This episode in one sentence: Though it has some lovely, powerful scenes, "Blackbird" is a bit of a mess, building every storyline to a climactic point just so it can hit a reset button on the whole season.
You can boil this week's episode of Masters of Sex down to just six lines of dialogue, two of them paired. Observe:
- "Is all of it worth it for that one thing?" said by Libby to Coral, and referring to the wonderful sex she assumes Coral has with Robert (revealed later in the episode to be Coral's brother).
- "I AM A MAN" — written on a cover Bill sees as he flees the offices of The St. Louis Chronicle, the city's black newspaper.
- "You seem to not think of me as a person, so I trust you to tell it to me straight" — said by Lillian to one of her doctors during her lengthy cancer treatments.
- "Care is what you have for a stray dog you find in the road. Love is what you have with someone you share your bed with" — said by Gene to Betty, after he finds out her secret.
- "I know you" — said by Bill to Virginia in a moment of tenderness; and "I'm her beau" — said by Shelley to Bill when he tries to find Virginia and, instead, finds this other man.
Let's break down the episode through the prism of those lines.
"Is all of it worth it for that one thing?"
I've been more tolerant of the Libby and Coral storyline than many, because I thought it tied into the season's ideas about racial relations. Well, consider me proved wrong, because I now have no idea what all involved were thinking.
Libby's obsession with Coral and Robert's relationship reaches a breaking point here, as she insists that Robert can no longer pick up his "girlfriend" after work, then stalks Coral to find out he's doing just that. She then goes to Coral's apartment, where she learns from Robert that he is Coral's brother. He cares for a scrape on her leg, and she leaves in a huff.
What's going on here is, I guess, about Libby's lack of sexual fulfillment, which has been a recurring theme with her character. She and Bill aren't a terribly good match, but they're stuck with each other (as driven home by the final shot of the episode, which Keith Gordon frames so the both of them sit together, looking over at their son rocking in his swing). She's tried to find her pleasures where she can, and that's mostly been in micromanaging other people's lives.
But this has more or less made Libby seem like a monster, and in this episode, that monstrousness is revealed to exist, free-floating, without a lot of explanation. I don't know if it's the writing or Caitlin FitzGerald's performance, but I don't entirely know why Libby has gotten so fixated. More crucially, I'm not sure the writers know why at this point.
There's a hint, though, in that quote, and in the way she reacts when Robert treats her so tenderly. After years with a brusque, cold man who doesn't match up well with her, yes, for Libby, it really might be all about that one thing.
"I AM A MAN."
This episode makes Bill out to be almost as much of a monster as his wife, but, crucially, we understand why he's being such a jackass. When Charles Hendricks forbids Bill and Virginia from using black subjects in the study (because he knows too well the legacy of American scientists doing horrible things to black people in studies), Bill protests by doing an interview with a reporter from the St. Louis Chronicle, hoping to paint himself as a champion for equality.
When the reporter starts pressing into Bill's history, however, he goes to her editor to insist that the article only be a fluff piece about the study. The editor isn't sufficiently cowed, so Bill threatens that his study is discovering stereotypes about racial differences in sexual performance and appetites are true. It's such self-evident bullshit that the editor sees through it immediately, refusing to back down. Bill storms out and is confronted with the words above.
A big theme of "Blackbird" is people seeing other people as they really are. But Bill looks at people and sees only data points. When someone looks at him and sees, say, a great newspaper story, he can't abide by it, because he needs everyone to follow his script.
Seeing human beings as data points is enormously helpful to Bill's work as a scientist, but it's gotten him in trouble time and time again when it comes to actually dealing with them. He's pulled this trick of using people as bargaining chips numerous times throughout the show's run, but he's finally defeated here. At episode's end, he's pushed out at Buell Green, uncertain of where he'll go next. Of all of this season's storyline, it's most disappointing to see this episode push the reset button on this one — even if it was inevitable.
"You seem to not think of me as a person, so I trust you to tell it to me straight."
This episode also features the sad end of Lillian DePaul, who commits suicide after learning that her cancer will eventually defeat her. There's been far more of Julianne Nicholson as the character in this season than I ever expected, and the scenes between Lillian and Virginia have been fantastic chances for the show to explore how women fit into its world.
But this quote (which Lillian says to a doctor who treats her brusquely during her treatment) does more than point out how Lillian is struggling with her slow descent toward death. It points out everything this episode is about. Sometimes, the only person who can tell you the truth is someone who doesn't particularly like you. Sometimes, those who view us with disdain have a clearer view of faults we need to correct than we could ever have. That doesn't mean disdain or hatred are helpful traits. It does mean self-improvement sometimes means listening.
What Lillian takes from the doctor, however, is that she's never going to beat her cancer. "Blackbird" essentially marks her for death from the first, as her relationship with Virginia grows into an even deeper friendship. The scene where Lillian discusses the handful of times she's had sex with Virginia is one of the episode's best, and even if we're losing the character, her spirit will ideally hang over the rest of the season.
And if nothing else, getting to know her has affected Virginia in ways that have made Virginia more independent, more willing to push against the system. Lillian tells Virginia, in their moment of candor, that Bill is in love with her. Virginia scoffs at that notion. But it must be true. Lillian tells it to us straight.
"Care is what you have for a stray dog you find in the road. Love is what you have with someone you share your bed with."
Cramming the dissolution of Gene and Betty's marriage into this episode as well feels like maybe one thing too many. Above all else, this is the storyline that feels like the show is straining to bring everything to a crisis point, so it can hit a reset button and move on. Over the course of the episode, Betty and Helen come together, then fall apart again, only for Gene to figure out (from Al telling him about the two women kissing on the lips) that Betty's in love with Helen. It's a lot in an episode that's already packed with incident.
But Gene's howl of pain underlines the season's divisions between sex, intimacy, and love. When Betty insists she "cares" for her husband, he wants more than that. As her spouse, he deserves more than that. He spends the episode worrying that he's sexually inadequate. Hell, he's spent his life worrying that.
This isn't his fault, however. For as much as Betty might care for him, she still lied to him. She still misled him. She still strayed with Helen. Masters of Sex is filled with people who deny themselves the things they want, because the society they live in has created the belief that those things are somehow detrimental. But the story of Gene and Betty — like the story of the Scullys last season — reminds us of how painful it can be when the truth comes out.
"I know you."/"I'm her beau."
We've seen how Bill reacts when a reporter starts digging into his past, which makes it all the more remarkable how open he is with Virginia, how much the two are able to be honest with each other. To know someone and be known by them is that space where love, intimacy, and sex co-exist, a wonderful, often impermanent space. But Bill and Virginia are in that space right now. Or so Bill thinks.
We so rarely see Bill express an emotion other than tight-knit reserve or restrained anger. But we see him nearly dissolve into sorrow when he finds out that Virginia is dating someone new, a man she met the night of the fight depicted in the season's best episode. He thought he knew Virginia. He thought her secrets were open to him. Instead, she's been keeping a major part of her life from him. And crucially, she started dating this man the night he was as open and vulnerable as he'd ever been. It's bound to push him further into his shell and maybe even closer to Libby, if that last scene is any indication.
There has been so much about this season of Masters of Sex that has been good that it's a little frustrating to see this episode abruptly shut down nearly every major storyline. But even in the face of that, the connection between Bill and Virginia is so strong and so persistent that it can keep driving us forward. Though neither of them would admit it, they're caught in the midst of something powerful and real.
Bill doesn't just know Virginia. They know each other. And for as thrilling as that can be, it can be scary, too, and it might just send someone running off to the arms of anybody else.