To be completely candid, so many pieces shifted in last week’s Masters of Sex that I had a little trouble reorienting myself when I sat down to watch last night’s episode – in many ways, it was close to an hour of me saying, “Oh, RIGHT” aloud to myself. Oh, right, Dr. Langham used to be a series regular. Oh, right, when Bill isn’t continually getting fired from stuff, there’s way more sex on this show. And oh, right, Bill can turn from decent to jerk on a dime.
We’ve seen Bill’s kinder side before this season, most notably when he fought for the rights of the baby born with ambiguous genitalia and he comforted Virginia when she first learned that Lillian had opted to stop her cancer treatments. And we saw it again on last night’s episode in his interactions with his brother, Frank, who’s desperately trying to conceive a child with his wife – at least at first.
Frank asks if his alcoholism could have had a bearing on his fertility, and it’s an odd to hear the term spoken so frankly in a period piece like this. Sure, Mad Men has plenty of oblique references, but for the time period, it’s pretty anomalous for Frank to recognize that alcoholism both exists and affects him and to admit that outright. The alcoholism itself is a footnote, really, en route to the revelation that Frank can’t have children naturally, because he has the same genetic abnormality that Bill does. Immediately, Bill sends Frank on his way to seek treatment elsewhere. It’s an odd, abrupt transition, although the episode’s extremely on-the-nose title (“Mirror, Mirror”) is a nod to why it happened. Bill sees too much of his past and the parts of himself that he dislikes in Frank. It’s a pretty heavy-handed episode, to be (apologies) frank about it.
The desire to distance himself from his brother is somewhat understandable, given how complicated their family of origin was. But we’ve also seen him ignore his infant son, cheat on his wife, and force Virginia to trade sex for her continued employment. I don’t think Bill’s a likable character, and I think that’s fine, but I continue to be deeply confused about whether the show wants us to root for him anyway, the way we’re encouraged to root for despicable protagonists on Mad Men or Shameless or Breaking Bad.
One thing that’s less ambiguous: I continue to like/root for/love/want to have a slumber party with Virginia. She’s proven herself to be smart and capable in spades in the past, but there’s something really exciting about watching her pose her own theories to Bill and to speak so confidently about sexual dysfunction. It’s almost as if they’re equals – or at least as much as they can be within the confines of their completely messed-up power dynamic … Hooray? Her insistence on treating sexual dysfunction not just by looking at data but by engaging in patients’ stories is really progressive, and I’d definitely watch a full episode (or series) of her trying to glean insights by interviewing Betty about her trick turning past.
Her efforts to help Barbara (the secretary Dr. Greathouse assigned to Bill at Memorial) with either her vaginismus and the trauma in her past fall short, but it’s not for lack of intellect or compassion. It’s for lack of understanding and experience. More and more, Virginia’s realizing that to play the role she wants to play in the work of the study, she needs to be educated. Bill’s pedantic explanation of why it’s simply not feasible for her to get a degree is frustrating, and her decision to show up at a psychologist’s office, parrot back Barbara’s issues, and see what he says is … probably not a viable long-term solution. But I can’t bring myself to fault Virginia for doing whatever she could to try to help someone. I hope she continues to insist that Bill allow her (that’s a depressing sentiment) to pursue a psychology degree, or to bring a psychologist onboard in the practice, even. Basically: Virginia for president. As my vice-presidential nominee, I’d like to appoint Betsy Brandt, for infusing Barbara with such vulnerability, hysteria, and truth.
I didn’t mention this last week (mostly because literally everything ever happened in that episode), but I’m pleased to see Kevin Christy back as Lester, the study’s cameraman. I really like the idea that Bill and Virginia would get the old band back together once the study resumed, but I also think the particular brand of comic relief he delivers really suits the show, more than the shtick of Betty faking infertility or the laughs the show tried to provide around Virginia and Flo and the diet pill sales. Give me a man rehearsing his eulogy in front of a couple about to orgasm any day. And while his spontaneous monologue about his sexual past to Masters feels a little abrupt, he carries it off really nicely.
Speaking of people whom it was great to see: Did everyone catch Peri Gilpin (aka Roz from Fraiser, aka America’s radio-station-management sweetheart) as the Police Chief of St. Louis’s wife? And was everyone else curious about and then really, really, really troubled by the implications of the Veiled Prophet Ball, and the costume of the Prophet himself?
Meanwhile, I continue to be frustrated with the show’s treatment of Libby, especially after finally reading (okay, fine, finally reading most of) Masters of Sex, which paints her largely as a good mother and human, even by Masters’ own, post-divorce accounts. Liberties have been taken with all of the characters in this show, of course, but none so completely as Libby’s, and she was more of a … bystander in the scheme of Bill’s story. Reimagining her character so completely feels a bit unfair, although I guess the entirely dark and entirely true response is that she’s no longer around to notice. And so we have to accept that this is the story of Libby we’re getting: one in which she’s just been hanging around for the past three years, weirdly preoccupied with Coral’s brother Robert.
Putting aside all of the coincidences that put Robert and Coral back in each other’s lives (a professor of mine once pointed out that we only point out coincidences when we don’t like the results they give us), the story of him approaching her to testify about a whitewashed crime she witnessed is compelling enough. But trotting Libby out as some sort of Race Relations Barbie continues to feel out of place on this particular show, even if it yields interesting results. Libby’s longing for a place of her own makes sense – I’m just not sure why the writers have chosen this place in particular. Because this is a show about sex and intimacy, it feels like we’re building toward an affair between her and Robert and I’d just really rather not.
And while Masters of Sex usually finds its moments of mooring in the scenes in the hotel between Bill and Virginia, there was none of that this week – Bill’s still struggling with the impotence that’s plagued him ever since he found out about Virginia seeing someone else. And judging by the preview for next week’s episode, there won’t be much safety (or sex) in that suite anytime soon. Bill and Virginia have talked about all manner of difficult and complex things, but it would appear it’s time to talk about the thing they try the hardest to ignore: Libby.