How Masters Of Sex Went From A Great Show To A Major Disappointment

Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
The season 3 opener of Masters of Sex makes us wary of what's to come, especially given the treatment of one teenage female character.

Thanks to a handy time jump, the story has now progressed well into the '60s, and the season 3 premiere is framed around a press conference for Virginia Johnson and William Masters' landmark book Human Sexual Response. During flashbacks to a lakefront weekend away, we meet the grown-up (well, sort of) version of Tessa, Virginia's daughter. Virginia, Bill, and Libby have formed a strange sort of family unit. Henry, Virginia’s son, calls Libby his “aunt.” Libby knows the nature of Bill and Virginia’s relationship, but still acts as a friend to Virginia.

It's not surprising that a kid like Tessa (played by Isabelle Fuhrman of The Hunger Games) might be a little confused about her unconventional arrangement. But that doesn’t make us feel any less disappointed in the episode's shocking moment that feels both unnecessary and cheap.

Tessa is presented as your run-of-the-mill troublemaker. She take drags of her mother’s cigarettes and has a taste for liquor. Her anger at Virginia, who at the end of season 2 saw her children taken away by ex-husband George, is understandable. Virginia, meanwhile, wants Bill to talk to Tessa about sex, arguing that he can be the frightening father figure she needs to stay out of trouble.

Bill and Tessa exhibit a begrudging acceptance of one another when she pesters him into taking a short respite from editing the book to drive her to get Kotex. Tessa is eager to hear that Bill thinks she is at least somewhat closer to adulthood. Later, back at home, Bill finds a drunk Tessa passed out in the bathtub. Seeing him, she takes off her dress, and though he recoils, she grabs and kisses him. As he’s struggling to pull her off of him, his young son, John, sees them and explodes with anger. Bill tries to explain the situation, but John goes for Bill's weakest spot and throws the manuscript into the lake, at which point Bill raises his fist at his son. The focus snaps abruptly away from the girl's sexually forward move and desire to be touched and onto Bill, who sees the ghost of his own father in himself as he reprimands his son. Tessa is left behind in the bathtub, and any further exploration of her inner life is cast aside, almost carelessly.

The episode largely centers around Masters and Johnson as parents, and how their dedication to their work has been damaging to the people around them. The cliffhanger revelation that Virginia is pregnant promises to further complicate matters. But the Tessa moment leaves behind a particular sting. Here we have an undeveloped female character whose budding sexuality seems merely to serve a plot device for a male character's grappling with his relationship to fatherhood. I'm willing to stick it out for a bit to see whether the show retroactively delves deeper into Tessa's character or whether she becomes the show's Dana Brody. But for a show that's been so admirable in its depiction of female sexuality, Tessa's slipshod introduction is unfortunate.
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