Last week’s season premiere ended with Ginny’s assertion that what’s special between her and Bill is “the work”; last night’s episode began with Bill breaking the news to Ginny that even though he’s newly ensconced at Memorial, they won’t actually be working together again anytime soon. Ginny says she’s even willing to come on as Bill’s secretary at first; he responds that he’s already been assigned a secretary by the department — a real gem. “There is no more qualified gem than me, Bill.” She’s furious, and she has a right to be — but she’s not too angry for a Doctor-and–Mrs. Holden tryst upstairs after their talk. And so begins an episode that’s not, as I so naïvely hoped, devoted to Bill and Ginny diving right back into their research. The episode is still very much about “the work,” but it’s about the work Bill and Ginny undertake separately.
Bill’s first patient at Memorial, Rose, is another example of Masters of Sex’s ability to take what would normally be a punch line — a pretty, teenage, debutante nymphomaniac — and instead examine the psychological, medical, and human layers of the issue. After a botched abortion, her mother demands that she be given a hysterectomy; even Rose herself says she wants the procedure, provided that the recuperation period will be over in time for her cotillion. “Nobody understands what this feels like,” she tells Masters. “I can try,” he responds. That’s the thing about Bill — he can try. And he’s deeply empathic when he does. But he can’t be bothered to try with his own wife and son. But we’ll get to that.
Rose continues to beg for the surgery, but finally Bill tells her that to perform it would be to violate his Hippocratic oath, and it’s jarring to think about how transgressive a statement that would have been. He offers her an IUD, and until the end of the episode, we’re left to believe that their conversation ended there. But Betty — former prostitute Betty, who hangs around the hospital every day for imaginary fertility treatments — snoops around and takes it upon herself to clumsily deliver some advice about standing up for herself. Rose laughs, thanks her, and says she’s glad to have spoken with Dr. Masters. “He said something useful?!” (Ten points, Annaleigh Ashford.) Rose explains that what Bill told her is that she’s “not her worst part.”
It’s good advice. It’s actually a pretty beautiful thing to say to someone in Rose’s position. But it makes me wonder what Bill thinks his worst part is, and whether he knows he’s more than it.
Libby probably has more than one guess about Bill’s worst part, but she’s busy trying to get a nanny hired, since Bill sent his mother packing. She hires a very young woman and what happens next is crushingly familiar to me, a former full-time nanny to a stay-at-home mom. My experience was overwhelmingly positive, but the dual layer of intimacy and employment is incredibly challenging to navigate. And so it makes sense that Coral and Libby are the best of friends at first — almost like a head counselor and her favorite C.I.T. But everything changes when Coral calms the baby when Libby couldn’t, and in front of Bill, no less. The two go from cheerfully folding laundry side-by-side to Libby sitting on the couch, watching Coral iron, and browbeating her for mispronouncing ask. In an episode with a lot of heavy stuff going on, it’s maybe the hardest thing to watch. It’s some pretty textbook self-sabotage, especially when you consider how badly Libby needs a friend and an ally in that house; at the same time, it’s easy to understand why Libby would just like to be right sometimes.
Meanwhile, Ginny’s back at Washington, getting the short end of every conceivable stick. She demos Ulysses for Dr. Ditmer, who claims he’s interested in adapting it for gastroenterology uses, until she walks him through its use step-by-step and he comes in his pants. It’s a despicable little scene, especially juxtaposed against Masters’s new boss requesting that the rebooted version of the study include things like “different points of entry.” As if that weren’t enough, all the secretaries still hate her, and something’s up with Lillian — it’s finally time to film her PSA about pap smears, but she gets incoherent and confused on set, so Ginny makes a doctor’s appointment for her, only to find out that she has terminal cancer. The two of them have a pretty winning little exchange about pizza in the doctor’s office, but that doesn’t make it any less tragic — for a show with so many powerful, fascinating women, Masters of Sex hasn’t offered many long-term, non-adversarial relationships between women. I was about to type “maybe Lillian will just be really sick for a long time!” but realized that’s … not ideal.
Ginny’s even denied the chance to support Vivian in the wake of her father’s suicide attempt; instead, she gets cornered and yelled at in the hospital corridor (with plenty of onlookers). Vivian saves her catharsis for Bill, who’s waited for her outside her night class, and who tells her he doesn’t believe her when she says her broken arm (a result of cutting down Barton) was a tennis injury. She recounts the suicide attempt to Bill, and tells him that Barton and Margaret are in Italy now, since he’d always wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. According to Vivian, Barton always used to ask, “800 years of leaning, can you imagine how tired that Tower must be?” Bill listens impassively, but minutes later, he’s too jangled to start his car. Join the club, man.
And then just like that, we’re back in a hotel across the river. Bill takes Ginny’s suitcase and offers her his arm, and for a moment, they’re going someplace together again. But we still don’t know where.