SPOILERS! Don’t read on if you haven’t watched the Oct. 16 episode of Masters of Sex.
Masters of Sex lost one of its own on Sunday night in a heartbreaking episode guaranteed to make you call your parents — or, maybe not.
In the Oct. 16 episode “Family Only,” spunky office manager Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) gets a brutal reality check when her pregnant girlfriend, Helen (guest star Sarah Silverman) finally goes into labor. The resulting procedure — which tests the medical mettle of two of the best doctors in the city, Barton (Beau Bridges) and Bill (Michael Sheen) — ends in tragedy, as Helen dies in childbirth. Worse, as Helen’s non-legal gay partner, Betty holds no rights to the baby, watching with devastation as the infant ends up in the arms of Helen’s unaccepting parents.
It’s quite a shocker for Masters, and certainly the Showtime show’s biggest shocker since Barton’s suicide attempt in season 2. Sarah Silverman, who’d been guesting on the series since that season as well, was only ever due for a limited number of episodes, but surely stayed long past expectation because of her dynamic chemistry with Betty. Now, sadly, it appears her time is up in the most tragic way.
EW caught up with Masters creator Michelle Ashford for a literal post-mortem on the traumatic episode, Silverman’s exit, and a check-in on how this will shake up Bill Masters’ rehabilitation.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Poor Helen. Poor Betty! Why did you do this to poor Betty?
MICHELLE ASHFORD: Well, we had been thinking about this for a long time. Starting with Barton in the first season, we wanted to keep touching base with what it’s like to be gay in this time period. One of the things we wanted to explore, given where our show is going, is what constitutes a family, and we started talking about what it was like for a lesbian couple to try and put together a family in that day and age. What we realized is that, if Betty was going to carry the bulk of this storyline, for her to actually have to face the reality of what it means to be a mother in this situation, Helen had to be out of the picture for her to fully take on the reality of what happens. It’s a story that I think we were worried a little bit about — does it seem gratuitous, just in terms of killing Helen for drama’s sake? But in fact, what it really is is the beginning of a long story for Betty about how to put together a family and carve out any kind of rights at all as a single gay woman.
Again: poor Betty! And Helen!
Sarah, who we adore, is about the busiest woman on Earth, and we knew it was going to be tough to tell a really long, involved, complicated story with her — and we also knew without her it actually made Betty’s struggle all the more heroic in the end. And by the way, one of the reasons we were interested in this idea of parentage if you’re a gay couple is because even now, it can be very, very complicated in terms of who actually has the rights to a child. We really wanted to take Betty on a bizarre journey in terms of making the most unconventional family imaginable, and having to show her go through the process of [figuring out], does she have any rights to this kid? And if she doesn’t — which, she would have zero — how would she proceed?
Legislation for gay custody rights wouldn’t happen for decades, and you say it’s a long story for Betty. Is there any ounce of happiness for her in the immediate future?
Yeah, there is because, exactly, this didn’t happen for decades that you had any legal recourse. So what we’re going to watch is how she actually subverts a system that has nothing but roadblocks and actually finds a way to end up with the most bizarre family imaginable. In an odd way, we also realized that if she was alone and if she ended up with a baby and was essentially raising it alone, [she would] go back to Bill and Virginia and say, “I need things like maternity leave.” In an odd way, Betty becomes this weird sort of prototypical [example] — just out of sheer necessity — about how do women make their way through the workplace when they’re raising children? It opened up this really interesting avenue. It’s not a woman on a mission. It’s a woman trying to survive.
How has Betty surprised you in the way she’s evolved over the years?
Here’s the thing about the character, from day one when we first hired her: Annaleigh came in to read for a totally different role, and we just watched her and thought, “What if she played the prostitute?” And it was literally supposed to be a one-off. Four years later, I think what that says about her is that she is such a unique voice. She’s such a delightful, interesting character, and she’s a sort of subversive character because she’s coming at this whole thing from such a strange place. She becomes this sort of radical who, not in any way running around with picket signs…but as a single gay woman who could be protesting and marching about a lot of things, in an odd way she’s actually making more significant inroads by just demanding her rightful place and what’s due her. It’s great. What’s been surprising is just the force of the character. She’s incredibly compelling, and she’s funny, of course, always, but there’s a profound humanity in her and we want to go further and further into that for her.
Helen was always only supposed to be in a few episodes, right? When did you realize she had to stick around longer?
What works about her, first of all, we love her. And she again brings an energy that’s very different from Bill or Virginia or some of the other more sober characters that we have. We loved having those two women together, and we wanted Betty to have a proper love interest. We wanted to have her really try to make a family. What we wanted to show is ultimately that Betty and Helen were women of substance and commitment to one another. They were trying to do something in an age when there was hardly any roadmap for this. She was supposed to be just her girlfriend, but then we loved Sarah, and we thought, what’s interesting is that this is a substantive relationship. It means a lot to them and matters, and they’re committed. We liked that much better than Betty just sort of hooking up with different partners and then leaving them. We wanted to show the seriousness with which they were approaching all these issues.
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Did Sarah know this exit was bound to happen eventually? How did she react to this script in particular?
It came about in an odd way, actually. I had read numerous accounts of people, when they are in really dire circumstances — like people that have gotten trapped in avalanches — they have a tendency to call for their mother. In that stress, they revert back to a very basic, almost animal instinct of, “I need my mother.” And we realized, we really hadn’t seen Helen’s parents. The notion of having parents who are really hostile to your lifestyle and yet, if you were going to be in a life-threatening situation, you would still want them anyway, became really interesting to us. So I was mulling this and I sent Sarah an e-mail and said, “So, I have this weird thought. What do you think?” And she loved it. And she had just recently lost her mother in real life, and she completely believed in this notion that when you’re under that kind of stress, or you’re that frightened, you revert to this almost animal state. So we both really loved that idea. The two of us worked very hard on this story together. Sarah was incredibly instrumental in how that story ended up in its final shape. She was great. She’s obviously incredibly smart and we just had a great time going back and forth, and I loved her participation in this.
Was it a particularly difficult day on set?
It was very sad! Everybody was very weepy, and she did such a beautiful job and she’s so simple and sort of pure there at the end. It was very emotional, it really was. I have to say, I’ve always been a huge fan and I just love her, her politics, and how engaged and funny she is. But the fact that she cared so much about this… she never went, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ She was incredibly committed to this and I love her for that.
I imagine you’ll still see her around on set, though, right?
She came to set the other day and saw Bill and Virginia film a scene! It’s been really lovely. There’s been many joys about this particular show, but one of the most incredible things is how, between Allison Janney and Beau Bridges, all people who are supposed to just be in and out, or Annaleigh or Sarah who are just supposed to be kind of one-off, how they came in and just owned their roles and their characters so completely that they just became part of the family.
I feel like the show really leans in to where the stories themselves go, and which characters need to be involved. Plus, which characters fans love.
Exactly. We go with the love. And then we introduced two new characters this season, and at first they’re sort of odd and prickly, but boy, by the end, you really feel for both of them.
I love Nancy, for the most part. And Art, I admired at first, but he’s been getting on my nerves by not telling the truth about his night with Virginia. Yet I’m still weirdly enamored with them?
You’re having the experience I had making it with them, which is, “Ooh, I like them, they’re interesting.” And then by the end, oh my God, you’re just slayed. They end up being incredibly riveting.
Let’s talk about Bill. He’s doing…so good! He’s rehabilitating and getting everything back in order. Tell me about where we are with him, halfway through the season.
In the whole huge meta-arc of Bill Masters, which is going from a man who’s imprisoned by his own demons to meeting a woman who starts to unlock something in him, a process that he actually cannot stop even if he wanted to, because all of a sudden he’s just more aware and he has feelings that he can’t suppress. It’s been this slow shedding of layer after layer, and now he’s gotten to the point where he realizes he hasn’t been able to handle his obsession with Virginia, which leads to this whole parallel of how people operate when they’re in 12-step programs: “I have an addiction. It’s not manageable. I need to start thinking straight and making smart decisions. I need to find the essential me in there somewhere.” So he’s trying to get super clear about what’s going on with Virginia, and I believe this episode is when he says, “You don’t love me.”
The fascinating thing when I first read this book is that he’s clearly the more f—ed-up character overtly, but she’s actually as f—ed up as he is. I thought, it’s really interesting that he would then have the realization: “I don’t know if you are my demise or if you’re actually a way forward for me.” He’s in this weird teetering place of, “I don’t know what to do, how to trust you, if I should avoid you. You’re like poison, or are you poison!?” So that’s exactly where he is right now. To me it felt very real and very human. That’s where he is in the process, and certainly we carry that through to conclusion by the end of the season.
To your point, almost a role reversal between them. Bill’s won me over with the work he’s been doing for himself and for Libby. Virginia is, on the other hand, making self-destructive decisions and getting colder.
That’s exactly what’s going on. When you read Tom’s book, it’s bizarre. These two actually completely flip-flopped their dynamic from when they first met — and it really exactly happened like this. He became much more open, sensitive, in touch with his feelings, able to find some happiness, less ambitious. And she actually took up this mantle that he sort of had discarded and wore it as her own. It’s really bizarre. It’s almost like their impact on each other was so intense, they literally morphed into one another and went the opposite directions. We’re seeing right now in this season that exact thing, where they’ve met halfway and now they’re splitting off again and going the opposite way.
So, we’ve just entered the back half of the season now. Give me a tease.
I will say this: If you’re invested in Bill and Virginia as a couple, the best is yet to come for sure.
Masters of Sex airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime.