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Masters of Sex Recap: Not a Sexual Lemon

Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson and Michael Sheen as Dr. William Masters in Masters of Sex

A lot happened last night — there was a deflowering, a miscarriage, and another episode of Bill’s creepy sleepwalking, which is clearly more ominous than Essie would have us believe. Austin also reunited with Jane, and though he failed to “rise to the occasion,” he did get the opportunity to bellow one of my favorite lines so far: “I AM NOT A SEXUAL LEMON!” To top it all off, we met the provost’s wife, and she’s played by none other than Allison Janney. We’re almost halfway through the season and this show is really starting to hit its stride.

“Why can’t two people have sex and just leave it at that?” Vivian asks Ethan during their date. On some level, the whole series plays like a kind of prolonged exploration of this question, and episode five was no exception. If Vivian had been typing it into a PowerBook G3 instead of saying it between suggestive sips of an egg cream (and if there is a drink in the world that looks more like semen, I haven’t seen it), it would have felt like a narrative device straight out of Sex and the City.

Well, can’t they? In the Masters of Sex world, the answer would seem to be, “Not really.” Even Virginia and George, two people uniquely capable of “leaving it at that,” can’t have simple ex-sex because of their kids. The episode starts out, after all, with Tessa and Henry interrupting Virginia in the bath — George has dropped them off early, having served them popcorn for breakfast and instilled in Henry’s coonskin-cap-covered head the idea that Virginia is mean for saying he can’t move back in.

“I’m doing the best I can and it’s not good enough,” Virginia tells Ethan. What she doesn’t realize is that while this may be true, it’s not her fault — the system is rigged against her. When Henry runs away, even the hospital guard is nasty after he learns Henry has been to the nightclubs where Virginia used to perform. She quit singing because of her kids (as the real-life Virginia explains in the book the show is based on, “Musicians are night people and children are day people”), but no matter what Virginia does, she can’t win, not even in the eyes of her children. She does at least have work she finds satisfying, and against the backdrop of the rest of her life it’s easy to understand why she’s so desperate to hang on to it. “You’re not meant to do this alone,” she tells Ethan, and while she’s referring to parenting, I couldn’t help but hear it as a statement about how a single mom in the fifties was not just without a husband, but deeply, almost existentially alone, socially as well as practically. “I don’t need your commentary, I need your car!” she tells the guard, and even though he does eventually help her, he never drops the judgment, as if to say she deserves to lose her kid because she’s made the wrong choices.

This wasn’t the most brutal moment of the hour, though, not by a long shot. Libby’s miscarriage, moments after Masters finally offers their baby a name, was so sad it was hard to watch. “God cannot be that cruel,” Libby says to Virginia, but of course God can. I didn’t see the miscarriage coming, largely because in real life Masters and Libby had two children, but the surprise was part of what made it so jarring.

Then there’s Essie, who delivers another of the best lines of the episode: “If God wasn’t invented for a time like this, why invent him at all?” It perfectly encapsulates the quality about her that most infuriates Masters, namely her ability to retreat into denial. Masters might sleepwalk at night, but she sleepwalks through life. When Libby asks her if Masters has ever done anything violent in his sleep and she says it was always “something darling,” I didn’t believe her one bit. It even made me wonder if maybe part of the reason Bill is conflicted about having a kid is that he’s worried he might harm the child in his sleep.

Last but not least, there is no way I could end this recap without mentioning the Pussy’s Whiskers, a.k.a. the provost’s new best friend, a.k.a. Dr. Haas. After he takes Vivian’s virginity, the expression on his face makes it clear he’s quite aware of the mess he’s gotten himself into. “You break it, you buy it,” he tells Jane, who in turn gets a look that reads, “What an ass.” (As for Vivian, once Ethan finishes up, it’s easy to see what she’s thinking: “That’s it?”) Ethan may be incredibly self-involved (and worst of all, he hit Virginia in the face), but I sure do enjoy watching Nicholas D’Agosto play him. He’s a delicious mess of a character, so cocky and oblivious, a guy who wants to be good but is often unaware his actions might even be wrong.

Did Ethan ejaculate inside of Vivian? She does say she’s “all wet down there,” so we know he didn’t use protection. After Vivian dresses up in a pink confection of a dress and drags Ethan outside at her parent’s 30th anniversary party to tell him that he has her love and devotion, she does get her guy, in a fashion. “You have to make them love you, that’s the real story,” her mom tells her. But never in a million years could Margaret Scully make Barton love her in the way she wants, because he’s gay. And while Vivian may have slightly more of a chance with Ethan, the terrified look he gave her outside that party made it easy to imagine the two of them unhappily married, telling stories to cover up the truth, 30 years on.

Photo: Michael Desmond Photography/Showtime