A camera crew arrives to document the work of Masters and Johnson, but Bill is unsure it's the right way to promote their research.
Credit: Showtime

A lot can change over the course of one day—especially when a camera crew arrives to document your controversial life’s work.

Bill’s still not “functioning,” despite that moment of passion last episode when he showed up at the hotel room bloodied and Virginia “took care of him.” (Bill’s brother, who busted his face all up, is out of the picture again; he and his wife went back to Kansas City, and Bill hasn’t spoken or written to him since.) Bill can wake up with an erection, much to his dismay, but he’s still having trouble curing his impotence when he’s intimate with Virginia. Still, he soldiers on, applying some of Libby’s makeup to his still-healing face. The CBS cameras are arriving in the office to tell the Masters and Johnson story.

Bill is still unsure about PR guy Shep’s plan to present their research to the masses via television. Is he personable enough for viewers to invite him into their homes? Can he explain his research in layman’s terms without coming across as a pervert? Not wearing that bow tie, Shep tells him. And is Bill wearing makeup? Shep thinks it’s a good idea to include Libby—who will be bringing Bill a straight tie from home—in the interview and play up the family man angle. Bill reminds everyone who will listen that he’s not a salesman. Too late for that.

An interviewer preps Bill and Virginia by asking questions about their research and relationship before the cameras roll. Virginia is a natural, while Bill can’t even muster a smile. She tries to lead him in the conversation, but he’s not taking her cues. He looks like a deer in headlights; things get even more awkward as he realizes his diction and vocabulary really isn’t going to fly for a mainstream audience. “CBS doesn’t like dildos” one guy tells Lester while trying to sort through research footage, quickly realizing clips of masturbation and sex—between unmarried partners, nonetheless!—is all useless for broadcast TV. If you sanitize the clips, you undermine the work, Lester angrily declares, attempting to stand up for the cause. His concerns go unheard.

Bill is told the word “orgasm” won’t work. Censors aren’t going to like “climax.” Maybe “peak” could be okay? Bill finally shows emotion—how can they talk about the study when they can’t even say the name of one of the stages in the human sexual response cycle, which is fundamental to their research? This knocks Bill out of his dead-fish state. The goal is to promote conversations about human sexuality, he says, passion growing in his voice. Vocabulary—words this broadcast won’t permit—about sex should be commonplace, he explains.

Like sneeze or hiccup, interjects Virginia. Hey, they’re getting the hang of this…

Censorship perpetuates shame, which in turn fosters ignorance, and ignorance prevents change, Bill adds. So you see, it’s a dangerous trajectory to shy away from the language of the body.

Later, in the bathroom, Lester confesses his concerns about the documentary to Bill. But Bill is trying to talk himself into the merits of this endeavor. Maybe they know what they’re doing. The last time he tried to explain his work, he got his hat handed to him—literally. Maybe they should give CBS enough latitude to do the job they brought them in to do.

Lester disagrees. The end justifies the means? Now is not the time to give up on your principles, he scolds Bill. Also, Bill needs someone to tell him he looks stupid in that tie. Because it’s not just Bill’s life’s work that is hinging on this documentary; Lester, too, has given his all because it’s something he really believes in.

Lester’s words hit home when a “couple” is brought in for an “intake interview” for added visuals in the documentary. But giving viewers any perception that Bill and Virginia are healing couples suffering from any kind of sexual dysfunction is way ahead of the study. They’re not there yet—Bill hasn’t even found a way to fix his own impotence, which just adds insult to injury anytime anyone brings up the new objectives of the research. Shep and a producer massage the message, using forward-looking wording that projects what the study hopes to accomplish in the future—and that way it’s not lying, right?

Bill doesn’t view it that way. In an aside with Shep, he makes it clear he’s very unhappy with the idea of portraying study patients through actor reenactments. Shep tries to explain that the entire documentary can’t be Bill and Virginia behind a desk. Bill once again stresses he’s not a salesman, but Shep calls BS on that excuse. Of course he needs to sell this study. He compares this interview with the televised debates between Nixon and Kennedy. Whatever happens in the long run doesn’t matter right now—what matters is that Bill and Virginia are the first to deliver this research. Is Bill still aiming for that Nobel Prize? Does he still want to make sure he’s not a footnote in someone else’s study on human sexuality? That’s what this—the camera crews, the message that he and Virginia are the friendly medical researchers next door, the mainstreaming of their research—is all about.

But all of that brings out Bill’s insecurities. It’s made worse when a cameraman uses a “beauty and the beast” analogy for him and Virginia. Of course everyone assumes they’re more than just professional colleagues watching people do it all the time. Look at her—why wouldn’t he want her? The question is why would she want him…

All of that doubt—about publicizing the study this way, about himself—weighs on Bill after the camera crew has left. Virginia finds him in an exam room, jacket, shirt and tie off, soaked through with sweat. They can’t present themselves as the saviors of sexual dysfunction without having cured anyone, himself included, he tells Virginia. And why would people want him in their living room anyway? He doesn’t have that Jack Kennedy twinkle, that allure. I’m not personable, I don’t smile, he says. He feels like Nixon. He feels like a loser.

Virginia tries to offer reassurance; she’s appalled that he suddenly believes he’s not attractive. She’s here, with him, when she should be putting her kids to bed. (More on that below.) Isn’t that proof enough that she finds him attractive?

Why do you want to be with me, someone who looks like this? Bill asks. I can’t twinkle. I can’t f—k.

Virginia tries again to calm him down, this time by simply hugging him. He breaks down; she holds him, puts her hands around his face. Weary, he collapses to the ground, and she sits there, cradling him…

NEXT: How was your day, Libby?

It’s a direct juxtaposition with the way Libby’s evening ends. Where Bill is emotionally spent, Libby is finding a kind of strength and empowerment she never experienced before.

She played the good wife earlier in the episode, bringing Bill a new tie as directed, sitting for what must have been hours waiting for her turn in front of the camera. She was supposed to be interviewed as the “woman behind the man.” But as she watched Bill interact with Virginia, she realized that woman standing behind her husband was no longer her. And so she excused herself from the office and went downstairs to CORE, where she could feel useful again.

Everyone in the CORE office is waiting for word on the status of Martin Luther King Jr., who was arrested during a protest. Libby answers phones and tidies up; she’s one of the last people hanging around when Robert says he’s heading home. Libby was going to catch a ride with Bill, who’s still stuck upstairs with CBS; Robert offers to give her a ride home.

In the car, Libby wonders why Robert is always testing her. Is it because he wants to chalk her up as some silly fly-by-night do-gooder? Robert clarifies that he doesn’t think she’s stupid, just uniformed. Libby says that may be the case, but she cares about the cause. That’s when a cop, who notices a black man pulled over in Libby’s nice neighborhood, comes over and begins to harass Robert. The officer calls him boy and tries to pick a fight. Libby saves Robert by saying he’s a coworker who has been invited into her home. The cop lets them go, but not before roughing up Robert a little.

Inside, Libby wants to fix Robert’s shirt, which is now missing a button, thanks to the cop. He’s more concerned with what Libby’s neighbor, who had been watching the kids, would say about Libby inviting a negro into her house. Libby tries to brush it off, but he is still resistant to her help—he won’t take off his shirt, he won’t walk into the bedroom.

And so instead, Libby sews the new button onto Robert’s shirt in the kitchen. She snips the extra thread with her teeth, against his chest. He’s uncomfortable and won’t let her fix it when he realizes the button is too big. He has neighbor who can fix it; what would she think about Libby, Mrs. Masters wonders.

She’d think he’s asking for trouble, Robert says, and that’s what Libby wanted to hear. She never had the chance to be bad; she was always the teacher’s pet. And when she grew up to be an adult, those expectations of being a pretty girl remained pegged on her. People forget you’re there, she says. Your husband forgets that you’re there.

Then you meet someone who doesn’t like you very much, doesn’t think you’re kind or good, just ignorant and prejudice, Libby says, speaking of Robert. And this thing that you have been afraid of, someone thinking ill of you, is almost a relief. At least someone is seeing you and you’re not invisible.

Robert says she’s got some nerve. Is she one of those white women who wants a colored man because she doesn’t like herself very much? Libby doesn’t know. I don’t know what I am, she says. I don’t know why I want what I want, I just think… kiss me and maybe I could figure it out.

Robert protests, slightly—what about the neighbor, the policeman, the two kids down the hall? Do they matter when she’s got him, that man who once upon a time went looking for trouble? She kisses him once, twice… and he kisses her back. And then they’re undressing, they’re having sex on the kitchen floor. He’s holding her hand, kissing her neck, and for the first time, Libby appears to smile out of sheer pleasure, not obligation.

Is it a fantasy? Flo, the Cal-O-Metric lady, thinks that the “dangerous” man is the guy every woman wants in her bed (or on the kitchen floor, whatever). She’s infatuated with Clark Gable, particularly his role as Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, and even more specifically that scene on the staircase where he wanted Scarlett so badly he simply took her. Flo tells her spokesman/reluctant lover Langham that he better show up at her house later, “uninvited.”

But Langham’s bad at this rough kind of role-playing. Flo gets somewhat exasperated by his lack of comprehending what she wants, but she still ends up getting her way. Doesn’t he get points for not knowing the right way to take advantage of a woman? Langham wonders.

Flo tries to explain the idea of getting what you can’t have. Didn’t he ever “screw the indifference out of a girl?” She’s tired of being Rhett, of being the one who is denied what she so deeply desires; she wants to be Scarlett and have things come easily for a change. But she falls back into Rhett mode, informing Langham that she’s not ready for their unprofessional relationship to be over just yet. Even if the game is pretending, it’s about more than just job security, he tells him. “Although it would be nice if you gave a damn.”

Which is sort of what George is beginning to think about his ex-wife, Virginia. George can’t get a moment to speak with Virginia since she is working day and night with Bill on the study. When he finally snags a few minutes with her (at the most inconvenient time, on the day CBS is in the office), he drops the bomb that he wants to take their kids to Europe for six weeks with his new wife while he’s on tour.

Virginia instinctively says no, but George brings up a good point: Would that really be worse than them staying home and maybe seeing their mom for a few minutes before they fall asleep each night? She’s beginning to realize the impact of the sacrifices she’s making for her job, and she doesn’t like it.

Virginia stops Herb, the divorce lawyer tenant down the hall, and asks for some quick advice. He suggests letting the kids go with their dad—he’s been a good father, the children will have the chance to see Europe, and saying no could open a whole new custody battle that she really doesn’t want to get into. Virginia concedes.

She lets the kids know the “good” news while feeling miserable for/about herself. They tell her about dad’s new wife and how strict she is; Virginia watches the babysitter scold her son for calling his sister a name and remind them to eat their veggies. Is she a good mom? She feels left out, even more so when her daughter asks what she’ll do for Christmas, all by herself. Virginia tries to be brave and says their postcards will be her Christmas gift. The idea of being alone hits her hard.

And so she stays with Bill long into the night, after CBS has packed up and gone. She reassures him that she’s there for him, and cradles him when he needs her, letting him know that she’s not going anywhere.

Episode Recaps

Masters of Sex

This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.

  • TV Show
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