'Masters of Sex': EP Sarah Timberman on what's next for Masters and Johnson

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Image Credit: Showtime

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the season 1 finale of Masters of Sex, stop reading now. If you have seen the episode, click through for Executive Producer Sarah Timberman’s take on the final moments of “Manhigh.”

A man shows up at a woman’s door to profess his feelings — in the pouring rain. It could have come off as clichéd, but Masters of Sex’s first season has carved out a more complex dynamic for its leads William Masters (Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan). Based on real-life sex scientists Masters and Johnson, the Golden Globe-nominated series wrapped up its first season Sunday night with a jaw-dropping ending: After presenting the study’s initial findings to his hostile colleagues at the university, a dejected Masters shows up on Johnson’s doorstep and tells her, “I have nothing to offer you except maybe the truth: I finally realized that there is one thing that I can’t live without — it’s you. You.” Cut to black.

Once in control of every aspect of his life, Masters has seen his professional and personal worlds unravel and, despite recent strain in his relationship with Virginia — who had sex with him as part of the study before realizing his feelings (and perhaps hers, too) were more than strictly professional — she is the only one to whom he wants to turn. With the silence still hanging between them and the door literally open on their relationship, Timberman weighs in on what the moment meant and what’s in store for Sex in season 2.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What a cliffhanger! What I found interesting is that Masters doesn’t actually say he loves Johnson — he just says that he can’t live without her. It’s a contrast to Ethan (Nicholas D’Agosto), who loves her and says it all the time and basically offers her the moon and the stars. Both men can provide Virginia with a certain amount of stability, but what’s more important to her? Why is she drawn to both of them?
SARAH TIMBERMAN: It was the aim of everyone involved in the show to really present Virginia with what are, at least on paper, several viable options — and there’s really a third option which is to continue her work with Doctor DePaul [Julianne Nicholson]. The end of the season sort of underscores the theme of really the entire show, which is that romantic desire and the human heart are mysterious things, and we want the things we want. As you say, on paper Ethan Haas is offering her everything that in theory that she could hope for. And yet, she’s drawn to Masters and drawn to the study for reasons that are incredibly complex. None of it adds up rationally, but one of the sort of ironies of the show, and of the whole season, is that, Masters is endeavoring to pin down,  scientifically, something that is ultimately very intangible. It’s about the mystery of the human condition.

I’m glad it works as a cliffhanger because the desire is certainly to leave very much up in the air and to leave some very compelling questions to be answered. I’ll tell you that even what happens between Masters and Johnson in that moment after the doorstep is open to interpretation by each of them, which is what we all do in any relationship. You hope you’re on the same page as another person when you’re engaged in a friendship or in a romance or in a professional relationship — but in the end, what happens between people in life is so highly subjective. Where it picks up, in season 2 is a very provocative exploration of how things are experienced differently — how the same moment can be experienced differently by different people.

That’s what’s so captivating about the show. There is this historical script, but you kind of never know which way the story’s going to go.
It’s certainly our intention to explore the ambiguity of it all. We’re all these mixed bags and the show isn’t afraid to look at that — [the characters'] flaws and contradictory behavior. We’re all capable of a certain greatness and awfulness, and you see the spectrum in these characters.

It’s interesting to look at Bill and Ethan’s opposite trajectories — and how they end up putting the viewer in the same place emotionally. Bill is at the top of his game, he’s in control of everything, and by the end of the season, he comes to Virginia and says, “I have nothing to offer you.” It’s like he’s been broken.
There was always a card up [in the writers' room]. We always knew that the study would crash and burn at the end, and it’s true to the actual story of Masters and Johnson’s work — they made their presentation in front of the board, and it was an abysmal failure, and people were shocked and appalled, and they had to regroup and really start over. So that was exciting for all of us, to know there was a very traumatic end point to the season that was completely true to the actual experience of Masters and Johnson. And it certainly [puts] all of our characters in a kind of state of turmoil [at the start of season 2] that is exciting dramatically.

You see much more heart from Bill in this episode. It opens him up.
The finale does give you more of a glimpse into his inner life, and I think that Michael has so brilliantly portrayed it. And I think he’s struck such a, just a spectacular balance letting us see the depths of his emotional life, but… it’s a performance that’s so much about a man who needs to exert control. The need for control is of such paramount importance to him that the loss of it becomes something that’s very exciting.

He’s having such a huge moment for himself personally in submitting to that, and then on the other side, you see Masters’ wife Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) with his newborn son, and you wonder what’s going to become of them. 
Yes, season 2 will absolutely explore his ambivalence about parenthood. So much of the foundation of Michael’s performance has to do with his understanding of Masters’ very complicated relationship with his own father, [how] the early trauma in the relationship kind of fueled his drive and his need to sort of control his every aspect of his life. I think it was episode 4 where you first really begin to understand the real emotional turmoil that underlies his meticulous approach to life in the world. It’s a great portrait of conflicting feelings. Michael’s performance is so gorgeous and meticulous, and he thought very carefully about where to give you glimpses of the inner life of this man, so it’s so exciting when you see it because you don’t see it all that often. But the relationship with Masters’ father is critical to understanding of the character.

He also has a father figure in Barton Scully (Beau Bridges), and they have that important conversation before Masters throws himself on the sword for Barton, who says, “I resent that oppressive small-mindedness. I’ve experienced it my whole life.” In Masters’ case, it refers to the university board, but it resonates so much in Barton’s life because of his closeted sexuality.
That last conversation speaks to the fact that Barton’s had to live a life in the shadows, and they’re left at a such a tender moment. [A lot] is left unresolved with Scully’s marriage and how he and his wife will work out a future together. There are so many fantastic questions posed at the end of the season, and we love the fact that Showtime encouraged us to leave so many things open and dangling. We’re trying to figure out how to get that relationship with Scully is not just a professional mentor but kind of a surrogate father for Masters. Despite the fact that Beau and Allison [Janney, who plays Scully's wife Margaret] both have their comedies on the air and are doing well with those, we are hoping we can find some way to work around the edges of those to still allow us to bring them back.

Allison in particular is just stunning. It’s an incredibly strong cast, but she’s just heartbreaking in a small arc that could have been a throwaway.
Yes. The story of their marriage certainly grew in all of our imaginations as the season went on. It certainly wasn’t Michelle [Ashford's] intention in writing the pilot [to make that a major storyline, but] understanding the relationship between Masters and Scully is a key to understanding Masters, and the marriage between Scully and his wife became such rich territory to get back to the central question of the whole theory — what people are supposed to feel versus what they actually feel.

You have this link on the show: So much is advancing in the world, whether technologically or standards of morality, yet every character is still held down in some way by the fact that society hasn’t quite caught up.
That’s such a fantastic aspect of the show to explore — the way in which things have changed and the way in which they’ve stayed so much the same. The study was shocking by 1957 standards, but the study is pretty shocking today. Ultimately, the questions that we feel were most of interest to Masters and Johnson are completely relevant to our own experiences today and our own relationships, and I think that’s why people have responded to the show. It doesn’t feel like you’re sort of looking back through the kind of lens of history at something remote and unrelatable, or no longer relevant. It’s all entirely relevant. We’ve made tremendous progress in terms of how our society views relationships between gay people, but there are so many ideas about sex — about marriage, about desire, about the ways in which we are all sort of functional and dysfunctional — that are completely relevant to our lives today. The show strikes people on a personal level.

Going back to the presentation, why did Masters move forward with it. He’s generally been very politically savvy, so why didn’t he realize that his colleagues would be horrified? Was he blinded by ego? Was he too driven? Was he under the gun?
I think he was so driven and so passionate about the study, and had such a firm belief in the integrity of the work that they were doing that it feels like he firmly believed that people would embrace a more enlightened understanding of sexuality. It’s clear from the actual story of their initial setbacks that he struck a nerve and the work was revolutionary. Masters might not have understood the degree in which they would be branded as revolutionaries. I think he, certainly in our depiction of him, is so sort of unapologetic. He had so much impatience with shame. It’s such a forthright desire to just bring people out of the shadows and into the light and everything that, as a character, Masters sort of laid out in the pilot, that we understand how babies are born but are absolutely uncomfortable really examining how they’re made and what the meaning is of sexuality in the larger framework of human experience. He approached it with such scientific integrity, at least in our interpretation, that he believed people would embrace it in a way that they really didn’t initially. It makes for great drama.

Maybe it was just me, but I was worried the entire time he’d include the footage with Ginny’s face. It was a relief when he didn’t.
He certainly ultimately wouldn’t. He’s deeply respectful of her, and it’s such a peculiar relationship. We talked about Pygmalion as a model in the beginning. Ultimately, his feelings for her are complicated by both his professional regard for her and his deeply conflicted personal feelings for her.

It almost seems like an obsession or a fetish in some ways because, why does he need to watch footage of her when he can have the real thing? Their relationship is not easily defined on either end.
I assure you that continues into the second season. In season 2, the story will continue to defy any of the conventional parameters of a love story. We’re not ever quite sure if we can call it that. What each feels for the other sort of eludes conventional understanding of romantic connection, and I think that’s what fascinates people about the show. It’s easy to fall into reflexive ideas of how a relationship like this one plays out and, lucky for us, there’s this incredible story that Tom Maier tells in his book that really defies conventional expectations.

Well, that the thing: it’s such a fascinating relationship because it does kind of have all of the beats, in some respects, of a love story (marriage, divorce, etc.). If you even briefly glimpse at the actual history books, you know where things are going. 
The good news for us is that people are so intrigued by the real story, but there isn’t such widespread familiarity with how their story unfolds that I don’t think people will see the ending coming. In fact, there’s recently been a discussion about what the very, very distant points of the series might look like a couple of seasons down the road from now. And even though people have read the book, I can say with certainty, they won’t see the ending of the series coming. It’s not just what the story is that we’re telling but how we’re going about telling it. There’s a great opportunity in that and I think Michelle’s just done brilliant work with taking something where there was a map and then making something that makes sense as a television series. You know, taking the sort of tent poles of Masters and Johnson’s actual biography and then creating a whole life into a series beyond that. What people know and what they don’t know serves us well.

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