It wasn’t until I sat down to watch “Topeka” that I realized we’re just a couple of episodes away from the finale. That’s a big mark against this season: I still have no idea where Masters of Sex is going, and two episodes seems like very little time to pull together a cohesive narrative. On top of that, the show has yet to be renewed for a fifth season, and I’m certainly not confident in its ability to create a fitting end. (Side note: I’m notoriously bad at predicting whether TV shows will be renewed, but Masters of Sex has seen its ratings plummet to all-time lows this year.)
As the episode title suggests, Gini and Bill are off to Topeka to investigate the work of a rival clinic. I know Masters and Johnson weren’t exactly the Beatles, but doesn’t it stand to reason that other professionals in their field would immediately recognize them? Still, they’re confident that a decent cover story, a wig, and a fake mustache will be enough of a disguise. Bill announces that he’s always wanted to be an Earl. “Earl’s a good guy. He can tell you whether you need air in your tires just by listening to the engine.” Gini asks what their issue should be, and Bill says, a little too cheerfully, “I think you should be frigid.”
And so they negotiate their way to ejaculatory incompetence. In the middle of all of this, there’s a lovely little in-joke in which Bill announces, “I’m very good at accents.” Bill isn’t, but Michael Sheen certainly is. The Topeka clinic is run by Marcia and Harvey Toplin, played to perfection by real-life married couple Romy Rosemont and Stephen Root. Their clinic is everything Bill and Gini’s isn’t: relaxed, rooted in honest discussion of everyone’s feelings, and cut through with a decidedly hippie vibe.
With Gini and Bill away, Art and Nancy are left to their own devices, and Nancy’s first order of business is to sprawl her legs on Gini’s desk and trot out an obviously polished and fairly realistic impression. They also meet with the Clavermores, the obviously wealthy couple from a few episodes back — Mr. Clavermore stopped being able to ejaculate with his wife after their child walked in on him mid-orgasm and he was unable to stop. Bill and Gini co-opt this story for their clandestine Topeka investigation, and it quickly becomes clear that the Toplins stole both their intake procedure and their protocol for addressing ejaculatory incompetence.
It all raises an interesting question: Can certain medical or therapeutic processes even be proprietary? For instance, I answer a standardized set of questions every time I start work with a new therapist, and it’s not as though my therapist is paying (or even crediting) whomever it was that came up with that modality in the first place. It’s definitely a problem that the Topeka clinic claims to have developed this process on their own, but I’m not sure what legal leg Bill and Gini actually have to stand on here.
Mr. Clavermore is quite taken with Nancy, and with the business model of the clinic as a whole. His wife confides to Art that “falling in love with businesses” is what he does; earlier in the year, they visited Coney Island and he came home with an ice cream parlor. Nancy and Art go to dinner with them, and Art is furious with Nancy’s lack of professionalism, both in accepting the invitation and in outlining all the failures of the clinic. Art argues that slow and steady will win the race for them at the clinic — soon, their names will be on studies alongside Masters and Johnson’s. But Nancy wants them and their work to stand on their own. Put another way: Nancy wants what she wants when she wants it.
To get her way, Nancy pulls off the ultimate low blow, using the knowledge Gini let slip about Art’s unhappiness with their open marriage. Nancy tells him that it’s breaking her heart that he sleeps with other women, and that because of that, she’s moving to New York and a new clinic backed by the Clavermores. Of course, Art says that he’s the one unhappy with their arrangement (because he actually is!) and jumps at Nancy’s invitation to move to a new city and a new work arrangement in which no one thinks of them as swingers. But Nancy doesn’t even wait until the end of the episode before heading to the home of one of her swinging partners for what’s clearly a sexual encounter. I feel completely vindicated in my decision not to like her.
Somewhere in the middle of this, Langham shows up at the clinic with a product called “the virility vacuum” and asks to set up a display in the lobby. Lester looks at it, blankly says, “It’s a penis pump,” and then gives a prim speech about how the clinic promotes science, not snake oil. I wondered what exactly made Lester hate Langham so much, but then I remembered how much I hate Langham and decided to give him a pass. Later, Langham comes back with more brochures for the display, but Lester tells him he threw away the first batch, and he’ll throw these away, too. Langham starts waxing rhapsodically to Guy (who is considering participating in the homosexual study) about the first woman he slept with as a part of the clinic’s research. Out of nowhere, Lester punches him, saying, “That woman is my wife.” Oh, right, that’s why Lester hates him.
Later, Lester talks Guy out of applying to participate in the survey. He says he’s watched — holy hell — 877 sexual encounters from the other side of the glass. Ever since Jane was a participant, he explains, she started to treat sex like a performance, not an intimate act of connection. Lester tells Guy to tear up his intake forms and steer clear.
There was so much ground to cover in last week’s recap that I didn’t have a chance to mention how I excited I am to see Kelli O’Hara on the show. She’s a bona fide Broadway powerhouse, but she hasn’t crossed over much into TV or film. I’d love it if this were a breakout role for her, and she’s lovely in her scenes with Bill. Dody shows up at Bill’s hotel room, and before they leave for dinner, they sit down to talk. It comes out that she never received his roses, note, and proposal of marriage, and they’re both pretty bereft at what might have been. Dody says point-blank that she would’ve said yes, and then heads to the bathroom to cry for a while. I would, too.
Dody told Bill that her husband knew she was coming to meet him, but of course, that was a lie, and Gini runs into Dody’s husband angrily standing outside their hotel. She pieces together the fact that the man’s wayward wife is in Bill’s room with him, and she tries to talk him into breaking the door down and beating Bill to a pulp. For the first time, it’s clear that Gini truly does want to be with Bill, even though I’m still not completely sure what her other motivations are. She’s half-crazed when she shows up in Bill’s room the next morning, demanding to know who he’d been with and whether they’d slept together, and then sort of folds in on herself. “Is this what it’s like? Is this how it feels? … I’ve never been this person before.” Gini stays vague on what “this” means, but she’s never been the person who wants more than she is wanted.
Back at the clinic, I’m confused about why Bill and Gini are surprised when they’re asked to have sex in an observation room. What did they think was going to happen? Harvey and Marcia explain that the process doesn’t have to be as long and drawn-out as other clinics make it. If Bill and Gini were as successful as they claimed to be at their sexual exercises back at the hotel, Harvey and Marcia say, they should continue to build on that momentum, taking advantage of step-by-step help in an exam room. Bill doesn’t want to, but Gini reminds him that they came to the clinic to amass enough evidence to protect their legacy. She thinks they need to see whether their full protocol has been stolen by Marcia and Harvey.
But she also wants to have sex with Bill. (I’ll refrain from asking how she and Bill kept their wig and fake mustache on during the act itself.) They start off slowly — it seems as though they actually require the instructions Harvey and Marcia provide via loudspeaker — but ultimately, they climax together. “I love you,” Gini whispers. Bill doesn’t say anything back, but time’s running out on the season. He’s going to have to cobble together a response soon.