Scars from their childhoods affect Bill and Barbara, who are unwilling to emotionally confront their pasts. Meanwhile, Virginia's sessions with the psychologist suddenly become personal, leading her to a realization she didn't expect, and Libby takes a stand.

By Amber Ray
September 08, 2014 at 03:15 AM EDT
Michael Desmond/Showtime
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Not every problem can be solved scientifically—much to the chagrin of Bill Masters. Repeated trial and error isn’t foolproof; neither is evidence in some cases. And experience—especially what is gone through during one’s formative years—isn’t always the best teacher.

Take, for instance, Bill’s fragile relationship with his brother. Frank’s alcoholism nearly destroyed his marriage, but he and his wife seem stronger and happier now that he is sober (they’re even trying to have a kid now, with Bill’s help). The younger Masters brother hopes what he learned in Alcoholics Anonymous can help repair his relationship with big bro, too—and so he stealthily takes Bill to an AA meeting, under the guise of introducing him to some of his friends.

Bill, of course, views this stunt as a “bait and switch” maneuver. He’s not moved by Frank’s tale of being a magician, one whose specialty is “the disappearing act.” He makes his sobriety chip “disappear,” then launches into his backstory: He would disappear down the street to a neighbor’s house when he sensed trouble with their father; he would mentally “disappear” in the middle of his father’s criticisms about tap dancing lessons or getting a B in biology. But the act got tougher, and soon he needed fearless assistants: brandy, sherry. All along, Frank says, he realized he had the best teacher of all in this vanishing act: their dad. At this remark, stone-faced Bill gets up and leaves the meeting, right when Frank aims the spotlight at him. Ta-da: another Masters disappearance.

Bill is livid (it’s hard to keep count of how many times that’s been written in this season’s recaps) when Frank stops by the office the next day for an explanation on why he stranded him at the meeting. Bill is flabbergasted that Frank might be looking for an apology; Frank says he wanted to use the experience to reintroduce himself to his brother because he needs his support. It’s in rooms like that I’ve found the courage to tell the truth, Frank says.

But Bill is dismissive: That tale of the sadistic father teaching him humiliation until he left home to become a doctor? That’s Bill’s story, not Frank’s. Did AA allow him to appropriate his brother’s story? Was it Frank’s justification for his indulgence? Or maybe he’s just delusional? Frank wonders why Bill can’t believe he may have experienced the same crappy childhood once Bill left the house. Bill says that’s because he was the apple of their father’s eye, but Frank clarifies: He was a son of a bitch to both of his sons, yet in the end, they both escaped. Who did Bill think he was in Frank’s story, Frank or their dad? “He left you and you left me,” Frank says. I don’t blame you for it, he adds. I did, but I understand now and forgive you.

Frank says the truth healed him. “You just have to share it,” he says. And Bill actually takes that advice to heart, because he finds himself in need of a little sexual healing. But he’s not willing to admit it quite yet.

Instead, he uses poor Lester as his guinea pig. They’re both currently impotent, a dysfunction that is proving particularly difficult to hide when he continues to meet Virginia for their illicit sexual rendezvous. He plays off not wanting to have sex as “having had too much too drink” (last week) or wanting to “take care of her” (this week). He tries to solve this impotence problem through the study, enlisting a “professional”—that’s a prostitute friend of Betty’s, Miss Kitty—to “cure” Lester.

Lester’s responsible for the comic relief this episode, first misunderstanding Bill’s offer of a prostitute as a bonus, then fumbling terribly once he’s actually in bed with Kitty. He was reluctant to participate in this for the study/for his own benefit, even when Bill tries to sell the opportunity as Lester’s chance to be a “pioneer” in helping to understand and cure impotence.

But not even a pro like Miss Kitty (who gets an awkward Gunsmoke joke) can ease Lester’s mind enough to help Lester get it up—not even when she plays sexy doctor to help him relax when he’s concerned their encounter might give him a heart attack.

Bill is exasperated by Lester’s reluctance to continue being an active participant in the study, realizing it’s not something that he can “fix” in a clinical setting. The way Lester sees it, he’ll get over this dysfunction not with an expert but with a woman he views as an equal match. In other words, with someone who takes the time to learn his body (and vice-versa) and for whom he has feelings. He’ll get over this with a woman as a couple. “Don’t you know a couple like that?” he asks. Ding-ding-ding: The light bulb goes off in Bill’s head. But can he admit his deficiency to Virginia, even if she is the cure?

NEXT: Sexual healing?

Speaking of cures, Barbara continues to see Bill and Virginia to fix her own sexual dysfunction, vaginismus. Like Bill and Lester, Barbara’s problem is rooted in psychology, though the trauma she experienced has affected her more adversely than that of the two men. Virginia unwisely continues to impersonate Barbara in sessions with the city’s best psychologist in an effort to learn a technique that might help Barb come to terms with the incest that has played a role in her dysfunction. It’s hard to tell if the psychologist is onto her or not; he’s definitely skeptical when she recounts her/Barbara’s story of sexual awakening at the hands of her brother so easily and without any tears. Still, he doesn’t accuse her of making up her story; perhaps it’s simply easier as a viewer to expect that she’ll be caught in her lie since we know the truth and the severity of Virginia’s misinformed actions. He suggests Virginia/Barbara imagine telling her brother exactly what her 12-year-old self would have said to him. And so she takes his advice and starts there… with her new psychology patient.

Barbara’s first physical exam in the Masters/Johnson office is traumatic. Bill tries to proceed as slowly and cautiously as possible to make the experience less difficult, but Barbara still breaks down in tears. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and as she cries, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t… I don’t know what’s wrong with me” as the procedure starts. Bill and Virginia give her a moment alone and end up arguing. Virginia says they’re only treating half the problem; Bill argues that they’re treating the part of the problem that they can actually do something about.

That’s not good enough for Virginia, who tries her newly learned psychology lesson on Barbara, telling her to tell her brother what she wishes she would have said when they were kids. Barbara tries out “no,” tentatively. Later, Virginia returns to the psychologist, eager to move onto the next step of treatment. He wonders why she is viewing her healing process so methodically and is so eager to hurry through the “process.” Virginia asks if he can blame her for wanting piece of mind, which the doctor finds fascinating. Blame? Does she feel judged?

Yes, from her/Barbara’s mother and fiancé. No one else? Well, yes—her former boss. Uh-oh. This is where Virginia forgets the charade and begins to open up about her own personal experiences, which was not part of the original plan. She tells the doctor about Lillian, and how disappointed she was when she found out about Virginia and Bill’s affair. (Side note: This is the first Lillian is even mentioned since her death a few episodes ago.) Virginia opens up that she never felt much guilt over the affair because she never really viewed herself as a threat to the married man’s wife. She’s asked if that was the only way she posed a threat—as someone who wanted to steal another woman’s husband. Why did it end, if you weren’t concerned about this man’s wife? “Guilt,” Virginia answers, having her own, hugely significant psychological breakthrough.

To make matters worse, when Virginia next meets with Barbara (privately, without Bill), she discovers Barbara took her advice a little too literally and actually had that “wish I’d told you” conversation with her brother. Like, in person. Virginia is horrified—she meant Barbara should imagine that conversation—particularly when it turns out Barbara’s brother remembered the situation differently. He says she was the one who initiated their sexual relationship, which makes Barbara fall to pieces even more. She wanted to blame her brother for becoming a dysfunctional woman; what if she did this to herself?

Rattled now by two deep-seated psychological revelations, Virginia takes a coffee break, where she runs into Libby, the object of her personal guilt. Libby comes seeking advice on how to be more like Virginia, so confident and poised all of the time. And this may be the very first time we see Virginia acting the exact opposite. She’s caught off guard, defensive. She no longer knows how to act around Libby, whom she once considered her friend. Virginia pleads for Libby not to hold her up on some pedestal as someone who is brave and hurriedly excuses herself. The unwitting Libby is nonetheless inspired by their awkward chat and decides to empower herself for once.

This is the Libby we’ve been waiting to see, someone who will not simply bask in her husband’s status and wealth, but will stand up on her own. This sense of empowerment began last week, when she decided to come clean about the hate crime she witnessed. She sits down with Robert and a lawyer working for the activist group CORE and tells her story. The lawyer pleads with her to remember one additional detail: the first three numbers of the license plate. She may not have noticed it herself, but one eyewitness did. And, he tells her, the St. Louis police department thinks people with her eye color see better than people with his eye color.

NEXT: Revelations on revelationsBut Robert is unsure of Libby’s ability to help their case. Can she withstand the pressure of a defense attorney in a case where a group of white men nearly killed a black man? (Side note: It’s sad how much this story line resonates with the racial tension in present-day Ferguson, Mo., just outside of St. Louis, where Masters of Sex takes place.) Can she lie well enough? Is she willing to send white men to jail and face the potential repercussions of that? Libby takes offense to him doubting her, demanding to know why he now doesn’t want her help. Is she not good enough for him? (Is this the way she feels about all men? It’s a telling line; she certainly feels that way about Bill.) Robert tells her thanks, but they’ll just have to do without her. After all, he’s faced her prejudice firsthand when Libby employed his sister, Coral, as a nanny. (Wonder how Coral’s doing, by the way. Hope she’s working for a kinder household.)

Libby keeps all of this to herself, but has an awakening of sorts at home, with her sister-in-law, Pauline. While swapping stories about how they met and fell in love with their husbands, Pauline admits she nearly left Frank due to his alcoholism. It had become harder for him to hide, she explains, and he became sloppy explaining why he was coming home so late, why he couldn’t make love. You can see the restrained look of horror on Libby’s face—it’s the “OMG, you’re describing my husband” look. Pauline says she gave Frank an ultimatum: It was the bottle or her. People didn’t think she could stand up for herself like that, she says, and it felt good to do something no one believed she was capable of. They thought she was saving his life, but she was saving her own.

Out of that conversation, it seems Libby gleaned two things: something is up with Bill, and she is stronger than she thinks. Though the “things have to change or I want a divorce line” didn’t happen this week, the seeds have been planted. But Libby did take action on the latter: She walked back into the CORE offices and informed everyone she wanted to volunteer for their cause. Robert tests her, sending a respected white woman on a sandwich run for an office full of black workers. With a smile, she obliges.

The culmination of all of these events happens between Bill and Virginia in their hotel room. Virginia is racked with guilt, demanding Bill tell her what he’s told himself to reconcile what they do in that room that makes it okay. Bill is defensive; where the hell is this coming from? They meet and have sex for the study, of course. But they haven’t documented their intimacy with a stopwatch and notes in ages. They’re not meeting for any reason other than their own physical pleasure, Virginia says accusingly. She admits that maybe there is something wrong with both of them. She wants to talk about it. (Psychology’s her thing now.)

But why? Bill asks. Airing these hurt feelings and broaching these touchy subjects just makes everyone miserable, from his point of view. The past is the past, he says, and you can’t change it. You can poke and prod but you can’t change, so you move on. “I have never made a decision with the intention of hurting anyone,” he stresses, a statement that makes Virginia laugh. Libby wouldn’t be hurt by their actions? Well, he doesn’t intend for her to find out, obviously.

Virginia reiterates the selfishness of their affair and Bill, intentionally or not, begins to hint at the reason he is so desperate to continue seeing Virginia. “We can’t find the cure for dysfunction in an exam room, or pairing men with prostitutes, or wives with husbands whose sexual preferences make them frigid,” he says, detailing a number of methods he’s tried to cure himself. They need to take subjects who understand sexual response and know each other’s bodies. Virginia doesn’t understand; you can’t treat dysfunction theoretically, she says. “What dysfunction do you propose we treat?” she asks.

“Mine,” he answers.

It’s Bill’s own psychological breakthrough. He can no longer hide behind science or experience and continue to lead any semblance of a fulfilling life. He needs to emotionally confront and accept what happened to him as a child and the effect his affair is having on his wife, and admit that he needs and loves Virginia on a level deeper than that of mere colleagues. Every story this episode enforces or reflects that, and now he’s made his first baby step toward that important self-realization.

Episode Recaps

This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.
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seasons
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  • 09/29/13
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