Facing a sticky predicament in last week’s episode, Gini allowed Art to assume that she and Dan are in an open marriage. (Reminder: She and Dan have never been in any marriage at all.) This week, that lie completely blows up when Art and Nancy invite her to a swingers’ party. Misunderstanding the nature of the event, and thinking she’s just calling in reinforcements for a friendly dinner party, Gini invites everyone she knows: Lester, Betty, even Libby.
I’m not sure how common swingers’ parties actually were in late-’60s-era St. Louis (and I care too much about my targeted internet ads to do much research into the topic), but it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Bill and Gini being invited to one. It is, however, quite a stretch to imagine Gini going to one, hanging out for half an hour, and still having no idea what it is.
Betty’s the one to figure it out first — and even she doesn’t put the pieces together until the last second, as Art comes barreling into the living room with an armful of ladies’ jackets. “Holy shit, it’s a fucking key party with coats,” she groans. Betty’s also the only one who comes up with a fail-safe escape plan: She plunks herself down next to the hired pianist, hands him her coat, and tells him he’s going to be her fake match. He protests, but Betty says, “I’m looking for some moral support from the only other homo at this party, NOW TAKE THE GODDAMN COAT.”
Their story calls back some of the great work Masters of Sex did with Barton’s character, which considered isolation and connection as a gay person in the Midwest in the ’60s. And by episode’s end, Betty and the pianist are close enough that she brings him back to the office for a strictly platonic sleepover (because Helen’s parents are in town). Watching him answer the phones in the morning, Betty has a calculated look on her face, and I’m thinking she might just be imagining a promotion for himself.
Lester doesn’t have an “official” party match, either. The woman whose coat he draws spent the first half of the party listening to him barrel around the party, drunkenly telling anyone who would listen about his wife’s affair with a children’s television host. (Only Kevin Christy could grant this level of pathos to recurring monologues about balloon animals.) Humiliated after she rejects him, Lester goes outside and pouts on the curb, where he’s joined by the event’s cater-waitress. She’s semi-exasperated with the event — the only “revolution” at a swingers party is a revolt against boredom, while she and her friends are busy with true civil disobedience. Besides, she says, “Nothing radical was ever catered.” Somehow, this leads to Lester getting laid in the backseat of a wood-paneled station wagon … but when he wakes up, the phone number the waitress left in the fogged-up mirror has already faded away. Poor dude.
Bill initially declines his invitation to the party, since he planned to take his children to see The Love Bug instead. (Gini helpfully tells him it’s about a Volkswagen, not a virus.) But because Libby’s angry at Bill for getting the kids a dog without permission, they’re not home when he comes to pick them up. He storms over to Art and Nancy’s — although I’m not sure how he knew Libby was Gini’s date to the party — and demands to know where his children are. Libby is a little drunk, a little high, and very salty. She storms out to her car, where Bill follows her. “The options are I risk going to jail or you end up in a ditch,” he explains, when Libby says he can’t drive because of his suspended license. “How long do you think they’d put you away for?” she snaps back. God, I love post-divorce Libby.
As they drive back to Libby’s house, she’s justifiably snippy and exhausted about the divorce, about the demands on her, and about the stupid puppy. (Bill: “He’s very — and this is not a word I use — cute.”) Bill feels just guilty enough to be conciliatory, and he asks Libby to name a few things he can do to make her life a little easier. She names a couple of behaviors around the children for him to change, and then gets a gleam in her eye. “I want you to go down on me.” Michael Sheen’s slow, guppy-esque blink at this request is glorious to behold, as is Libby listing her reasons: She wants to know what it feels like, and she wants Bill to do something solely for her pleasure. Libby must be learning an awful lot at her consciousness-raising group!
I thought I was past surprise at any sexual request or act on Masters of Sex, but I’ll admit to actually gasping when Libby asked for oral sex, and to full-fledged shock when Bill went through with it. I’m delighted that the show can still take me by such surprise, and the sequence that follows the oral sex is even more powerful. Libby doesn’t know what to say to Bill after — Thanks? Good job? — and when he pushes for more feedback, she tells him not to rehash it. She takes pleasure in his unresolved erection, still angry. “We could’ve been doing that for the past 20 years and we never did it once,” she says.
Viewers understand that indignity better than Libby does — we knew the extent of Bill’s infidelity pretty intimately — and that only makes it more heartbreaking. Libby can’t stop dwelling on the tragedy of it, the idea that they could have been more or given more to it. Finally, Bill draws her around to the idea of accepting who they were and what they gave. “It’s not tragic. We did our best. We made three children. I loved you,” he says. Bill kisses her hand, slow and deep, and then Libby kisses his cheek, and then they’re pressed together on the couch, having sex.
It’s a deeply engrossing five minutes of television, and it feels almost too intimate to watch in places. That’s a testament to Amy Lippman, who’s written many of the show’s strongest episodes, and who both deeply understands these characters and strives to explore new intimacies between them. (To Lippman’s credit, it’s also one of the funnier episodes in recent memory.)
And then there’s Art. As Gini says, he’s the “world’s only reluctant swinger.” Art knew that Nancy had a specific partner in mind at the party, and so he drew Gini’s coat on purpose, knowing she (probably) wouldn’t sleep with him. He’s not at all interested in swinging or being with other women, but he indulges it for Nancy’s sake. That’s unfortunate, because Nancy is very into it — both the sex with another man, and the idea of swapping partners in general. The way she says, “Enjoy him!” to Gini is … troubling.
“You’re a romantic,” Gini says to Art, and it’s less like she’s praising a positive character trait and more like she’s diagnosing him with a disease. They talk most of the night, and it’s the most candid she’s ever been with a mental-health practitioner. The most telling moment comes when Art asks why a person might have sex without love in the equation, and she explains, “Sometimes, to test your wattage … You dazzle them, and then you leave them ruined.” They end the evening in an odd form of role play, with Art asking Gini to tell the story of a boss who sleeps with an employee. Without using names, she tells the story of her and Bill, which ultimately frees her up enough to go to Bill the next morning and admit that she and Dan never married. He says he’s known for awhile, she apologizes, and then he asks what she’s sorry for. Gini can’t think of an immediately answer, but this is Masters of Sex. The conversation is far from over.
A previous version of this recap mistakenly identified Michael Sheen as another actor.