The fallout from Masters' presentation affects Bill, Virginia, and everyone around them.
Masters Of Sex 01
Credit: Michael Desmond/Showtime

The findings of Bill Masters’—and Virginia Johnson’s—study on the physiological effects of sex on the human body may have been groundbreaking, but the presentation of that research was a disaster as Masters of Sex season 1 closed. In the aftermath of the debacle, the shut-down study still weighs on its major players “like a nuclear rain falling on us all,” as Virginia so poignantly (and era-appropriately) puts it.

That’s where season 2 picks up: detailing the immediate ramifications of the presentation’s failure. Even more shocking than Bill getting booted from Maternity Hospital at the end of season 1 was his admission to Virginia that he can’t go on without her. Not without his work—without her. But even that rare moment of emotional honesty from the difficult, distant doctor was too good to last. This guy is seriously damaged; he uses his genius as a protective shield against anything that dares get too close—and that includes an emotional connection with the woman he sort of/kind of professed his love to.

So just how badly has the work of Masters and Johnson screwed up their lives and those of everyone around them as season 2 opens? Here’s what we learned.

Bill Masters

Bill arrived on Virginia’s doorstep on the night he got fired. To the shock of no one, they did the deed once again, though this was the first time they had sex in a non-clinical setting. Unbeknownst to him at the time, it was also the day his son was born, which is perhaps part of the reason why Bill, when we meet him in season 2, has absolutely zero interest in this “miracle child” (Bill wasn’t supposed to be able to have kids). The baby is a constant reminder that Bill is in a sham marriage and that he is following in the footsteps of his philandering father and inattentive mother. That fact is hit home when, left alone with the baby, he ignores his cries and instead turns on the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” at full volume. (How’s that for a metaphor?) His mother—called by his wife, Libby, to check in on the pair—shuts off the record with the soothed baby in her arms. Bill berates her for being a lousy parent and passing those traits on to him. He goes so far as to admit he’s having an affair with Virginia, that he’s an adulterer, just like dear old dad. Out of resentment of her and his own actions, Bill send his mother back home to Ohio for good.

That doesn’t go over well with Libby. Not many of Bill’s actions do these days. He spends his days at home or helping Dean Scully go through electroshock treatments to “cure” his homosexuality. Bill asks his friend to stop the treatments; in a devastating scene in bed with Mrs. Scully, it’s obvious the procedures aren’t swaying Barton from his desire to have sex with men anyway. Margaret is losing the man she loves and Bill is losing his friend—to a degree that might be deemed sadly inevitable when Barton later attempts to hang himself. Though Barton appears to be alive, Margaret’s insistence that Bill can’t talk to him makes it difficult to believe the dean is well.

Back at the Masters’ home, Libby pushes Bill into attending a fundraiser hosted by Dr. Greathouse, the head of obstetrics at Memorial Hospital, because she’s worried about her family’s future and wants him to get a new job. He does, thanks to a generous donation to the hospital by The Pretzel King, the husband of a former study patient who desperately wants kids. Even better for Bill, the donation comes with the assurance that he is able to continue his study at his new hospital. Though his sex study ruffled plenty of feathers, it’s amazing how Bill is able to use his smarts and reputation to get his way so often. It’s certainly not his personality that wins him any popularity contests.

In fact, his unwavering dedication to his work is the reason why Virginia fell for him in the first place. So what happened after he arrived at her door that dark and stormy night? She let him in, and he fell into her arms, defeated both professionally and emotionally. They had sex—for the first time without wires attached—and when Ethan called Virginia to ask if she had made a decision about his marriage proposal, she declined his offer. He blamed Masters; she said she couldn’t join Ethan in California because she had her work in St. Louis. Ethan wouldn’t buy her story, and he has reason not to. Virginia does seem to use her career as her own shield against admitting she has feelings for Masters.

NEXT: Let’s talk about Virginia

Virginia Johnson

Without the income from the study—which she now likens to a mummy’s curse—Virginia is struggling to support her two kids. The fallout from the presentation means she can’t get a promotion; she’s also constantly harrassed by the men at Maternity Hospital who believe she was the woman in Masters’ film (she was, but anonymously, and that’s no excuse to publicly belittle and humiliate a female coworker). Dr. Langham convinces her to try selling Cal-O-Metric diet pills, which is an insult to her skills and intelligence as someone who has just co-researched a groundbreaking scientific study. Without many other choices, she tries to hawk the pills, very unsuccessfully.

She has a showdown with Dr. DePaul over her new side gig—Virginia is still working as her secretary—and confronts her boss over her black eye, which by episode’s end still remains a mystery. Virginia gets a break when another doctor asks for her aid in an esophageal study that uses similar equipment to the sex research (use your imagination). So now she seems to have a good work excuse not to reconcile with Ethan and move to California with him. Fellow secretary/case study Jane is moving to the West Coast with “cinematographer” Lester, and tries to make Virginia reconsider Ethan’s proposal. “He’s offering you something real,” Jane says. “The study—it’s not real anymore.”

What about Bill and what he potentially offers Virginia? Like her research partner/won’t-call-him-lover, Virginia still has flashbacks to that night of his revelation. How did they proceed with their relationship? They routinely meet at a hotel in Illinois, a half hour from the city, under the aliases Mr. and Mrs. Holden—very affair-like, right? Things are definitely broken off with Ethan; Virginia tells Bill her almost-fiance “couldn’t understand the breakup.” It’s a rare man who could understand how a woman would choose work over love, she says, trying very hard to remain professional while basically telling Bill, “you get me, I want you, let’s do this.”

Virginia insists what they had was so much more than a “pedestrian” affair—not because she loves him, but because they shared meaningful work together. Bill dismisses the word “affair” altogether. They had a psychological connection though, that night in Virginia’s bed, and that was worth further research for the study. “It would be a mistake to end it now,” Bill says, falling back on science as his answer for everything, going for the strictly professional tone, too. He tells Virginia that they can only continue meeting covertly in a very nice hotel where they have lots of sex if she understands those non-affair terms. (This pair is very good at saying one thing and meaning something entirely different, no matter how hard they try to bury their feelings.) She remains stoic—yes, it stings to hear him try to pass off their relationship as strictly scientific, but she knows better. She’s using their research as a cover-up just as much as he is, and at some point, someone is finally going to admit that once again.

Episode Recaps

Masters of Sex

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

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