By Sara MacDonald, Guest Blogger
Masters of Sex, the critically acclaimed Showtime series, has several points of comparison to AMC’s Mad Men. Set roughly during the same time period and impeccably styled, the two series chronicle the tumult and transformation of the United States during the 1950s and 60s. Further, each series interrogates the philosophic principles that are at the foundation of the American regime by following the personal and professional lives of its primary characters. In so doing, the very structure of the show is revelatory of a larger account about liberal democratic regimes: the individual freedom enjoyed in one’s private and civic life is the grounds of a regime’s stability and goodness.
Masters of Sex roughly follows the personal and professional developments of William (Bill) Masters and Virginia Johnston, ground breaking researchers of human sexuality and fertility. If the characters of Mad Men are in part interesting because of how they respond to the sexual revolution, the characters of Masters are in an essential way the cause of that revolution. The very premise of their research is whether humans can be freed from the arbitrary stigmas and conventions surrounding human sexuality. In other words, if it is assumed that human happiness is dependent on the satisfaction of an individual’s most subjective desires, the question is merely how this might be most efficiently achieved. Bill Masters is the perfect the poster boy for the series’ premise—for as the show begins he is as straight-laced, even repressed, as one can imagine. His interest in human sexuality seems from the very beginning to be a personal one and through the first two seasons, Bill’s research, both professionally and personally has the affect of liberating him from all kinds of conventions, including marital fidelity, as he begins an affair with Virginia, and paternal obligations, all but ignoring his son.
Season Three, however, marks a shift, the subtlety or argument of which most reviewers did not sufficiently appreciate, for it explicitly takes up the question of whether being freed from all restraints and inhibitions is in fact possible or even desirable. In essence, Season Three examines our desire to be freed from all limits, including those of our nature, and counters that our natural limitations and the obligations that result from them are instead the foundation of our satisfaction. With Viet Nam raging in the background and periodically asserting its presence throughout Season Three, we learn that what is true for the individual is also true for the regime, for justice, it is implied, depends on the recognition of a community’s limits and dependence and obligation to its citizens and the rest of the world.
Bill, who has sought to escape from the obligations of traditional relationships, is given what he wants and the people that he now knows he cares about, all begin to slip away from him. His wife Libby begins her own affair, with their neighbor, while his son refuses his attempts to rekindle their relationship. Finally, even Virginia, appears to be moving on, having begun a relationship with someone who offers her all of the stability that Bill does not. On the brink of being freed, Bill now realizes the degree to which his happiness is dependent not on his absolute liberation, but rather a reciprocated care and obligation to others.
Previously inept at explaining the importance of their research, the now mature Bill is asked at lecture as to whether or not their research, turning the mysteries of sex into data, isn’t potentially dangerous to human relationships. Bill responds that they don’t research the nature of love because it cannot be turned into graphs or represented by numbers. Comparing love to gravity, Bill explains that love is not a force exerted by one body on another; it is instead the very fabric of those bodies (3.5). In other words, in studying both the theory of individual sexual satisfaction and experiencing it himself, Bill realizes that while sexual climax can be measured and predicted, physical satisfaction is not the same as happiness, and human nature requires more than just the momentary pleasure of a sexual act. To be fulfilled, human nature requires all of the obligations caught up in the love and care that traditionally accompany those acts. Further, Bill realizes that fully participating in these relationships has the affect of making one’s sexual relationships all the more fulfilling. In other words, by serving the good of the people he loves, Bill discovers that he is personally fulfilled both mentally or spiritually and physically.
Bill’s choice of language about the nature of love is important. At the beginning of the season, Virginia’s son, Henry, enlisted in Viet Nam, hoping to be liberated from the problems of his family. Later in the season, Virginia and her new lover, Dan, are held up by a nineteen year old boy who has just returned from the war and is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress. The war is an act of force of one body on another. The end or purpose of the war is supremacy, and thus power and freedom from possible external or global restraints. As Virginia knows, with respect to her son, and Bill knows, with respect to Virginia and his family, achieving and even merely seeking such freedom comes at a great cost. Whatever Bill understood as the original purpose of his research, in Season Three he describes it is to bring the “shattered parts” of human nature together so that the “wounds” caused by society’s and our own activity can be healed (3.7). While Bill is specifically trying to tell Virginia how much she means to him, by juxtaposing the series’ focus on human sexuality with the conflict in Viet Nam, Season Three reads somewhat like Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. Sex, when separated from the obligations of care, family, and community is akin to a war that is motivated by desires unrelated to justice. Separated from their proper ends, sexual activity and war become all-consuming, for if raw physical pleasure or power is one’s end, then these activities must be unceasing. Through the course of Season Three, Bill Masters comes to realize that liberation does not occur when one is freed from all obligation, instead, liberty stems from understanding that these obligations are the foundation of one’s satisfaction.
Co-editor of Mad Men: The Death and Redemption of American Democracy, Sara MacDonald is professor in the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University.