As I watched last night’s Masters of Sex, I found myself often (favorably) comparing the episode to the season’s third episode “The Fight,” and now I realize why: Both were written by Amy Lippman, who’s had my emotional number ever since she was making Bailey Salinger cry on Party of Five. Lippman’s particularly skilled at mining the moments in which Masters of Sex is at its most resonant — small intimacies and hard-won revelations. Last night’s episode offered us plenty of that, but alongside some of the heavy-handedness that’s marred some of the other episodes in the back half of the season.
I don’t know a ton about estranged siblings, but I’m pretty sure that if you’re trying to break the ice with your recently reunited brother, taking him to a surprise AA meeting is probably not the way to go. Bill’s already fed up with having Frank at his dinner table and in his clinical offices — and, frankly, he’s got a right to be. He’s worked frantically to distance himself from his inarguably painful past, and to have that past show up unannounced and refuse to leave is bad enough. I’m not sure why Frank thought the way to smooth out that tension was to tell Bill they were going out to meet some friends of his, and then announce with grave seriousness, “These are all my friends. It’s my sober birthday. And I want you here to celebrate.” Heavy, Frank.
But still, there they are together, in a basement room full of chain-smoking (and exclusively male) alcoholics in recovery. Christian Borle’s a theater actor, and that background shows here, but not in a scenery-chewing way. While he tells his life story in a way that’s a bit more theatrical than most 12-step program revelations, complete with magic tricks and analogies, it’s incredibly compelling, especially as an example of the stories we tell (and retell) ourselves in order to live. (Bonus points for the baller coin trick). The energy of Frank’s story makes Bill’s response that much more excruciating to watch, as he crosses his arms and hunches until he’s nearly curled into a ball, then bolts. His wife recounts her side of the story to Libby in scenes juxtaposed with Frank’s; together, they’re a really powerful glimpse into both addiction and love.
Later, at the office, Bill rips into Frank about the “bait and switch,” telling him, “Maybe AA has allowed you to appropriate my experience as justification for your over-indulgence,” which is one of the meaner things we’ve heard him say, and that’s saying something. Bill’s positive the story Frank told was a stolen one — from Bill. Frank says that’s not the case, and that as soon as Bill was gone, Frank began to suffer from the same abuse from their father. Frank says he’s been healed by the truth and that Bill could be, too, and it sounds melodramatic but it’s played in this really arresting, under-stated way.
When it comes to getting angry about stealing and repurposing others’ stories, Bill should’ve realized from the start that he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. He goads Lester, the study cameraman, into participating in the study because Lester and Bill suffer from similar impotence issues. (It’s very charming that Bill sees getting someone else to sleep with a prostitute as the solution to so many of his problems.) Lester agrees, and it’s one of the more bumbled attempts at seduction we’ve seen on the show so far, which is really saying something. He opens with a Gunsmoke joke, tells Kitty (the prostitute) she has the same hair color as his sister, and answers “French New Wave” when asked what he likes. The encounter isn’t a success — Lester completely disassociates or, in his words, flops.
Meanwhile, Virginia is continuing to search for ways to help Barbara by seeing a therapist, Dr. Madden. (Get it? A psychiatrist whose name is Dr. Madden.) He’s pretty hip to what she’s trying to pull, saying, “It was almost as if you were describing something that happened to someone else,” after Virginia recounts Barbara’s past history of sexual abuse as her own. Virginia is really bad at playing this particular game of therapeutic telephone – she winds up sending Barbara to have dinner with her brother/abuser, who completely manipulates her into believing she was the one to initiate their sexual activity. The aftermath of that is properly brutal to watch. Finally Virginia throws in a story of her own at therapy and reveals that she’s having an affair with a married man. In that account, she insists, “I never saw myself as a threat to the man’s wife. I never wanted to marry him.” But it’s clear when she runs into (an effusively kind) Libby later that she realizes now — or has known all along — that she is hurting Libby. Deeply. And it doesn’t matter whether Libby knows it or not.
Stray observation: The title of this episode leads me to believe that One Direction’s “The Story of My Life” would be a more appropriate, vastly improved choice for a Masters of Sex theme song.
“I’m trying to remember the last time something I said mattered this much,” Libby says, as she rehearses her testimony about the hate crime with the CORE lawyer, and that revelation is the closest I feel like we’ve gotten to a semi-decent explanation for what this storyline is doing on this show. Was it just to keep Libby at the forefront of the story without giving her an affair of her own? Is it her version of Betty Draper’s horseback riding lessons? And, most importantly, is she going to sleep with Robert, or WHAT?
It’s an episode that packs a lot in, but it doesn’t wind down gradually – about six minutes from the end, Virginia asks Bill whether they shouldn’t start considering what this is doing to Libby. (She appears tipsier than we normally see her, but I don’t think it’s a question she’ll try to recant later or anything.) The question Virginia poses probably counts as one of the overall theses of the season as a whole: “What do you tell yourself, Bill, that makes all of this okay?” Bill swears he’s never made a decision with the intention of hurting anyone (and I’m fascinated by the question of whether that’s something he actually believes) and Virginia tells him it hasn’t been about the study in years — which is jarring to hear, because I have a pesky habit of forgetting about the time jump, even with visual evidence like the new office set to remind me. She asks what condition they’re even researching at this point, and he says his. I’m not sure if he says it to end the fight, I’m not sure if he says it because he’s ready to start telling the truth, but I’m pretty sure things just got interesting.