While there’s no science that says the first person you sleep with steals a part of your soul forever, this particular plot lets viewers forget that. Through Vivian, the episode implicitly asks viewers if misguided assumptions about virginity still pervade while also suggesting sex and love are indeed a package deal. That's an answer Masters of Sex offers across the board: Nearly every hookup so far has found that à la carte sex quickly gets complicated, and the couples without such intimacy have suffered. As Vivian sings in the most recent episode after a night with Ethan, "Love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage ... you can't have one with out the other."
Sunday’s episode, aptly titled "Love and Marriage," offers the darkest gut check so far. The university’s closeted, prostitute-patronizing provost, Barton Scully—whom Masters blackmailed into supporting his controversial research after learning Scully’s secret—feels guiltier than ever for his disinterest in his wife, Margaret, played heartbreakingly by Allison Janney, so he begs Masters for information about a gay conversion therapy. Despite his philandering, Scully seems endeared to his family, so for a moment, the exchange is hopeful: The unhappy couple finally has a way out of their mutual marital misery—until you remember, oh, right, conversion therapy is a destructive, heavily condemned “treatment” that’s damaged plenty of lives. Masters of Sex thus far hasn’t challenged that notion, but for that brief moment in which it makes you root for a traditional happy ending, it both evokes and confronts the idea that maybe hard work and love can conquer all in marriage—despite such painful, irreconcilable differences. (The real-life Masters and Johnson would actually propose “sexual surrogates” as a type of conversion therapy in the 1980s.)
These examples are a testament to the writing staff’s knack for crafting complex characters. It’s also through these scenes that Masters of Sex reveals what it has in common with Breaking Bad: When viewers cheer for Walter White as he transforms from a chemistry teacher with cancer to a meth-making murderer, it challenges assumptions about morality, suggesting traditionally black-and-white concepts of right and wrong may actually involve varying gradations of gray. Masters of Sex chiefly aims to challenge its viewers' attitudes about sex rather than antiheroes. But even as the show invites viewers to marvel at how far conversations about sex and gender have come since the 1950s, its habit of engaging with viewers’ more conservative impulses turns the spotlight on biases and assumptions assumed to be long-gone.
Of course, Masters of Sex offers plenty of counterexamples to prove its stance on the issues is more complicated. Margaret’s extramarital affair hints how much happiness awaits her as a divorcée, while Barton’s male lover, Dale, shows him just how damaging his thinking is by declining to participate in his illness-inducing aversion therapy. (“I sit across from you and you vomit?” Dale asks, “Hell, if I wanted that reaction, I’d go visit my parents. There’s only one person that gets to be sickened by me. That’s me.”) Virginia may think she can’t succeed solo, but she earns a promotion (and cleverly snags a flexible babysitter to handle the kids) without any help; Ethan may regret the “responsibility” of Vivian’s virginity, but it's also true that all it took for him to fall for Virginia was the way she rocked his world in bed.
The answers Masters of Sex provides are subtler than its questions, which means that even if the show has a point of view, the viewing experience is more about audiences confronting their own. Period dramas like Mad Men can be about watching the past hurtle toward the present onscreen, but as Masters of Sex shows, they can also be about realizing those portraits of America's past aren't so far off to begin with.