Last week’s episode of Masters of Sex was a setup for episode 5, “Giants,” a preamble to tonight’s conversation about race. Libby’s mistreatment of Coral was a hint that the topic of racism would become a more prominent plotline, while Bill’s acceptance of a position at a black hospital to pay the bills—and save his study—meant segregation would also come into play. And it did, but not before Bill and Virginia had another State of the Relationship meeting.
First however, Virginia is once again confronted by her guilt over the affair when Libby stops by with the baby. Libby’s venting about the “shocking” news that Bill would take a job at a “negro” hospital, and point blank asks Virginia: “Do they know what you two are doing?” It’s a chilling moment for Virginia—did her lover’s wife just call them out? But of course Libby remains oblivious to her husband’s cheating ways; she meant did the doctors at Maternity Hospital know Bill and Virginia were taking their study to Buell Green, and she wonders if Virginia gave Dr. DePaul her notice. The look of relief on Virginia’s face is priceless as she sighs that no, she hasn’t told Lillian. Libby serves as the model late-’50s ignorant American housewife in this conversation as she angrily says Bill “isn’t just rolling downhill, but picking up steam” by taking a job at a black hospital. What’s next, she wonders: working at a penitentiary? She’s upset about appearances and reputation and couldn’t care less about his career beyond how it reflects on her.
When Virginia later meets Bill at the hotel, she seems surprised when he hands her the key to her new office at Buell Green. Did Virginia learn about Bill’s new job from Libby? He’s very excited to be able to continue the study with her, but is completely clueless to the fact that he has, in essence, planned out Virginia’s future without her consent. He just assumed that she would blindly follow the study—correction, him—wherever he went.
Virginia brilliantly stands up for herself, calling him out on this idea that he can dictate her future. If she were to change hospitals with him, she demands a contract that spells out the terms of her employment. What would happen to her if he decides to jump ship again? Besides, maybe she’s perfectly happy hawking diet pills. (Okay, Virginia—no one’s buying that line.) Maybe she wants to stay at Maternity with Lillian. And that’s when she finds out someone else has a hand in deciding her career path: Lillian knows about the affair, Bill informs her.
The next time Virginia heads into work at Maternity, she’s very passive-aggressive with Lillian, refusing to answer the phone. Without any sort of greeting, Virginia wants to know why it matters what she does outside of the office if it doesn’t affect her work. Lillian shoots back with the perfect line: “I think it matters very much to Libby Masters.” Virginia insists she’s not having an affair with Bill, that they’re only continuing their research with themselves as subjects. Lillian, again with a zinger: “It’s okay because you’re taking notes?” Actually, Lillian dominates this conversation with her perfect comebacks, including: “What you’ve done makes it harder for women who come after you and easier for men with those same designs” and “Why would I entrust my life’s work to you when you were always going to leave me and follow Bill.”
And with that Lillian has pretty much summed up the entire Bill-Virginia relationship in one impassioned argument. Virginia has been called out on so many levels here, and she knows Lillian is right. No matter how progressive Virginia is in drive and attitude and beliefs, she is still sleeping with another woman’s husband. She has no defense, so she storms out.
Annnd she walks into Bill’s new office. It’s very small and basic, and he doesn’t hide his disappointment about that fact. He was, however, given the adjacent room as a dedicated exam room—much to the chagrin of his new colleague Dr. Franklin, who was forced to give up that space as his office to make way for the Great Bill Masters. Already there is tension.
The room is nothing but unopened boxes when Virginia walks in. Bill assumes her presence means she has accepted his offer, but there is a sense of compromise: He did get that employment contract for her. Virginia, still reeling from her confrontation with Lillian, asks if their participation in the study is an unwritten condition of her employment. Bill says yes, it’s part of the job.
That’s a short, simple sentence with a crazy amount of implication stuffed into it. “It’s part of the job,” Bill says, once again using work as a means to continue his sexual relationship with Virginia in an “acceptable” way. “Yes,” Bill says, trying to mask his emotional need to have her closer than any scientific partnership would acceptably allow.
Did that answer surprise Virginia? She had to see it coming, and it makes her feel conflicted. “Yes”: She revels in his desire to be with her. “It’s part of the job”: All of her hard work is diminished by the fact that she has slept with her boss—just like Lillian said. So if that’s the case, Virginia says, they should continue their personal research at the hotel, not in the exam room.
The power struggle continues in the hotel room, where Virginia decides she’s going to show Bill exactly how serious she is about her job. She sits in a chair with a clipboard and tells him to strip. He obliges, slowly removing articles of clothes. She commands him to stand and touch himself. Virginia starts a stopwatch and begins taking notes as he masturbates. She asks why he closed his eyes, wonders what he is thinking about. She’s stern; he’s submissive. There is tension—she’s treating him like any other patient in the study, but he’s not. When Bill answers her “what are you thinking about?” query with “you,” Virginia tells him to stop. “Come here,” she commands. She tells him to take off her garter/stockings and he goes downtown.
So can Virginia only exert her power through sex? Was that whole scene nothing but foreplay? She was able to get her employment contract, but on the condition that their illicit relationship continue. A contract may keep them together and power struggles might be a turn-on, but this relationship remains unsustainable both physically and emotionally in the real world—as evidenced in their awkward morning greetings at the office the next morning. Yet the study goes on.
NEXT: Change isn’t easy
Well, the study would go ond if they could convince any of their patients to continue visiting Bill at the black hospital. His fertility patients are scared to park their cars in “this neighborhood.” Bill gets punched in the face trying to break up a fight between a white husband and a black husband sitting in the waiting room, which leads to Dr. Franklin actually segregating the office, directing black patients to sit in one area and whites to sit in another. And Virginia notices someone is stealing—and throwing away—the fliers advertising their study. Oh, and she is confused: Will black participants in their formerly all-white study alter the scientific results? She’s swayed by stereotype; Bill says of course they won’t, all human physiology is the same, no matter what your skin color.
They’re incidents that serve to remind the viewer that this is the dawn of a turbulent, radical time. While the focus has been on the sexual revolution that Bill and Virginia are leading, the civil rights movement has been running parallel to their story in the background. Here, it intersects. When Bill tells Charles, the hospital executive who brought him on board, about the exodus of his patients, his new boss doesn’t want to hear it. “You didn’t ease people out of ignorance, you exposed them to the truth,” he says of Bill’s study. And that’s what he plans to do by integrating the hospital. He tells Bill to call every one of his patients and explain exactly why they need to continue seeing him at his new location. That’s how Bill moves his practice forward, and that’s how the hospital moves forward. And that’s how they move history forward.
Bill balks at the idea of contributing to history, and Charles calls him out on that lie: Otherwise, he says, Bill wouldn’t be so dedicated to his groundbreaking study. Charles cites a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave about the potential St. Louis had to make important contributions to the civil rights movement and asks Bill straight out if he will help make integration a priority at Buell Green. Bill says no—but not because he doesn’t believe in the cause. He defers to Virginia as the expert on relating to patients—once again giving her credit for the good work she does. Privately, he tells Virginia that civil rights are not their fight—but if they can help with their work, there’s nothing wrong with that.
This is the series’ feel-good, positive spin on race relations. Bill and Virginia may not be warriors in the civil rights movement, but they’re open-minded and doing their part—even if that doesn’t actually involve going out of their way to change anything. Remember: Bill only has this position because no other hospital would hire him with his controversial study attached.
Libby, meanwhile, highlights the dark side of the issue. Her frigid relationship with Coral was punctuated by the lice standoff last week. Libby won, forcing Coral to wash her hair with lice shampoo or be fired. Coral, naturally, told her boyfriend Robert about the incident, and so this week he paid a visit to Libby. He was calm as he told Mrs. Masters never to treat Coral like that again, but there was a quiet undertone of a threat.
Libby tries to flip the incident on Coral, telling the nanny that she should stay away from that boy. Coral isn’t naïve, and she doesn’t bite. She tells Libby that she knows Robert has a temper, but at night, when it’s just the two of them, all of that melts away. She gets a little explicit in detailing just how good she has it with Robert—when he kisses her, when he touches her—which of course flusters and embarrasses and infuriates Libby. After all, they’re having this conversation in the Masters’ bedroom… which includes his and hers twin beds. Coral may not have Libby’s money or status, but she does have a man who can please her—and that is something Libby will never have. At least not with Bill.
But Libby tries to have something with Bill by making a sad attempt at explaining why they should have make-up sex. And so we see Bill on top of Libby in her tiny twin bed. The sex is mechanical, emotionless. There is no pleasure, only obligation. Speaking of obligation…
When Libby tells Bill that Robert threatened her, he dutifully responds that had he been home, he would have protected and defended his wife. But then Libby lets the details of the lice incident slip, and Bill softens. He can’t believe she didn’t apologize for doing such a terrible thing to Coral. He can’t believe she got off so easily.
Later, Libby catches Robert outside when he arrives to take Coral home. Libby attempts to apologize, but he says she needs to apologize to Coral. She refuses, saying Coral deserved that treatment because she disobeyed her. And then Coral walks over. Robert tells her to listen, that Libby is giving a lesson in white people’s inability to take responsibility for their actions. Libby is horrified someone would use race as a derogatory term toward her. “Did you say ‘white people’?” she yells. “My husband works at the negro hospital!” Which, in the ’50s, appears to be the equivalent of the modern-day “But I have friends who are black!”
Another prejudice was examined tonight, too—homophobia. Sarah Silverman made her debut as Helen, a former friend of Betty. But they weren’t simply friends; they were lovers. We learn that Betty jilted Helen when the Pretzel King came along. Betty saw her meal ticket and went full steam ahead into a heterosexual marriage to turn her back on an extremely difficult, traumatic past and a no-future lesbian relationship. That led to the breakup with Helen, which was devastating on both sides.
And that’s why Helen looked up Betty and is trying to worm her way back into her life. Pretzel King adores this fun-loving, palm-reading pal, and arranges a double date with his friend, Al. The scenes between Helen and Betty are filled with hidden meaning and masked heartache—truly wonderful work by Silverman and Annaleigh Ashford as they simultaneously play the charming date/wife to two unwitting rich men. The women kiss in the bathroom; “You can’t do that,” Betty says. “I just did,” Helen replies. Is this another lie Betty will continue to hide, or will she finally reveal the whole truth to her husband?
And on the topic of reconciliation, it was nice to see Lillian and Virginia make up by episode’s end. It was touching to see Virginia so committed to bringing Lillian to her cancer treatments, even though the two didn’t speak to one another the whole time. It took a health scare on Lillian’s part—a dangerous fall that has her considering leaving Maternity as a doctor for good—for the women to realize the bond that they’ve created isn’t worth breaking over poor decisions and a sex doctor.