Last night’s episode was operating on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin. At the hospital, a civil defense simulation of a nuclear bomb explosion leaves workers huddling under desks during air-raid sirens and moaning in pain as “casualties.” But as Jane points out, a desk is not going to be much help if an H-bomb drops on St. Louis. “They won’t even find our teeth,” she says. How to cope with the possibility of total annihilation? It’s a “test of your resolve,” says the man introducing the drill. The episode certainly offers a few people a test of character. When the dust settles all that is certain is that things will not be the same.
Masters, for one, seems nonplussed by the prospect of a nuclear attack. To him, the test is just an irritation impeding his ability to deal with more immediate, tangible problems. “The attack is a simulation, unlike Mrs. Gallagher’s fibroids, which I assure you are real!” he shouts at his surgical team. But what is real, anyway? “Fallout” takes a close look at how fear impacts people and what the difference is between imagined terrors and immediate threats. To the one who is afraid, after all, the perceived danger feels real whether the feared outcome materializes or not.
For reasons that presumably have to do with the abuse he experienced as a boy, Masters is terrified of being a father. “You stepped into something you can’t even begin to understand, like a child, willful and stupid,” he yells at Ethan after they finish that fibroid surgery. Ethan doesn’t understand why Masters is so afraid of parenthood, and neither do I, exactly, but Masters’s feelings are real enough to him that he punches Ethan in the face.
Generally, I like the way this show allows characters to evolve in unexpected ways — to be nasty one episode and generous the next. But it’s hard to wrap my head around how much Ethan has changed since the beginning of the season. Perhaps we are to simply assume he’s grown up? After he learns he has effectively been fired, he believes he is being punished for jilting Vivian but still stands behind his actions. “You can’t pick what you love,” he tells Barton evenhandedly, a message with an obvious double meaning when expressed to a closeted gay man. And once he realizes he is actually being let go because he helped Libby get pregnant, he tells Masters, “You know what? Even though it cost me my job, I’d do it again.” The tenor of his relationship with Virginia feels very different this time around as well. He’s supportive of her in a new way and has his neediness under control. If the episode is a test of how people respond when their job, relationship, or life hangs in the balance, Ethan, for once, passes.
Austin, on the other hand, fails spectacularly, though he gets some of the best lines — “just an organ donor,” indeed. He hits on a “casualty” (there are a lot of female casualties in Austin’s life) and then when he finds out from Virginia that he has fathered a baby with Flora, a.k.a. Ashley Johnson, the little girl from Growing Pains, he panics. He’s not concerned about Flora or the baby. All he cares about is making sure he is “protected in this thing.”
Luckily for Austin, Masters is equally unconcerned about Flora and her pregnancy, which he dismisses as an unintended consequence. “You are protected by the forms you signed,” Masters tells Austin, “You are all clear.” Yet as the radio announcer intones in the last scene, “The all clears have sounded, but all is not well in America tonight.” Austin may not have to deal with his baby, but that doesn’t mean anything is all right, for him or anyone else.
In this episode, a lot of people are paying for mistakes that aren’t their own, but it’s never entirely obvious who’s at fault. Is Austin responsible for the pregnancy, or is Masters, or is Flora? Jane offers one appropriate response to such a situation. “If you’re facing global annihilation, you can only be accountable for yourself,” she says during her apology to Lester. He responds that if it was the last night on Earth he’d kiss her, and then, in one of the many instances when the imagined affects the real, he does.
Margaret is also dealing with fallout from a mess she did not create. She begins the episode in divorce limbo, and during mahjong, her friends remind her of everything she stands to lose if she really leaves Barton. “The husband strays, the wife pays,” one says about another divorced friend whose daughter has stopped speaking to her. There’s nothing for Margaret to do but play her two dot and light another cigarette. Those mahjong scenes, by the way, continue to be so well observed that I wish there was a web series consisting exclusively of these four perfectly coiffed ladies discussing quickie divorces and whoever is keeping the complete works of Shakespeare in their bomb shelter.
Margaret’s personal H-bomb is delivered in the form of a jaded prostitute she sidles up to at a hotel bar. And I know I keep writing about Allison Janney’s performance, but that moment she learns Barton is gay and her face passes from astounded to laughing to something much, much darker all in the space of a few seconds — it is profoundly well acted. The only thing for Margaret to do is head to the pool, where she and Austin end up in the water together, floating in another kind of limbo. Like Margaret says about satellites, though, they’re not really floating but falling, pulled down by gravity as the Earth curves away beneath them. This show can be a bit overly obvious with its symbolism, but the two of them on their backs in that pool is a memorable image.
As for Virginia, she is the only person thinking about Flora. She gives her $2,000 from the discretionary fund then heads to Masters’s office and resigns. She also acknowledges that their sexual relationship was never just about the research. “We were having an affair,” she says. He tells her she’s being emotional, but she throws that line back in his face. “No, Bill,” she says. “You are.” And just like that she packs up and heads over to Dr. DePaul’s office, where she drops down her box. Dr. DePaul may have made a bit of a mess when she attempted to sweet talk the chancellor, but with Virginia at her side perhaps she’ll have a bit more luck.