Michael Desmond/Showtime
August 11, 2014 at 03:15 AM EDT

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

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