Masters of Sex
I’ve cut Masters of Sex a lot of slack over the past several episodes, because when the show’s writing, acting, and direction are on point, it’s easily among the best on television. Unfortunately, last night’s episode lumped together so many of the show’s wobblier elements that it was impossible not to notice. Libby’s still in the CORE office, quasi-flirting with and pestering Robert, and reminding me of how much I miss the 14 seconds of that one episode when she and Coral were friends and everything was starched shirts and swaddled newborns. It’s a story line that just plain doesn’t make sense, and while I admire the writers for wanting to give the very talented Caitlin FitzGerald something to do, it seems like the show overall would’ve been better served scaling back her role this season. (I’ll sit back and wait for the next two episodes to prove me wrong.)
And then there’s Cal-O-Metric, which started to wear out its welcome as a one-shot gag in the season premiere. It’s still trudging on, but now with the added layer of Flo forcing Langham into sex with her in order to keep his spokesman’s job. If you stand on one foot, tilt your head, and squint really hard, I guess that introduces some new consent, power, and control issues — and, I mean, it’s a show about sex, and they’re having sex, but still: What’s the point?
Meanwhile, Virginia admits to her therapist that she’s been lying to him about everything save for her affair with Bill, which she hastily points out actually isn’t an affair, because Bill’s impotent. There’s a flashback to Bill explaining the details of his impotence to Virginia, which begins with a heavy-handed, “As you recall, there were two years where we were apart,” which seems like more of a reminder to viewers than to Virginia, but okay. He launches into a speech about the work and what a mistake it would be to get bogged down in the “Why?” of his dysfunction, and how they have the power to do such good together, and while I believe him, I’m also more keenly aware that there’s a not insignificant part of Bill Masters that just wants to get laid. (He’s still not, Betty’s “home remedies” and Virginia’s attempts at total domination notwithstanding — the latter was so excruciating that I had to turn the volume on my TV off and read the subtitles instead.)
Unrelated to anything: a million points for Lester’s “I prefer to think of it as telling the truth 24 times a second” when asked if he makes movies. I would watch a spinoff of him and Barbara making awkward small talk (or solving crimes, I’m not picky) any day of the week.
Even in an episode with far too much going on, it was a delight to see Adam Arkin as the PR man Bill and Virginia bring in after another doctor claims credit for some of the study’s research. (Arkin also directed last night’s episode and is, it must be said, a total silver fox.) It’s a nice glimpse into how Bill and Virginia made the leap from researchers to household names, a theme that I hope the show continues to explore as the season wraps up. Bill’s fear that his grandmother would turn on the TV to see him discussing swollen labia was as funny as his casual announcement of his desire for a Nobel Prize was telling.
I’d incorrectly assumed that we’d seen the last of Bill’s brother Frank in last week’s episode, but no, there his wife is in the opening scene, wearing a paper gown and about to put her feet in Bill’s stirrups (not a euphemism). Bill expresses surprise that she and Frank have stuck around after the two brothers’ fight last week, and she tells him that Frank desperately wants a family — and she’s not just talking about a baby.
But the way Frank goes about trying to rebuild that family doesn’t sit well with Bill. “Who do these amends help?” Bill asks Essie earlier in the episode, protesting that it doesn’t mend any of the fences on his side to have the past dredged up again. The full text of Alcoholics Anonymous’s ninth step cautions alcoholics against making amends when doing so would cause harm to themselves or to others, and it’s interesting to consider that caution in light of Frank’s decision. I’m certain Frank didn’t expect Bill to turn on him as viciously as he did, but how did he think Bill would respond?
Frank makes matters worse by harping on their mother after she’s in a minor car accident, telling her she has a drinking problem. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t (I’m inclined to believe she has nothing more serious than a case of the late 1950s), but either way, Frank’s strident attack pisses Bill all the way off. After sending Essie home with Libby (after Libby pleads with him to “summon his better nature”), Bill lays into him, accusing him of passing around platitudes as though they’re confetti on New Year’s Eve, and bobs and weaves around as Frank tries to convince him of their father’s alcoholism, too. It’s an exceptionally well-shot scene, playing with light and dark in a way that much of the rest of the episode does as well.
When Bill finally snaps, I finally had the answer to the question I’ve been asking myself (and the show) all season long. No, I do not like Bill Masters. Frank describes how he’s forgiven both Bill and their father for their abuses, and Bill meets that admission with more abuse. He taunts Frank in a way that’s appalling to watch, if only for how skilled it is. We’ve known for a long while how little Bill thinks of beggars, and that’s what he accuses Frank of first off — begging for mercy when their father hit him. He calls him a coward and a sloppy drunk and a weak little boy and an idiotic clown. Frank stays calm far longer than any sane person could expect him to, but finally, Bill gets what he wants when Frank throws the first punch.
It’s a bloody, brutal little fight that follows, but anything after the way Bill speaks to Frank is denouement. Say whatever else about Bill you want — that he’s hurting, that he’s a misunderstood genius, that he was thrown for a terrible loop by Frank’s return — all you really need to know is that there was ample opportunity for him to roll his eyes and walk away, and he chose not to take it in the most aggressive way possible. Bill had plenty of time for flight, but it’s not just that he chose to fight instead. It’s that he chose evisceration.
He stumbles off to Virginia, who curls up next to him and kisses his bloodied hands. “I give up,” he mutters. Then he runs his fingertips across a bloody gash on his head and dabs the blood on to Virginia’s face. Way to make it weird in here, Bill.