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Masters of Sex Recap: Outside Our Area of Inquiry

About midway through last night’s episode of Masters of Sex, Virginia and Lillian find themselves in an empty boardroom at a golf resort in Tennessee. They’ve missed the doctors they traveled hours to see, through a chain of causality that begins with Bill Masters and what he represents — or at least that’s how Lillian perceives it. “You know what you’ve got?” Virginia asks her, a bit incredulously. “A case of penis envy.” Lillian cops to it with a look that says, “Who wouldn’t?” She is certainly not the only one. In “Phallic Victories” lots of people have penis envy, or at least what it implies; the episode was filled with characters jockeying for position and comparing themselves against each other (and sometimes even comparing penis size, literally). 

“What’s on the other side of this?” Libby asks her husband about the presentation he spends hours working on. “What will be different?” He claims he’s not focused on recognition and awards (Libby’s face expresses pretty much what I was thinking in that moment: “Yeah, right”) but maybe he’s not exactly lying. Perhaps no one ever knows what drives them. What’s it all for, anyway? Once again this show asks the unanswerable questions, and while it can all get a bit heady, most of the time Masters of Sex pulls it off.

But back to basics. The episode begins with Masters attempting to adjust to Virginia’s absence and repeatedly calling Jane Vir-Jane. Meanwhile, Virginia snags Lillian a speaking engagement at that golf resort after the comedian drops out. This alludes back to that moment in the previous episode when Lillian dressed up to try to sweet talk the chancellor only to have him tell her she looked like a clown. To men, the show seems to be saying, women are jokes, and never more so than when they have a serious point to make. “How does a man save a woman from drowning?” Lillian asks Virginia in a lame attempt at comedy. “He takes his foot off her head.” On the surface, that scene is lighthearted, but beneath it lurks dark truths about the position women occupy in the world.

Ethan offers to take Virginia’s kids so she can travel to Tennessee with Lillian, and soon after she leaves George shows up at her house, setting the stage for my favorite of the episode’s various pissing contests. Ethan and George bicker about subjects including but not limited to unemployment, facial hair, shaving, and riding horses. In the end, it’s Henry, a child, who asks them to cut it out so he can focus on a TV show (a Western, of course).

Ethan loses out to George in their manliness competition, but he also shows himself to be the better guy. “You want the title, George? You got it,” he says about being a father. “All I want is the job.” George slinks off, knowing he’s been beat, and the next day acknowledges as much to Ethan. In the next breath, though, George once again gains the advantage. “It helps knowing what she and I had you’ll never know,” he tells Ethan about Virginia. “You ever heard her sing? We were a real team.”

Everyone is slipping into other people’s roles, or trying to, and wondering how they measure up. Libby offers to answer the phones at Masters’s office and be his new Virginia, or his “new old Virginia.” (This also leads her to find out a bit more about that couple that was paired together 23 times, i.e. Virginia and Masters.) Then there’s the new doctor with the big feet (and all that implies) who tells Masters he wants to try to fill Ethan’s shoes. But none of the attempted substitutions work out very well. “I never did just answer the phones,” Masters imagines Virginia saying. No one can ever really replace someone else, in other words, for reasons that are no less real for being unquantifiable.

Masters spends the episode preparing to present the results of the sex study and engaging with the version of Virginia that exists in his mind. In order to grab the doctors’ attention during the presentation, he decides to look at how penis size affects female pleasure, but he only has time to schedule twelve women. As the Virginia apparition points out, twelve results does not a study make, but Masters goes ahead with it anyway. 

Even as Masters continues to project Virginia into his life, in reality she is effectively getting erased from the study she helped conduct. Women may have power behind the scenes, like the doctors’ wives Virginia and Lillian talk to about pap smears at the golf resort, but men get the credit. Isn’t it ironic, Lillian says to Virginia in that dark bus, that it will be a man who tells women they don’t need men to be satisfied, “Which isn’t all that satisfying to you.” When she then asks Virginia if she ever wants anything that’s just hers, Virginia bristles. “Who has anything that’s just theirs?” she says, and in response Lillian admits she only has one thing that is truly her own: cancer.

After Virginia gets home, Ethan offers to support her on her own terms. He wants them to be a team, he says, goaded on by George but still pretty fully rehabilitated from his dickish phase. To have a man hit a woman then become someone audiences root for is a slightly strange choice, but Ethan has undeniably evolved into the most decent guy on the show. Later he does get to see Virginia sing at the fair they go to and his face is rapturous with love, but the song she performs, “You Don’t Know Me,” implies that what she wants and why she wants it remain indecipherable to Ethan and maybe even to Virginia herself. Haas and Johnson “has got a ring to it,” he tells her, yet we all know his is not the name hers gets paired with in the end. 

There’s only one episode left before the season ends, but it was announced this week that Annaleigh Ashford, a.k.a. Betty, will be back for season two! So there is that to look forward to. 

Photo: Michael Desmond Photography/Showtime