Bill betrays the study when a reporter interviews him for an article, while Virginia tends to Lillian, who has decided to stop cancer treatment.
Credit: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME

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…

So about that lip kiss. It might not have seemed so prominent, such a major detail in the meaningfulness of Virginia and Lillian’s relationship, had it not been for the Betty/Pretzel King story line taking place at the same time.

While Betty is planning a big to-do in honor of her husband’s pretzel biz going into syndication, Gene takes the time to tell her he doesn’t want to adopt kids after all. “As long as I’m yours and you’re mine,” he says, “that’s enough for me.”

Except that’s not enough for Betty. She’s shacking up with her true love, Helen. Betty talks about buying Helen an apartment, maybe one with a balcony over the river. Helen sees that as being relegated to mistress status. Betty thinks the word is silly, but doesn’t understand why it’s such a bad situation: She’s married to Gene, who pays the bills, while she and Helen can continue to see each other. A lesbian couple was never going to have the white picket fence, Betty reasons, but Helen still feels jilted.

So much so, in fact, she attempts to spite Betty by proposing to Al (the Pretzel King’s friend) and suggesting they elope right away. Betty flips out when Helen really tries to sell the loving husband-and-wife-to-be shtick by making out with her “fiancé.” Betty calls it a night and hits the bottle.

The next morning, Gene mistakes her freakout for having a thing for Al. Betty laughs at the idea she would ever think of Al that way—which is quite true—and says she’s sickened by the “freak show” that is the Al and Helen relationship. She insists she never wants to see them again. When Gene tries to break the news to Al, Al says that’s insane. How can two women go from kissing on the lips—like real kissing—to hating each other? Gene slowly puts two and two together, and decides to confront Betty right before their big celebration dinner. Gene says he knows for sure that she never loved any of the other men that she slept with… because she was in love with Helen.

“Who are you, Betty?” he demands. She’s tried so hard to hide her past from him, and yet every skeleton has been rattled from the closet. He forgave her for lying about being able to have kids, and even for her past as a prostitute. But he cannot stand this lie, knowing that her heart will always belong to Helen. Betty tries to console him by saying she cares for him, but Gene calls her out on this: “Caring” is not the same as love.

Betty and Gene serve as a mirror to the relationship of Bill and Libby: The Masters may care for one another, but their marriage appears to hold little love, and zero passion. There is also the mistress element—Betty has Helen while Bill has Virginia—and the argument that those relationships are more bound in true love than their marriages. And there’s the taboo factor: the lesbian couple and the couple who studies human sexuality.

But where Gene tries to mend things because he truly loves Betty, Libby is spiteful and mean because Bill can’t/won’t give her what she wants. And once again, she takes this anger out on Coral.

Libby is still wondering why a young girl like Coral can have a happy, fulfilling relationship with a man while Bill remains so distant and cold toward her. Every day she watches Coral and Robert and the way they interact when he picks her up. Bill comments that she watches them like a “peeping Tom,” which she takes offense to, considering they were in the middle of a conversation about his study… that involves watching people having sex. Libby says she doesn’t feel safe knowing Robert is around after he “threatened” her. Bill, exasperated, tells her to do something about the situation or shut up, basically.

So Libby does do something: She has someone in the police department run a check on Robert. When she discovers he has multiple arrests, she tells Coral she doesn’t want him anywhere near her and the baby and demands Coral find another way home each day. Coral says she’ll have her aunt pick her up, but she lied—later in the day Robert parks down the street, out of sight from the house, to get her. Libby, paranoid, follows Coral and discovers the truth. She’s so incensed by the act, she packs up the baby and follows them home.

It’s there that Robert finds Libby rooting through the mail, trying to figure out Coral’s apartment number. It’s there that Robert tells her the truth: He’s Coral’s brother, not lover. (Different last names = different fathers). So why did Coral lie? He’s not sure. But hey, Mrs. Masters—your leg is bleeding. (She cut it in her mad dash from the car to their apartment building.) Robert bends down to try to stop the bleeding and all of Coral’s words come drifting back to her—all of those words about his soft touch and gentle nature when it’s just the two of them… Libby jerks to her senses and tells him to stop. She’s throws cash at him and calls it Coral’s severance. “Tell her she’s fired,” Libby says before bursting into tears. Later, at home alone, she caresses that cut again, softly…

So what’s the difference between “love” and love? Well, once again we see how both kinds of love—and jealousy, and infatuation—drive people to do stupid things. And caring for someone—really caring about someone—sometimes means letting go, no matter how scary or painful. As for forbidden love… well, Betty and Helen proved that if it’s true, it can’t stay hidden forever. And neither can a comfortable existence masquerading as real love.

Episode Recaps

Masters of Sex

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

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