When Showtime debuted its new series Masters of Sex, about pioneering sex researchers Masters and Johnson, we wondered if and how the show would handle the gay thing. M&J had what can be charitably described as a problematic relationship with homosexuality, running a clinic purporting to convert homosexuals with a claimed 71% effective rate (Virginia Johnson would later allow that figure was an exaggeration). Add to that the 1950s period setting and the general repression of non-standard sexuality in America in general and there had to be concern that gay people would be rendered invisible on the series.
We needn’t have worried. In addition to kicking off with a three-episode arc featuring lesbian prostitute Betty DiMello (Annaleigh Ashford), Showtime slipped a stealth gay character into the series, and his story is not only the most interesting one in the show, it’s probably one of the best gay storylines that’s made it to TV this season.
Beau Bridges plays Barton Scully, the provost of the university at which Masters and Johnson initiate their study. Margaret, his wife, is played by Allison Janney.
On paper practically the perfect couple, the Scullys have been married for 30 years and have a 19 year-old daughter. Barton is gracious and charming but also unhesitating to exercise his authority over Masters and the other doctors on his staff. Margaret initially comes off as clever and controlled, throwing out bons mots like “Men don’t know what they want, that’s why they have wives” and puncturing some of Barton’s charm by revealing that his delightful story of how they met is a fabrication, that he ignored her for two weeks until she finally asked him out under the ruse of a Sadie Hawkins dance.
Privately the marriage is both calcified and a shambles. The couple sleeps, not just in separate beds, but in separate bedrooms. Barton hasn’t touched his wife sexually for six years and she can’t tell Masters & Johnson whether she’s ever had an orgasm because she can’t imagine what one might feel like. She’s crumbling but Barton is so oblivious that he rebuffs even a mild suggestion from his daughter that the couple go out after dinner for ice cream or a movie.
The reason for Barton’s thoughtlessness is given early on. Fearing for the university’s reputation should the details of Masters and Johnson’s study become public knowledge, Barton bans the study from campus. The researchers set up at a local bordello where Masters meets a male prostitute named Dale (Finn Wittrock) who demonstrates gay sex with fellow prostitute Carl (Bobby Campo).
Dale tracks Masters down on campus, eager to help him line up more men for the study. Masters, obviously uncomfortable with the performance, tells Dale that he won’t be studying homosexuals. Dale says it’s the second time someone in the medical field has “f*cked” him.
Later, Masters again tries to convince Barton to allow the study back on campus. When Masters first threatens the financial stability of the university, Barton’s rage at the defiance of an underling breaks his usually genial facade. Then Masters switches tactics, using the information Dale divulged about Barton’s sexuality to blackmail Barton into lifting his ban. This damages almost irreparably Barton’s mentor and surrogate father relationship with Masters, one that has endured for over a decade, and only the tragic miscarriage of Masters’ unborn daughter allows them to begin repairing it.
Barton continues his relationship with Dale,and even plans a three-day getaway with Dale to New York City, only for those plans to be scuttled when Barton is gay bashed and stabbed while waiting for Dale, who charges in and rescues him from his assailants. Dale takes him to the hospital, where Barton tries to treat himself in Masters’ lab (since he can’t risk a trip to the emergency room and the attendant questions). Masters finds him and, while stitching his wound, berates him for endangering himself, his family, his career and the university. “Is it worth it, to meet some boy in an alley?”
Meanwhile, Margaret has started an affair of her own, with Dr. Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), one of her husband’s subordinates. It’s her first meaningful sexual relationship and Langham’s an amoral womanizer so of course she invests herself in it far more deeply than he does, leading to the quick end of the affair. During one of their trysts Barton arrives home unexpectedly and hears that Margaret isn’t alone. He simply goes to his room at her request. The next morning she asks why he doesn’t want to know about the man he almost caught in her bed and is stupefied by his response: “I trust you to tell me what I need to know.” She accuses him of being with other women (which he truthfully denies) and after initially blaming herself for his lack of desire for her demands to know what’s the matter with him. He can only reassure her that he loves her but his words ring hollow.
Things come to a head in the episode that aired this past Sunday, with Margaret, seeking a new encounter, runs into Dale while he’s waiting for gay hustler Barton in a hotel bar. Barton arrives and tries to pass Dale off as a grad student. Margaret flees to the ladies’ room and Barton follows her in and she confronts him. He claims Dale is a pimp and he was at the bar to meet a prostitute. His facade slips and he lashes out, angrily suggesting they split the cost of a room with whoever she’s “fucking”. Then he bursts into tears and refuses Margaret’s attempts to console him.
The next morning Barton comes into Margaret’s room, catching her almost nude, and suggests a date night at the local drive-in. She’s non-plussed but game. At the drive-in he makes a token romantic overture but she’s more interested in discussing how the sight of her nearly-naked body did nothing for him but he still looked at her with such love. All he can think to say is how much he does love her but it’s no longer enough; she wants a divorce.
Barton approaches Masters ostensibly to inquire about the study but really to learn if Masters has heard of ways that people can change their sexual “habits”. Masters tells him about aversion therapy, in which the patient ingests a drug to induce nausea to make the “habit” less appealing and rewire the brain. Barton clandestinely obtains the drug and hires Dale to pleasure himself in front of him.
Dale absolutely refuses, saying that while he’s not proud to be what he is and wishes for change at least once a day. But at the end of that day “there’s only one person who gets to be sickened by me, and that’s me. Everyone else can go f*ck themselves.” He tells Barton to call him if he changes his mind.
It’s a tough story to watch, but it’s also the most interesting arc in the series. I honestly can’t think of another instance of where this story has been told on television. Bridges and Janney have been killing it all season in their individual scenes but in the last couple of episodes their work together has been breathtaking and heartbreaking. The revelation here is Wittrock as Dale. Appearing in just a few scenes, he’s creating a fully realized character whose motivations remain opaque. He starts off breezy and superficial and definitely gives off an “only in it for the money” vibe. But even from his first appearance, his excitement at the thought of contributing something to science and his disappointment at being shut out of the study are palpable. And his anger at Barton’s plan to change his sexual “habits” is genuine; you can readily believe Dale could wind up throwing bricks at Stonewall. Dale could very easily have been just a plot contrivance, a vehicle to convey the blackmail information to Masters and nothing more. Instead he’s probably the most self-aware and rational characters in the cast.
Possibly my favorite moment is also one of the smallest. Margaret has a scene with Austin in which she explains how important he is to her, concluding by kissing his hand. Later in the same episode, after the stabbing, Barton has a scene with Dale in which he explains how important Dale is to him, concluding by kissing his hand. It’s a terrific little parallel between the two pairs, asserting that Barton’s feelings for another man are as valid as Margaret’s.
The story has largely been played out in isolation from the other characters, with only Masters having any knowledge of Barton and Dale’s true relationship. It has informed Masters’s characterization in a way that is desperately needed. His decision to exclude homosexuals from the study comes as much from his distaste for it as any legitimate scientific concern, and the inclusion of this side plot helps contextualize the historical Masters and Johnson’s conversion clinic. His willingness to use Barton’s sexuality against him crystallizes his character initially as manipulative and selfish, but his words to Barton while patching him up, while harsh, also came from a place of concern and respect.
Which is not to say that the story and series are perfect. In a series brimming with sexual encounters to date there has only been one gay sex scene, and it lasted less than 30 seconds. In fact, Barton’s gay bashing took up more screen time than the gay sex and it’s troubling that it remains easier to show images of violence against gay men on television than it is to show affection between them. Additionally, where the series has brightly lit every other scene of intimacy, by contrast the gay sex scene looked like it was illuminated by an Itty Bitty Book Light:
Masters of Sex and Showtime are certainly not alone in their conservative approach to presenting gay male sexuality on-screen for its straight male demographic. Showtime, though, has probably been better than any other premium cable network regarding gay inclusion and gay sexuality. With Masters of Sex the network has continued to build on that inclusivity with a truly compelling story.