Jews, like his parents, tend to keep their male children uncircumcised. Even though his parents are practicing Jews, Ethan doesn’t claim any sense of religion, making him Jewish on a technicality, but that technicality is enough to weird Vivian out. She feels silly not knowing that the man she’s going to marry is Jewish and since she wants a church wedding, it might cause problems between the two. Virginia approaches Jane about the next round of filming and learns of her friend’s rules: anything above the collar bone and any identifying characteristics (e.g. her appendix scar) are off limits to filming; she gets the whole agreement put into a contract like a movie star; the film won’t be shown to anyone before her; and she’ll get shot from the right whenever possible.

Essie and Libby plot in the kitchen on how to get a coffee urn down from a high shelf. Essie wants Libby, the taller of the two, to get on a step ladder and fetch it, but as Libby’s pregnant (yet unable to say the words), she refuses. While Essie thinks that Libby should tell Bill about the pregnancy, Libby simply encourages her to spend more time with her son and make the effort to form the family that she always wanted. While Vivian goes into an Orthodox Temple and gets chased out due to women not being allowed, Virginia learns that she received a 99 on her anatomy exam, much higher than the 60s and 70s most of her classmates were getting. In fact, a couple of them even ask her to lead their study group in hopes of boosting their scores by finding out what she’s doing that works so well. Bill arrives home and finds that Libby’s in bed yet Essie’s still awake. As he fixes a drink, she tries to tell him a story from his childhood and asks about his day, including the study that he spends so much time at the hospital working in. He tries to shock her by admitting that it’s a sex study and that he watches people masturbate and fornicate, but she acknowledges that sex has been around a long time, even predating her, and that Francis had quite the sexual appetite himself.

Vivian and Ethan visit a priest in hopes of taking the steps necessary for him to convert, which include finding a sponsor to help familiarize him with the Bible and standing up in church to take the Holy Sacrament. Meanwhile, Virginia delegates responsibilities in her study group, assigning certain sections of the body to certain peers in hopes of spreading the workload and taking the pressure off of everyone. However, the guys in the group question the merits of her grades and whether there’s some sort of “sisterhood thing” between her and Dr. DePaul, in addition to wondering if the reason she’s doing so well is because she’s taken this class enough times that a monkey could ace it. Back at the Masters house, Libby and Essie deal with a bird that crashed into their screen door and the former confesses that her father disappeared days after her mother died, something that she had never even told Bill before. While she and her sisters assumed the worst, a neighbor eventually tracked him to Virginia and ever since, all Libby wanted was the family that she never got to have when she was little.

Lester, Masters, and Virginia watch as Jane brings herself to climax, taking note to focus on the spasms of her body and paying no attention to her face. When they finish, Essie arrives unexpectedly with dinner, not allowing them time to find somewhere to take the footage and have it edited. Lester is uncomfortable with bringing it to the boys in the lab, calling what they’re doing pornography, and they all wind up sitting around the table, eating while Essie asks them questions about the study. Virginia informs her of the nature of the research they’re conducting that night and Essie takes note of how she knows that Bill doesn’t like black olives, a small source of intimacy that speaks volumes about the closeness of their relationship. Virginia then fishes out her evaluation from Bill and reads it aloud, not knowing that he calls her an invaluable asset and someone whose enthusiasm and dedication has been of great benefit to him. Embarrassed, Bill feigns needing to run an errand at 10:00 at night and leaves the room.

Eventually, Virginia wrangles Bill into taking their footage to a nearby adult store in hopes of getting it edited that night. Jane specifically told her that she didn’t want to leave the tape with anyone, lest duplicates be made, and after the two watch a nickel show together, critiquing the actress, Bill defends Virginia’s honor when the store clerk suggests that she should be in pictures. Elsewhere, Vivian’s smothering has gotten to Ethan, who’s having a definite crisis of faith about the impending conversion. He gets so distracted by his frustration at not being able to joke about the situation that he accidentally runs into a guy with his car, only he’s the one who ends up injured when he faints after finding out the guy is okay.

Virginia gets a visit from one of her classmates, upset that she blew off their study group the previous night. As she doesn’t have the time at night and they’re in class during the day, they soon figure out that this arrangement isn’t beneficial to either of them, but he still decides to ask to copy her notes even after guilt tripping her. At lunch, Virginia tries to sit with masters of sexthe other secretaries and finds that there’s no room at their table; also feeling out of the loop regarding personal developments for one of her own, she opts to sit by herself, only to be joined by Dr. DePaul, who tells her of similar situations she underwent in med school. Her solution for never feeling like she fit in? Focus on the work, as that’s what endures. Essie drops by Bill’s office unannounced and tells him that the worst thing that she ever done was not speak up, implying that she should have said something about the abuse he dealt with from his father. She also mentions how her husband’s sexual appetite wasn’t for her but for his secretary Eleanor, all long nails and high heels, and that she senses something similar between him and Virginia. Masters takes great offense at the implication, especially when she compares Francis to him and advises him to talk to Libby.

As Haas gets ready to be discharged from the hospital, he has a conversation with his roommate, a religious older man who offers him prayer cards. Ethan explains that he doesn’t really have a religion, with the older man mentioning that his MIT-educated son worshiped numbers and how being a doctor is something like a religion itself. He gets Ethan to talk about what made him decide to become a doctor (a love of math/science, a push from a professor, expectations from parents) and how the one time he tried to go after sometime, it didn’t work, that he’s been floating for a long time. At the Masters home, Bill finds out that Libby is pregnant and questions how that could be possible without some type of medical intervention. She attempts to brush off the how in favor of the fact that it happened, urging him that they need to forgive one another and begin building the family that they always wanted, only for the conversation to turn into an argument. Libby claims that there’s no humanity in the research that Bill does, that sex is about making life and that what she sees when she looks at him is a man lost in space, calling out and hoping to hear something in return.

During breakfast, Ethan decides to try something different and skip out on the bacon, citing how he rebelled against the idea of being kosher when he was younger and how he never asked his father why it was such an important thing. He then informs Vivian that he’s not going to convert and that he knows she can’t marry a Jew, since she wants to have the church wedding that she always dreamed of. Vivian tries to get him to reconsider what he’s saying, claiming that he picked her, but he thinks that he should care about something and reminds her that she picked up. In his mind, Vivian is the perfect girl for 20-year-old Ethan but pushing 30 Ethan? Not as much. Meanwhile, Jane watches the footage that Lester shot of her masturbating and finds that it crosses the invisible line that she set for herself. Although she loves sex and the feeling of being aroused, it’s always been an internal thing for her and not something that she wanted anyone to be able to see, so she gets Virginia to promise to destroy it. Jane also ends up giving back the money that she was paid, since it made her feel like a prostitute.

The solution? Virginia volunteers to take Jane’s place, seeing as how she believes in the work and knows that it will endure. However, she only wants Bill in the room at the time; he ends up joining her, only to move the camera to her face for much of the time she pleasures herself. Before she can take the footage over to the shop herself, Bill gives her an envelope full of money that he felt he owed her since, in his mind, he had been taking advantage of her. He pays her for the times they participated and her activities that night, causing her to go to the car and cry. Ethan checks in on her as Bill watches from a window, upset at having to end his participation in the study. Virginia then sets about writing her own performance review and emphasizes the advice of trying not to take the work personally and detaching herself from what goes on in the exam room.

Additional thoughts and observations:
-There are two modes that I like my Masters of Sex - really funny or really sad. And this episode was decidedly in the latter camp (that ending!), even with the absence of the Margaret/Barton plot. Just imagine the devastation that could have been wrought if they were given even a few minutes of episode time.
-I didn’t realize I was as invested in the Ethan/Vivian relationship as I apparently am, because their breakup was devastatingly written and had some serious depth to it. It was perfectly in line with who the show has painted Ethan to be, the directionless man stuck in the gray area of an ever-changing society (conservative upbringing/liberal look at sex, his parents’ dreams/his dreams, Christianity/Judaism), and was the type of personal epiphany that, while painful for those around him, could lead to the type of growth that he had been longing for. Do I think Ethan is going to suddenly become The Greatest Jew on the Planet? No, I don’t even know that he’ll stick with this renewed sense of faith beyond the next episode, even, but the idea of standing for something and no longer letting yourself float through life is powerful stuff and dynamite for character development.
-I like how Jane looked at the research as both her chance to act like a movie star and become a scientific revolutionary. Quite a lot of accomplishment for touching oneself and letting other people watch/film. But I get why she didn’t want the footage to get out – it’s one thing for people you trust to watch it and it’s a whole other beast when that footage gets out into the world, potentially coming back to bite you in the end. Plus, it was a morally gray addition to the episode, that question of where your line is and whether you consider what Jane was doing to be pornography.
-It was good that they explained why Libby is so adamant about having a family and why her definition of family includes at least one child for her and Bill to take care of. Her reasoning is much more sympathetic than what she told Ethan last week, but why is she acting so wounded over Bill not being around when she’s not exactly been honest with him about her past and the reason she wants a child so badly? I know it’s a different time and people didn’t necessarily talk openly about issues like hers and Bill’s; it just makes her look a tiny bit hypocritical, expecting him to be honest with her when she hasn’t done him the same courtesy.
-I would complain about the ending shot being another idealized version of Virginia (similar to the ending of this episode), but two things: 1) the show made a point to throw obstacles in her way during this episode, so it wasn’t a total Virginia love-fest (granted, some of them were nameless medical bros who weren’t exactly a challenge to look good against) and 2) I think the shot was as much how Masters viewed Virginia as how the shot looked in the video.
-Nice use of Essie here, including bringing back the abuse that Bill suffered and how, try as he might to avoid it, he ended up absorbing some of who his father was. It was also a good move to undercut her telling him that she should have spoken up with her coming down on him for treating Libby like Francis treated her.
-Interesting argument with Bill and Libby, in that neither one of them was in the right – the former spends too much time at work and ignores his marriage as a result; the latter shouldn’t have gotten pregnant without telling him and is naïve in thinking that bringing a child will automatically make Bill love her more. The show does best when it straddles that line and makes you question where your own stance lies on sensitive issues, that type of provocation backed up with depth and warmth that has made Masters of Sex such a good show.
-Was Perry Mason the original TV anti-hero? Talk amongst yourselves.
-Here’s a recipe for turkey tetrazzini, in case anyone’s interested. Also, an article on circumcision rates declining in the United States.
-Next week on Masters of Sex: A hospital civil defense drill causes tension among the staff, while a former study participant turns up pregnant, Haas learns he’s been denied a future job at another hospital, and Margaret seeks answers about Barton’s sexuality.

About The Author

Shilo Adams is a contributing editor for ScreenFad whose work has appeared on TVOvermind, TVHackr, and KSiteTV. You can e-mail him at or follow him on Twitter @shilo_adams.


  • MoSFan

    “Ethan then explains what an uncircumcised penis is and that Jews, like
    his parents, tend to keep their male children uncircumcised.”

    Thank you for your article, but the quote above is incorrect. Jewish parents DO have their sons circumcised, traditionally. Removing the foreskin of the penis of male babies is an important symbolic and cultural tradition in the Jewish faith. This is why Vivian was so surprised by the uncircumcised penis. She has only ever had sex with Ethan, who is Jewish, and therefore circumcised. She falsely assumed that Ethan’s penis was what a penis naturally looked liked, when in fact that look is only achieved by circumcision. She was ignorant of this fact, and therefore surprised by the uncircumcised penis.

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