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Masters of Sex, episode 5: Bill and Virginia accidentally bear witness to segregation’s death throes

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Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson, left) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) dissolve their professional relationship, though not their friendship.
Dr. DePaul (Julianne Nicholson, left) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) dissolve their professional relationship, though not their friendship.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Virginia and Dr. DePaul argue in the office they share, their words loud enough to be heard by the women working out in the other room. They're angrily and directly confronting one of the questions at the center of the show: did Virginia rise to her stature solely because she slept with Bill, or would she have gotten there anyway? It's a big scab over the center of the series' premise, and DePaul isn't going to tiptoe around it any more.

This is at the heart of "Giants," an episode that centers on questions of the difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us, as well as the compromises women in 1958 will make in order to get what they want. DePaul acts as if Virginia's actions are a sort of shocking transgression against the sex. And, to be fair to her, they are. But Virginia also points out that DePaul was able to buy her status with her family's money. DePaul retorts that she didn't have it easy. But Virginia was never saying that. No woman has it easy. But DePaul had it easier.

The relationship between Virginia and Bill is so central to Masters of Sex that it's easy to forget how others who don't have our access to it might see it. We've seen their surprising level of intimacy and the love they have — if not for each other, then a mutual, shared love for the study. But there's also that whiff of compromise around the affair, the feeling of a deal having been struck. Virginia wanted to sleep with Bill, yes. But it's also undeniable that doing so got her where she is. It wasn't a quid pro quo, not exactly. But, also, it sort of was.


Dr. Hendricks (Courtney B. Vance) tries to convince Bill to keep pushing to integrate Buell Green.

Let's make a deal

These sorts of tenuously struck bargains are all over "Giants."

Bill attempts to strike a course at Buell Green Hospital. Libby tries to come to an understanding with Coral's boyfriend, rather than coming to an understanding with Coral (who is the person she needs to apologize to anyway). Betty finally finds a kind of peace with Gene, only to have her old life return in the form of Helen, the woman she left to be with Gene. Control slips away from these characters as often as it slips away from all of us. They might think they have a handle on their situations and lives, but then someone else comes along to remind them of how little grasp they have on anything.

Structurally, "Giants" is a bit of an odd duck. It first seems like it will be about Bill convincing Virginia to come work with him at Buell Green, since he, in fact, didn't tell her about the deal he struck at the end of the last episode.

But then Virginia leaves the old hospital to work with him after about a third of the episode has passed, and there's no more mention of her choice for the rest of the hour. (This is fairly in keeping with both characters, however, as they have a tendency to ignore the past in favor of what's to come.) It's also the latest episode to place all of the characters on paths that run in parallel, rather than intersecting. The episode takes pains to have Libby interact with both Bill and Virginia in this episode, for instance, and that's almost certainly to have her feel like she's not off on an island.

In some ways, showrunner Michelle Ashford is hampered by history here. Bill and Virginia really did bounce around from location to location over the course of completing their study, since the work was so controversial that no one wanted to sponsor them for too long. But a television show necessarily demands that there be a status quo for everything to return to, and Masters had built up a very solid one by the end of its first season. So the vestiges of that status quo are clinging to the show, even as it's trying to move into a new future.

I'm not really complaining about this, because I find it fascinating, but it is something the show is actively figuring out how to navigate in front of our very eyes. Most shows don't like to change things too much, but the fact that things happened in a certain order and a certain fashion in history binds Ashford to radical shifts essentially every season. That's something that can be tough for any TV show, no matter how good, to deal with, which may be why characters like, say, Austin Langham are still hanging around the edges of the show, even though there's no real reason for them to still be here. (Betty is also an example of this, though I suspect the desire to have more women in the show's ensemble, combined with Annaleigh Ashford being such a great actress, led to this decision.)

The reason the show makes all of this work is because Ashford and her writing staff are so good at creating instantly recognizable, instantly interesting characters.

Take Dr. Hendricks, the head of Buell Green. Certainly it helps that he's played by Courtney B. Vance, but in the last scene, when he gives a speech to Bill comparing the integration of his hospital to diving into cold water, Bathsheba Doran's script gives us an immediate sense of who he is and what he wants. Bringing Bill to Buell Green isn't just his attempt to bring in a great doctor; it's his attempt to essentially force the people of St. Louis, Missouri, to realize that, regardless of skin color, everybody around them is a fellow human being.

Of course, Dr. Hendricks is also the person tearing down the fliers advertising the sex study, so his progressiveness only goes so far. Everybody has their limits.


Coral (Keke Palmer, left) and Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) don't have the world's greatest relationship right now.

Meanwhile, on Libby Island

When I interviewed Ashford last year at the end of season one, she ruminated that Libby Masters had often gotten stuck on "an island" in the storytelling. And to be sure, it's difficult to pull the character into the larger picture of the show, because her stories rarely intersect with characters other than Bill. (Last season briefly solved this by having her get involved in the sex study, because why not?)

What I didn't realize was that the Libby Island would become an archipelago, where all sorts of characters are off doing their own interesting things that, nevertheless, feel cut off from the main action. Look at the five credited regular cast members. Certainly Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan are in one particular show, that they sometimes share with Teddy Sears (and who knows what Langham will get up to now that Virginia is over at Buell Green). But then there are Caitlin FitzGerald and Annaleigh Ashford, who sometimes seem trapped on other shows entirely, with their own supporting casts even.

The show's writers are smart enough, of course, to thread thematic ties between the various islands in this archipelago, and that makes everything seem better connected than it really is. But it's kind of murder to write about, to talk about the main action, then realize that whatever's up with Libby or Betty (or both) is off on its own planet.

The solution most of the time in season one (particularly when it came to the story of Barton and Margaret Scully) was to use these sub-stories to tell the larger story of why Bill and Virginia's work is so necessary. And that's largely the tack the show is taking with Libby's storyline this season. Bill and Virginia's work this year encompasses the sex study, yes, but it's also almost inadvertently about ending the evils of segregation, something that Bill didn't count on when he simply thought he'd found a nice place to support him as he continued his study.

The most obvious examples of these divisions come when Bill and Virginia try to convince their patients to come to Buell Green, and said patients spend almost all of their time worrying their cars will be stolen or damaged parking in a "bad neighborhood" and/or having fistfights with black patients at the hospital. One thing this season of Masters is doing very well is capturing the way that being forced to realize that black people were fellow human beings was, to the white Americans depicted in this show, just as insane a notion as being asked to think about sex as something scientific, rather than something secretive and kept locked away.

And the show is using Libby to demonstrate this.

Libby, in some ways, is the model of a white, majority liberal in the show's universe. She, for instance, crows about how having Johnny at Buell Green marks her as somehow enlightened. (They treated her very well, she says, and she can't keep the hint of surprise from creeping into her voice.) But when push comes to shove, when her baby gets head lice, she can't keep from pushing Coral's head under a faucet because she blames her nanny for bringing the pests into the house, no matter how unlikely that is.

Now, "who brought the head lice into Libby's house?" is far from an exciting mystery, but the show knows this and is using it, instead, to point out all of the hypocrisies in how Libby conducts her business and her life. She has an understandable, human reason for freaking out so much about the lice. (She's a new mother, and everything that happens to her baby gets blown out of proportion.) But when it comes time to do the understandable, human thing of apologizing to Coral, she can't do it. She apologizes, instead, to Coral's boyfriend, Robert, mostly because she sees him as a threat (though she'd never admit it). See, Robert sneers to his girlfriend, this is just another example of how white people can't take responsibility for their actions.

Libby doesn't see it. She can't see it. She doesn't realize that her benevolently patronizing treatment of Coral is on the same continuum as the white man who gets in a fistfight with a black man simply for sharing a waiting room with him. She doesn't even realize that when, say, Coral rhapsodizes about how wonderful Robert is as a lover, she's using it to get under Libby's skin, to underline just how much Libby's marriage has crumbled even over the course of the show. (I don't think it's a mistake this episode reminded us Libby and Virginia are friendly. Libby's finding out what her husband's been up to very soon.) Libby doesn't really see Coral as a human being. She sees her nanny as part of a larger problem that she purports to be against but doesn't realize she herself continues to perpetuate.


Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) reconnects with her ex-girlfriend, Helen.


This is also a major part of the Betty storyline, where she's confronted with all she had to give away to have the security of a marriage to a rich man. Sarah Silverman, best known as a comedian but a very fine actress, too, turns up as Helen, the woman Betty left to be with Gene, and the episode shows both the anger that exists between them over how things ended and the passion. Look at the difference between the short, yet longing kiss between Helen and Betty in the restaurant washroom, compared to the sweet but ultimately childish flirtations between Betty and Gene. They're not even in the same universe.

Gene thinks Helen would be a great fit for his friend, Al, and Betty, both knowing the truth about her ex-girlfriend and almost certainly wanting to keep her single on some subconscious level, tries to stand in the way of it. Betty tries to break up the potential union by revealing everything she can think of about Helen that might sour her in Gene's eyes but the one thing that would clue Gene in to who she really is. It doesn't work. Sure, Helen's a gambler, but so is Al, and he has deep pockets. Yeah, maybe Helen doesn't always smell the best, but that's fixable. What isn't fixable is who Helen is, who Betty is. You can deny yourself, and you can say you're not who you are. But in the end, it doesn't matter. You're always stuck with the person in the mirror.

Reading the title of this episode, I kept thinking of the phrase "standing on the shoulders of giants," meant to suggest people who may have done their own work but also build off of the work of those who came before. And it's not hard to imagine that idea within the context of these characters, struggling and striving to find their own paths, but constantly getting trapped on the paths that have already been set out for them. In another time, Betty and Helen might have been able to have a happy life together. In another time, they might have even been able to strike some blow for gay rights. But this isn't that time, and Betty's seen just enough hardship to want to be comfortable. Being a trailblazer is so much easier when you sit on the shoulder of a giant who's already broken through the thickest of the woods, instead of trying to find your own way through.

You can also see this, finally, in Virginia, who raises the question with Bill of whether her participation in the study is necessary for her continued employment at Buell Green. No, says Bill, initially, before he changes his mind. He meant yes, he says. Yes. In that split second is the difference between a better world, one where Virginia is recognized for what she has contributed, and the one that actually exists, where the only way forward is to simply find ways to change the system from within it. It is not easy for Virginia. It's never going to be easy. But as Bill's lover, it's easier. And if that's the compromise she has to make, well, maybe she can have the control, just for a moment, in the bedroom. (Director Jeremy Webb revealing Bill performing oral sex on Virginia is the episode's most evocative shot, the one time she truly seems powerful.)

Should she have to make that compromise? No. But by making it, maybe she makes things easier for the next generation, and so on. Sometimes, the trick is to follow the path just long enough to find another way further into the woods. And then those who come along after can lengthen it, until you've crossed the wilderness.