Masters of Sex recap: Asterion
How does time affect our relationships? How does memory alter how we perceive those closest to us in the present?
Masters of Sex episode 7, “Asterion,” uses time jumps and video footage as devices to explore the decline of some relationships and the reconciliation of others—and in some cases, both the ups and downs.
The episode picks up with the first time jump—five months after Bill was canned from Buell Green. He’s opened his own fertility clinic/lab—the Masters and Johnson Clinic (hooray for equality!)—in a building in a “transitional neighborhood” that also houses the Communist Headquarters. (Sometimes a guy pees on the wall outside, too.) He’s hired Lester, back from an unsuccessful attempt at a film career in Hollywood, to document study patients. Lester, throughout the episode, also documents the dynamic within the office and the private lives of a number of his colleagues. But for now, he’s measuring ejaculate. His clapboard tells us it’s Oct. 15, 1958.
Ejaculate distance is one of the 100 different sexual phenomenons Bill wants to include in the study before publishing it. He plans on observing each of those 100 mini-studies 100 times, for a total of 10,000 observed sex acts, just to make sure the data is “ironclad.” When he mentions that means they’re halfway through the study, Virginia balks—at the rate they’re going, there won’t be any funds to get anywhere close to number. Only 23 of his fertility cases followed him to his new practice, and it’s not like they’re having 100 babies each to keep the lights on in the joint. The tension between Bill and Virginia quite intentionally plays out like the argument of a married couple. It’s amplified when Betty shows up—she’s the new help hired by Bill to answer phones, do light paperwork, and take care of the books. (She kept the books at the brothel back in the day.) Two notes: Yay, Betty’s back. And boo, she (unsurprisingly) got divorced from the Pretzel King. Is she still seeing Helen? There’s no word of her lover, but the answer is looking like no.
The Bill-Virginia tension, of course, isn’t just over money. Since Bill discovered Virginia’s “beau” at the end of episode 6 and had a fit because his lover-whom-he-refuses-to-profess-his-love-to is seeing other people, he cut off their participation in the study. That leads Bill back to the old hotel bar, alone, to drunkenly smack talk “Mrs. Holden” to the bellhop. He speaks of Virginia as if they truly were married—he talks of vows and a sacred covenant. When you open yourself, expose yourself to someone like that, and she sees you and she’s not repulsed, Bill says, when she then betrays you, that can never be forgiven. Get off your high horse, Bill. You’re hurt, but you’re doing the same thing to Libby—your real wife. Worse yet, life minus Virginia has sent Bill to seek back alley blowjobs from prostitutes. Thing is, he can’t even get it up. That might cause a problem when Libby tells him she wants another child. It’s more like a demand, really, which is what Libby is good at: getting her way. “This is what I need,” she tells Bill.
Meanwhile, Virginia is dealing with Bill’s rejection by continuing to see the guy who sent Bill into a tailspin in the first place, Shelly. They even go on a double date with Dr. Langham, who’s getting his own “second chance” with a hand model who’s considering getting into lingerie modeling. (How convenient: There’s a modeling agency downstairs from the Masters-Johnson clinic… the status of which helps serve as an indicator whenever time shifts.)
Back in the office, Betty tells Bill he won’t regret hiring her. It’s a sweet moment with Bill saying he’s helping in her time of need (i.e. being broke after getting dumped by a snack mogul) since she helped him out so many times. And he’s gonna need her: The only way he can get a loan to keep the practice afloat, he finds out, is to put all of his assets up as collateral.
The study is looking about as bright as their financial situation—which is to say, it’s pretty grim. They’re stuck paying a participant the $10 fee after he orgasms in less than five seconds, which is useless information. Virginia suggests broadening the questionnaire to screen for sexual dysfunction from the get-go. Bill, all business, agrees. At this, Virginia attempts to clear the air and attempts to alleviate the palpable discomfort that working together now causes. Bill cuts deep with his words, saying Virginia can barely keep clean sheets on her bed with the number of men she welcomes into her home. He doesn’t want to be another one of those “strangers” walking through her kids’ lives. “We’re work colleagues, nothing else,” Bill says, once again deflecting his pain. Cut to Virginia, rattled, lighting up a cigarette in her office. (Smoking, it turns out, becomes a signpost for the changing times in this episode.)
NEXT: What time is it?
Libby finally comes to visit the new office. Betty greets her, and in the time it takes them to walk through the lobby and up the stairs, the episode flashes forward one year. Kudos to the writers and creative team for the slick transition in clothing, hairstyles, and music to subtly mark the passing of time. Of course, not so subtle is the fact that Libby is now carrying two babies—John is older, and there’s a little one in pink on her hip. It’s Sept. 2, 1959, we learn—courtesy of Lester’s clapboard once again. Inspired by the documentary Windjammer, Lester is now filming Virginia and Bill’s work outside of the exam room. The study is like the film, he says—it’s real life. It’s kind of a dopey metaphor, but okay, we get it.
Meanwhile in Bill’s office, Libby confronts her husband about putting their house up for collateral without her knowledge. (She found out when a man from the bank was snooping around to reassess the property.) Bill insists everything is fine; Libby demands that if sacrifices must be made, they need to be made at work, not in their home life. But hasn’t their entire relationship been one giant sacrifice of emotional fulfillment to feed some misguided idea of a “good” marriage. “Why would I do my best to make you happy then turn around and undo it all?” Bill asks her, simultaneously lying and summing up his screwed up relationship with all women.
Libby takes matters into her own hands and phones Bill’s mom, whom Bill pretty much banished from their lives earlier this season. Behind his back, mommy dearest has been visiting Libby and the grandkids on a regular basis, which infuriates him—probably because he told her all of his “secrets” when he unceremoniously sent her back to Ohio. But she comes asking for forgiveness, and she promises that his secrets are safe. Oh, also: She wants to give him a chunk of money and bail out his failing new practice.
So yeah, none of that goes over well when he’s back home with Libby. They fight an epic fight over his mom, Libby lying about seeing her, and the money. Choice moments include Bill screaming, “I PROVIDE THE ROOF” and Libby calling him out for acting like he’s the only person scarred from his past and insisting that he spread his torment around and make everyone else suffer along with him.
But it’s time to go to a party… Langham’s birthday party. His girlfriend is now into burlesque—thanks to that ever-evolving, kind of shady modeling agency—and pops out of his cake. Bill and Libby are barely speaking; Bill’s too busy trying to sabotage Virginia’s relationship with her new man, both of whom are in attendance as well. Bill is once again vicious in his words, going into explicit details about the study when he’s introduced to the new boyfriend, Kevin. Virginia finds relief in a cigarette in the bathroom; Libby comes in looking for respite of her own, and passes on the offer of a smoke. (She quit during fertility treatments.) The women bond over the damaged man they both love—or Virginia loves, unbeknownst to Libby, and Libby tolerates because he’s her husband—with Libby talking about how he “fears so many things” and thinks an apology “would make him weak.” They haven’t had sex in over a year, she admits. And then another obvious metaphor: She likens herself and Bill to two tectonic plates that will inevitably crash and break apart with a violent jolt.
Later Virginia finds Bill on a balcony, where he drunkenly tries to apologize and feel her up at the same time. “That is one world he says,” referring to the party guests below, “this is the other.” He crosses the line when he once again brings up the “strangers” that frequent Virginia’s life and “apologizes” for his “faithless, fickle heart.” She pushes him away and runs. Virginia has always caved when he opened himself up emotionally, but this time he’s just saying what he thinks she wants to hear—and she’s not buying it.
NEXT: Let’s do the time warp again
Time shifts again as Betty walks through the office lobby with prospective new tenants, finally renting their extra space to Flo, the Cal-O-Metric saleswoman who previously tortured Virginia. (My, how time does change.) It’s Oct. 11, 1960 as Lester films Betty and Bill talking about financials (he’s quickly asked to shut off the camera). Betty says their fertility patient numbers are up, she raised their rates, and they’re looking at a 20 percent increase in profit over the last month. Bill is skeptical.
Meanwhile, Virginia runs into her old boyfriend Shelly—whom she pretty much remembers nothing about, kind of confirming Bill’s idea that the guy was a stranger in her life. When she watches Lester catalog old footage from the study’s first days back at Maternity—including footage of her tenderly fixing Bill’s bow tie—she gets nostalgic and once again decides to patch things up with her boss-lover. In Bill’s office, she hands him a hotel key and tells him that, aside from her children, everything she has is tied to her work—to him. It’s risky, being that honest, but she knows in her heart what he thinks of her. “Whatever this is between us can’t be undone,” she says, adding that they’ll go through much worse hell then the “undeclared war” they’re currently waging before all is said and done. “Just because you go home to someone doesn’t mean you’re not alone,” he tells her. She asks that he allow her someone to hold onto while he holds onto Libby.
The conversation seems to have struck a chord with Bill, because he and Virginia are later sitting in the hotel room. Virginia asks if she should take off her clothes, if he will take off his clothes. Tonight, he says, he needs to reacquaint himself with her body, describing how he will make her climax with his hands, his mouth. She’s fully naked; he’s fully clothed when she asks if this means they’re resuming their work. “What do you think?” he asks her, again summarizing the complexities of their relationship in one little line. “What do you think” is what they are constantly asking themselves about each other because they’re both too damn stubborn and afraid to admit their true feelings in a transparent way.
In another room at the same hotel, Langham is helping a friend celebrate his bachelor party as Lester films the revelry. Things get awkward when Lester turns on a stag film, which appears to feature Langham’s hand model-turned-lingerie model-turned burlesque dancer-turned-porn star girlfriend. Time progresses, indeed. That realization on top of the “hollowness” of the bachelor party sends him to the house of his estranged wife, where he asks her to take him back. He swears he’ll be faithful, but she says she’s moved on. “Some things cannot be undone,” she tells him, echoing Virginia’s statement to Bill. Where one couple reconciles, another breaks for good…
Later, Bill attempts to sell his services as an on-call doctor to the hotel in exchange for free boarding for himself and Mrs. Holden. (The bell hop-now-night-manager is happy to see they’ve patched things up.) Unfortunately, guests might not feel comfortable being seen for illness by a radiologist. A guy like Dr. Masters, who delivered the manager’s sister’s baby, now he would be a doctor they would hire. And so Bill’s lies bite him in the ass. The fantasy life he has built for himself at the hotel cannot keep up with reality. Will he tell the truth, or will he find another, more affordable place to shack up with Virginia?
The past also returns in the form of Bill’s old secretary at Memorial—the one who was doing Greathouse—who now wants to participate in their study. But she has a “closed” vagina and because of her sexual dysfunction is not qualified for the study, even though she and Greathouse had plenty of “other” sexual relations. “Don’t feel bad about rejecting me,” she tells Virginia. “Sometimes in life, the answer is, ‘no.'” Does everyone have an overly obvious metaphor to spout in this episode?
Virginia discusses the secretary’s case with Bill at another birthday party. (That’s two b-days for his kids in this episode, another clear marker of time.) Virginia is disappointed that they won’t be learning more about the woman’s sexual history. Libby walks in and sends Bill out to the grill. She and Virginia share more girl time—now Libby is smoking and Virginia has quit. Libby invites Virginia to their lake house, saying Bill’s always more pleasant when she’s around. (Ha!)
Bill, for his part, is trying to do right by his family, or as best as he can while still sleeping with his research partner. He invited his mother to the party, to the pleasure of Libby. But Bill knows she has gone behind his back and is funding his clinic—that’s where that extra 20 percent income came from. His mother said she had to help him; she couldn’t not help him, not again (see: her standing idly by while his dad beat the crap out of him as a kid). Repeatedly, she tried to hit home one point: “I am so very proud of my son.”
And the episode ends with Bill and his mother, viewed not in “real time,” but through the film footage that Lester is shooting of the party. The home video feel—used throughout the episode whenever Lester was filming—added that extra layer of commentary about how memory plays into our actions. Nostalgia is a powerful thing—for better or worse.
That bedroom fight. Bill takes it just as good as he gives it. Same with Libby. Their innate ability to tear each other down with pointy, pointy words is a glimpse into how, maybe once upon a time, in tune with each other they once were—even if it’s ugly and mean and spiteful.
Not once is Dr. DePaul mentioned, which is a shame—she had a profound effect on Virginia, both as a friend and mentor, and surely her death has had a major impact on Ms. Johnson, even as time goes by. Their final scenes together were raw and intimate and real, and to not even acknowledge that in the follow-up episode seems odd. Virginia is someone who is attuned to emotions, so she wouldn’t easily “forget” about Lillian. Perhaps the choice to not reflect on her death was meant to show that Virginia has “moved on,” but Lillian was not one of her “beaus” whose names she so easily forgets. And because of that, it seems like an oversight in this hour.
This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.