What is the difference between simply caring for someone and truly loving that person? It’s a question the Masters of Sex characters grapple with in episode 6, “Blackbird.”
It starts with Virginia insisting there is “no kissing” in her “research” with Bill. They are partners in every sense of the word—at work, in bed—but refuse to say those three little words that would take their relationship to a romantic level. Oh, the love is already there—they need each other emotionally much more than either is willing to let on. But it’s that unspoken love that makes this relationship so fascinating to watch.
Take, for instance, Bill and Virginia’s tag-team effort when they confront Hendricks over his refusal to allow his black staff to participate in the sex study. Hendricks’ decision is coming from a place of historical abuse against black people—horrible experiments done to them in the name of “science”—and sexual stigma against the race. Bill and Virginia argue that by allowing the staff to participate in their study, the facts will speak for themselves, and the truth will be known.
It’s the same argument they make to the St. Louis Chronicle reporter whom they invite to tell Bill’s story. Bill and Virginia tell the reporter that they go where the research takes them, plain and simple. She sees the potential for the research to dispel myths about the black population. If that were an outcome, Bill views it as a positive side effect to the study—but he insists he’s not altering his goal to prove that theory. (It’s the same attitude he took toward Hendricks’ vision of integrating the hospital—if the study helps in achieving that, cool. But it’s not his work’s purpose.)
But later, alone with the reporter, Bill feels bullied by her well-researched questions. Is his obsession with medicine due to his lengthy hospital stays as a kid? Did he get into obstetrics because of some god complex? What about his assault on Greathouse that got him fired from Memorial? And the fire extinguisher he threw through a window at Maternity?
Bill is angry that she dug up that information; those incidents taken out of context could damage his reputation. His story is one of overcoming adversity, the reporter says. He’s a revolutionary countering resistance with resistance. He’s estranged from the white community. “It’s my study,” Bill says. “It’s my story,” the reporter counters.
Bill, not accustomed to losing control of any situation, meets with the reporter’s editor, who says the story presents Bill as fighting “a larger and more righteous battle.” Not bad, right? Except Bill is so concerned about how he might be perceived personally that he tries to blackmail the editor with his research. Bill says the study has, in fact, proven that black people have a larger penis size, increased sexual desire, and higher testosterone levels. Basically, he’s saying all of those myths are true—which Bill himself passed off as ridiculous when Virginia brought up the topic earlier this season. So here we have Bill—who puts nothing above his research—who has now lost all sense of morality in the face of a potential slight on his name. This devastating change of character is the result of bigger concerns—here he is at a third hospital that won’t allow him to continue the study in a way he deems necessary. It’s taken him to such a low place that he is willing to slander the research itself in an attempt to save himself. But the editor calls bulls—, knowing the doctor is lying. Bill goes so far as to dare the editor to put his reputation against his own before storming out. He’s confronted with his actions by the elevator in the form of a framed print that reads: “I AM A MAN.”
Back in Bill’s office, Hendricks has caught wind of what went down at the newspaper. Bill is rightfully ashamed and admits that he has never misrepresented his work, not even as a tactic. “I can’t continue my work like this,” he says.
Hendricks, though disappointed in what Bill has done, seems to understand. “There is nothing more dangerous than a desperate man,” he says. When Bill admits he can’t work in any hospital anymore, can’t be “beholden to others,” Hendricks tells him to “cut the cord.” (Ha—obstetrics pun.) He tells Bill it’s going to feel like dying, turning his back on a 25-year career in fertility and delivering babies, but he needs to see if he can be reborn. He tells Bill to clear his office by morning.
Bill, once again canned from a comfortable gig at a hospital, turns to Virginia for support. (Also, he’s got to deliver the bad news that she’s also losing her job—again—if she wants to continue helping with the study.) But when a man opens the door at Virginia’s house, Bill’s taken aback—who is this stranger? He identifies himself as Virginia’s “beau”—they met in the hotel lobby watching that big televised fight (see: episode 3 from earlier this season)—and have been dating for a little while. Bill tries to act nonchalant—oh, he’s just a colleague who stopped by, no need to pass along a message. But when he turns from the house he’s nearly hyperventilating trying to control his emotions. How can Virginia have another man in her life? How could she have given him a key to her house? (That’s the sign of something serious, right?) Bill’s about to break down because he needs Virginia. But unlike that night that closed season 1, when he ran to her in a time of need and their relationship took a step forward, Virginia is now unavailable to him. But she’s not just physically unavailable—that “beau” represents her emotional distance as well.
The thing is, at that exact moment, Virginia could’ve used a little comfort, too. She wasn’t home when Bill stopped by because she was watching Lillian’s life slowly fade away.
Earlier, when Lillian straight up asked her doctor what would happen to her as her cancer progressed, he gave a grim portrayal of the painful deterioration she would face. Lillian decides to quit radiation therapy, which does not go over well with Virginia. Virginia, who fights for everything she holds dear, is unable to accept the idea that Lillian is ready to let go. “I can’t do this for you,” Lillian says. “I tried, but I’m done.”
Virginia tries to come to terms with Lillian’s decision during her next hotel tryst with Bill. Instead of “research,” they sit on the bed, fully clothed, as Virginia cries and tries to accept the fact that her friend has made the choice to die. She tries to figure out how she let Lillian get so close in the first place: “She’s so rigid and demanding,” Virginia says. “She’s a complete know-it-all, and not even very much fun.” She’s not only describing Lillian—this woman she “didn’t see coming” who managed to break down her walls—she’s describing Bill, too.
Both Lillian and Bill are these brilliant pillars of passion and dedication for Virginia, who very much wants to contribute to the greater good. And in her they have, perhaps for the first time in their lives, softened and become more emotionally in tune with themselves. Virginia weeps at the idea that she is losing one of her only friends. Bill looks slightly uncomfortable, but thanks to Virginia, he knows what to do: He puts his hand to her chin and says, “I know you,” and gently kisses her. She kisses him back, and the “no kissing” rule is out the window, at least temporarily, because they finally allow themselves to feel.
Virginia reconciles with Lillian by stopping at her house, asking if she needs any errands run. There’s one: deliver a package to Lillian’s family stating that she wants her body donated to science. Perhaps, she hopes, a student can use her body to find a cure for ovarian cancer. Later, they drink wine and listen to music, just like old friends. Lillian admits one regret: that she never had a lover who stayed with her, lingered. Wistfully she points out that Virginia has that with Bill. Virginia scoffs; “He never says it,” she says. “But you know it,” Lillian counters, “and that’s everything, isn’t it?”
Virginia tucks Lillian into bed and lovingly traces words on her forehead, a technique she uses to help her kids fall to sleep. She finds “constellations” in her friends’ freckles, including one of a warrior princess, who burns so brightly in the night sky because she always knew who she was. Virginia bends over and kisses Lillian lightly on the lips, saying she’ll see her in the morning.
That is love, and Lillian realizes she did have someone who stayed with her. It’s a realization that hits just a little while later, when she decides to take an entire bottle of sleeping pills.
Remembering she forgot the envelope for Lillian’s family, Virginia returns, only to hear her friend having difficulty breathing. When she realizes Lillian has overdosed, Virginia immediately calls for an ambulance. But during the frantic call, she realizes this is what Lillian wants: to die peacefully in her sleep, without any pain and suffering. Virginia hangs up the phone and crawls into bed with her dear friend who is slowly passing away.
NEXT: About that kiss…