You give your hand to me
And then you say, “Goodbye”
And I watched you walk away
Beside the lucky guy
Oh, you’ll never ever know
The one who loved you so
No you don’t know me
I haven’t gotten the chance to write about Masters of Sex yet during this, its first season but just because I haven’t had the opportunity to put words down doesn’t mean I haven’t been enjoying the show immensely. Big picture, I agree with more or less everything everyone else has been writing and it doesn’t make sense to reiterate all of it here. Michael Sheen, A+. Lizzy Caplan, taking her first big opportunity as a dramatic lead and running with it in great ways. Allison Janney, Annaleigh Ashford, and Julianne Nicholson, blowing me away with their work as part of the supporting cast. Masters has grown from its first episode to now in a lot of ways, putting it near the top of my inner list for one of the best shows on television. Until now, however, the show hasn’t found the need to utilize music from the era it takes place in as anything more than a footnote to these characters and their life in and around Washington University.
Unlike Mad Men, the show it shares a time period with, although not the critical acclaim or storytelling prowess (yet), Masters does not worry itself with overt symbolism through music. Through imagery? Absolutely. The scene last week where Allison Janney and Teddy Sears drifted in a pool together and talked about floating was about as obvious as symbolism can get on television without a large neon sign accompanying the actors on screen. This isn’t to say the symbolism throughout Masters has been poor or negates the show’s quality, just that there is an overwhelming amount of it that is easy to pick up on. Thusly, there really isn’t a need for the soundtrack to add to it, and I’m glad they haven’t gone that direction. It doesn’t make sense for a production to be anchored down by royalty costs and legal fees to use a piece of iconic music from whatever era if it won’t add to the show in an effective storytelling manner. Especially on a show where sometimes the silences or uncomfortable pauses between two people are the best part.
Last night’s episode, “Phallic Victories” (they do love their sexual puns), was the first time where a song rather than a conversation or a memory was so obviously meant to evoke the mood surrounding some or all of the characters as the episode came to a close. We learned previously this season that Virginia was a former club singer back before her children arrived and that that career was where she met her eventual ex-husband. There have been drips of information about what type of person she was during her time as a singer, George’s description of their relationship in his meeting with Bill being the most informative example. What we can take from the few details the show has given us is that Virginia was a more immature person but not all that different on the inside than she is now. From the outside, other characters see her as having it all together and being completely different than she was all those years ago which we hear over and over from Ethan and George here. It really doesn’t seem like Virginia agrees with them though. She all but rebuffs Ethan’s proposal in bed at the end of the episode even though she’s OK with him watching the kids, and continues to help Bill from behind the scenes with Jane’s help. She might seem like someone who lets things go and moves on to the next goal to everyone else but the audience can see through this as someone who lingers and regrets and wishes she could make everyone happy while wishing they would stop making things so complicated at the same time.
So the show works hard to make it clear how much her ex-husband and current boyfriend see her as a completely different person; “before singer” and “after singer”. Meanwhile, every action Virginia takes shows just how much this is untrue. She may have stopped singing, even around the house or under her breath, in order to further remove herself from her past but it will take more than that to truly separate herself from the type of person she doesn’t want to be moving forward. George shoves it in Ethan’s face that marriage involved or not, he’ll never see her in the same light without seeing her sing. Ethan takes it in stride, but you can see how much it needles at him all the way through to the point where he tells her he would support whatever she wants to do in life. He may have said that could include finishing her schooling, staying at home with the kids, or anything else she wanted, but would that include going back to singing if she really wanted to? Or would he draw a line as a successful doctor and husband? You have to imagine that would be the case if the situation arose, seeing how much he cares about her and wants to do better than George in the husband role but it’s interesting that it was never a problem for him what she worked as in the past. Chances are we’ll never have the chance to find out how he would react as we know she doesn’t end up with Ethan when all is said and done and she loves medicine so much there wouldn’t be a reason for her to sing professionally again but it is an interesting dichotomy.
Amidst all this talk of Virginia being a singer and what that means, we are reminded again and again that she doesn’t sing anymore and that we as the audience have never heard her do so. George speaking of how she was on stage with the two of them interacting gives us a glimpse of what type of club singer she might have been but so does her interactions with every man in the show. It’s obvious she had the same hold over men from the stage as she has from behind a desk, willingly or otherwise. We don’t see Ethan ask her directly to sing at the fair that they and the kids attend and without that knowledge the meaning here is somewhat up in the air. Does he ask her to step into the booth to perform a rendition of Eddie Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” so he can see that side of her? Or does she volunteer when she sees the booth sitting there because she wants to know what it feels like to enrapture somebody with her voice again after all that time. The intermittent shots of her waiting for the elevator at the hospital and eventually getting on the same one as Bill are clearly meant to draw parallels between the song lyrics and their relationship, but that same line could be drawn between her and any other man on the show. They don’t know her, at least not like they think they do. Most of who she is from the outside, whether it be sharing a life with “that lucky guy” Ethan or helping Lillian with her work, means different things based on who is taking the assessment.
The lyrics could also be referencing Bill’s current situation even though it is Virginia singing them. Take the stanza at the top of the page, for example. During their time as colleagues and more than that, Bill and Virginia never let their feelings be revealed to the other. They danced around them, sure, but never voiced them outright. There was overwhelming evidence that Bill felt more for Virginia than she did for him and it was torturing him not to be able to act on it outside of the cover of the study, and now that he knows she and Ethan are a pair he’s lost his chance. The woman he loves ran off with the doctor he blames for them no longer being able to sleep together in the first place, and he feels more alone than ever. So the episode ends with her singing in a booth by herself as her children and boyfriend look on and him in an elevator with her as he keeps tabs on her activities (slightly creepily) from afar. No matter how many people they’re surrounded by at work or out of it though, we can see the truth quite clearly. No one knows them quite as well as they know each other, and until they make up as colleagues or as something more they will be quite alone.