Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime
Before we begin: I don’t have anything new or smart to say about what’s happening in Ferguson, but I watched last night’s episode with one eye on Showtime and the other on Twitter, and it’s really chilling to watch, in real time, the similarities between life in Missouri in 1956 and life in Missouri in 2014. “Losing words, and weight, and hair.” I’m not sure why these words — spoken by Lillian at the top of an episode largely devoted to her — struck such a chord with me, or why I played back the scene to hear her say it again. Maybe because it’s jarring and a little beautiful to hear the steps along a path to death (gonna be a real cheery recap, folks) enumerated so clearly and without self-pity.
Lillian’s approach to her death — reasoned and methodical until the very end — is moving enough, but Virginia’s response to it is really well-done, too. This will sound weird, but sometimes I actually forget that Lillian and Virginia are friends, mostly because Lillian’s stoicism and Virginia’s spunk seem so at odds that they should logically be enemies. But really, in a TV landscape where non-competitive, Bechdel-compliant friendships are rare, they are — ugh, were — a pretty remarkable pair. As Virginia reconciles herself to the fact that Lillian won’t continue treating her cancer, we watch her come to terms with the fact that Lillian’s way is best simply because it’s hers. She can’t do it any other way.
It’s a leap for Virginia to mentally accept that the decision to let go isn’t actually counter to the “ferocity” she’s always loved in Lillian, but it takes even more for her to watch her die — to help her, even, just by virtue of not intervening. This is a show that’s shown us all sorts of love and all sorts of intimacy in all sorts of ways, but I don’t know that there’s ever been a scene so lovely and right as Virginia climbing into bed with Lillian after she overdoses on sleeping pills. Farewell, Lillian.
But not everyone can be as graceful as Lillian, and Libby, in particular, seems to have gone off the damn rails. I’d mentioned a few times last season that I’d hoped we’d see Libby’s character developed a bit more, that she’d maybe get a little more screen time, but this is … not what I had in mind. Is she suffering from postpartum depression? Did she learn the truth about Bill and Virginia and have some sort of breakdown? Is she meant to be an example of upper-class/-crust racism gone amok? Because I’m not sure how you make a logical argument for her casually stalking Coral’s brother (not boyfriend) Robert and then chasing him in a car with her baby in the backseat. Are we supposed to believe that she’s in some sort of love or infatuation with Robert? He’s handsome, but not stalk-him-in-the-dead-of-night handsome. She confronts him as best she can, since she doesn’t know what she’s confronting him about, and mid-diatribe he cleans a cut on her leg with a hankie. She runs away, but later, she sits alone in the Masters’ living room, fondling the cut. Seriously, Libby, get your shit together. You’re starting to make Betty Draper look like Carol Brady.
Meanwhile, Betty, Helen, and Gene try to figure out the parameters of their relationships in a series of scenes that are well written and well acted but have now become wholly out of place on this particular TV series. Yay?
Back at Buell Green, Dr. Hendricks’s motive for pulling down Bill and Virginia’s study recruitment fliers becomes clear: He doesn’t like the idea of African-American patients having sex behind glass while white doctors watch, citing a long history of racially related medical research abuses. After an attempt at improved public relations for the study and the hospital (one part Bill’s inept social skills, one part an intrepid reporter’s ability to dig up information pre-Google), Hendricks realizes Bill isn’t up for any sort of job where he has to follow rules. Bill can’t be the kind of doctor he’s always been anymore — no more delivering babies or surgical privileges at a hospital. The study is the real work now. Hendricks explains, “It feels like dying, and it is. So let’s see if you have the guts to be reborn. I want your office cleared out by morning.”
Shortly after this, we learn that Virginia’s been dating Matt Camden from 7th Heaven on the DL for awhile, which is an extremely interesting convergence of my past and present interests. We also learn that it’s fine for Bill to have a wife, but the revelation that his lover has a boyfriend sends him crying into the street.
And that’s that, but I have a hard time believing that it would take Bill this many failed attempts at being set up in a hospital to realize that, hey, maybe taking orders doesn’t really work for him. It’s not like he’s Bruce Wayne and can’t become Batman until he fights off the entire League of Shadows. But what’s a bit frustrating about that is that it reduces what’s happened at Buell Green to little more than a side story, and will likely leave the themes about race it introduced unresolved. I mean, sure, those themes are unresolvable (to wit: St. Louis County, 2014), but to tee them up and really only examine them for fewer than two episodes just seems odd. It feels like a detour, only a detour still brings you to a planned destination. For the first time all season, I’m really unsure about where that might be.
I do know a place I’d like to return to, though: that bed in Bill and Virginia’s hotel room on the night she told him Lillian was dying. Side by side, mid-bed, clumsy, and fully dressed. After they kiss for the first time, he assures her, “I know you.” It sounds an awful lot like “I love you.”