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Masters of Sex, episode 7: The show’s most innovative episode yet

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Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) and Bill (Michael Sheen) patch over their relationship. It just takes years and years.
Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) and Bill (Michael Sheen) patch over their relationship. It just takes years and years.
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.

The episode in one sentence: In an innovative, often enthralling episode, the show traces three years in the life of Bill and Virginia as they try to keep their new independent clinic alive.

"Asterion" is one of the more innovative TV episodes of the last several years. The technique used here — cutting through  three years of the characters' lives without stopping to observe every little moment — will be familiar to movie fans. But it's not the sort of thing TV really does, outside of one-off episodes that are either series finales or immediately erased in continuity. Yet "Asterion" leaps forward more and more gleefully, using Lester's nascent documentary about the clinic as a through-line to hold the story together.

So much of television is about the slow passage of time that something like "Asterion" becomes all the more impressive once you consider how easy it would be for the episode to back the writers into a corner. They're going all in on telling the entire story of Masters and Johnson, and that means they need to get to the 1970s and ‘80s eventually. So here we go. We start in 1958, and we end up in the ‘60s. And through all of that time, one thing is a constant: Bill Masters is a giant dick.

Let's examine this episode through the prism of a handful of relationships that shift and change over all those years.

Masters of Sex

Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) looks over cards from participants in the study. (Showtime)

Bill and Virginia

One good reason to skip past as much time as this episode does is because Bill and Virginia may have a professional relationship for much of that time, but they don't have a personal one. To some degree, the story of this show is Bill and Virginia's love story, and, thus, the show essentially can't work without the connection between the two.

But what's interesting about "Asterion" is that by cutting to the quick, it highlights just how dark and painful much of this relationship is. In one scene, Bill is telling Virginia that he broke off their coupling because he didn't want to be just another one in a parade of men in her children's lives. In another, he's breaking off a relationship between her and her newest paramour by telling the new guy she's a participant in the study. And then in another, Virginia asks him to resume their coupling, so long as she can have someone to hold onto at night, like he has Libby. (Though, of course, Bill and Libby sleep in separate beds and increasingly lead separate lives.)

"Asterion," more than any other episode, captures the desperate co-dependence at the center of this relationship. The ways that Bill and Virginia each fill in gaps in the other when together can very easily turn into the former bitterly resenting the latter when not together. Bill expects everybody to live in his orbit, and he can't handle when anyone doesn't deign to do so. But he's better when Virginia's with him, not because she somehow cures him or anything like that. No, she's better able to hook in to whatever part of him is human, to the tiny boy behind all of the layers of self defense.

Bill and Libby

The season so far has done a pretty masterful job of making Libby seem like one of the worst human beings alive, and "Asterion" tries as hard as it can to reverse that trend. I don't know if it really succeeds, since the episode opens with her offering a strange monologue about a garden that eventually turns into a demand Bill give her another child (and he does). But it does offer one tremendous scene that reminds us that Libby knows her husband better than anyone.

In it, the two prepare for a party, and Libby reveals she's been seeing Bill's mother for a year, feeling their children shouldn't be deprived of a relationship with their grandmother. Bill's mother also wants to help. The clinic is struggling financially, and Bill has all of that money from his father just sitting there, waiting to be used. (Bill, of course, has been too proud to take anything from the old man.)

The argument rages out of control, before Libby finally lets loose: Bill might be suffering in ways he can't quite talk about, but so is everybody else. Does he really need to drag everyone around him down into the mire with him? For just an instant, we get a look at everything Libby has had to deal with in all the years of her marriage, and we have a touch more sympathy for her. Libby remains the show's most problematic character, but if the historical record is any indication, we're moving into a very interesting period in her life, and we'll see if that means she finally has something to do within the show's world.

Masters of Sex

Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) and Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) are super best friends now. (Showtime)

Virginia and Libby

That final scene between these two also seems to speak to all that can change over the course of a few years. With the Masters family about to go on vacation, Libby takes an unusual step: she invites Virginia and her kids to come along. Things are easier when Virginia is there, Libby says. Bill seems to be a little bit better.

Does Libby know that Virginia and Bill are sleeping together? Surely she suspects they are, and in a weird way, this might be a tacit acknowledgment from her that this unconventional relationship might be better for all of its participants. Or maybe she has no idea. Maybe she's just taking a shot in the dark at hoping that her husband's happiness is tied to being able to talk about work with the other most important woman in his life.

But I suspect Libby knows. And I suspect that part of her also knows Virginia gives Bill things that she cannot. Bill, even if he doesn't know it, needs someone who will force him to accept her as an equal, and that's never going to be Libby. But she can be someone who will accept the unconventional and work to hold on to the family she values so much by letting her husband have this other relationship. It might not be standard, but Libby is past the point where she cares about that. She just needs some measure of kindness in her life. And if nothing else, Virginia is kind.

Masters of Sex

Bill (Michael Sheen) and his mother, Essie (Ann Dowd), continue to squabble. (Showtime)

Bill and his mother

The relationship between Bill and his mother, Essie, has always been one of the show's more programmatic elements. Bill's horrible childhood has been a constant throughout the series' run, so his mother shows up to remind us of everything he struggled with over the years. She will show up to tell him something, and he'll tell her to stay out of his life, and the same basic storyline will repeat, over and over.

So I'm not sure what to make of the final scene between the two here. After Bill tells her he doesn't want to hear it, Essie tells him the lie he wishes to be true: she didn't help out the clinic by funneling that money Bill rejected into it secretly, with Libby and Betty as her co-conspirators. But all of this gives me pause. Essie concludes the episode by telling Bill how proud of him she is, how happy she is that he saved the clinic all on his own. It's the episode in a nutshell: a woman in Bill's life telling him what he needs to hear so she can finally do what she needs to do. Everybody has to tiptoe around what he wants, whether it's what they want or not.

So, it would seem, she did help the clinic. Essie just so desperately wants to be a part of the lives of her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren that she's willing to just tell Bill whatever he needs to hear. Her "pride" in him, in fact, seems to run counter to what the rest of the episode was about: Bill might be a smart man, but he's also a preening, vainglorious one who would rather burn down a house he's built than let someone else live in it. He's less worthy of pride than he is of pity.

Virginia and Shelley, the forgotten

Virginia's meeting with Shelley in the lobby of the new building also speaks to the episode's exploration of co-dependence. At the end of the last episode, their connection seemed like it would be a hugely important one to the season going forward. Instead, the two break it off in 1959, and time keeps moving along. Something that would have been a whole arc over a season or more on any other show gets condensed into a couple of scenes in "Asterion."

The best of these scenes is that meeting. The two have been broken up for a long time, and Virginia has clearly forgotten much about who he was, forgetting what he does for a living (sell girdles) and asking him how his kids are (he doesn't have any). Shelly has become just another in a long line of brief moments in her life, another in a long line of not Bills. And for as much as Bill's words about her string of suitors are terrible and are meant to wound, there's a ring of truth to them, too. It might seem perverse to those of us watching at home, who see how he treats her, but Virginia is just a little bit lost without Bill, too, and something in that must terrify her.

Masters of Sex

Betty (Annaleigh Ashford) and Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) hang out in the new office. (Showtime)

Betty and the passage of time

Down on her luck after Gene kicks her out, Betty gets a job as what's essentially the new office manager for Bill's new clinic, and over the course of the episode, she graduates from someone who isn't quite sure why she got the job to someone who's keeping all of the office's many wheels spinning as best she can.

One of the central stories of Masters of Sex, as with any show set in this era, is how the move toward equality happens almost on the sidelines of many people's lives, and that's really true for Betty here. She's striking a new path in her life, because she's finally realized she controls her own destiny. And in the sequences where she takes people on tours of the building and the office, the world changing around her to reflect new patrons, "Asterion" boasts some of its best stuff.

Austin and his ex-wife

Look: I don't know why Austin Langham is a character on this show still either, but, randomly, his ex-wife was handed what might be the pivotal line of dialogue in the whole episode — and perhaps the whole series. Rejecting her former husband's request to get back together (after he's spent years dallying with other women, including a model and eventual adult film star named Holly), she tells him that once a bell's been rung, you can't unring it. You can only stand there and listen to the sound, perhaps trying to glean something from it.

If there's a line that better describes "Asterion," I don't know what it is. Here's an episode - and a season and a show - full of people trying to set aside things they've already done and pretend they never happened. But it's impossible to do that. Sooner or later, your past catches up to you. Sooner or later, your inner self reaches up and reminds you it exists. And sooner or later, you're going to have to grapple with all of that ringing.

Year after year passes in "Asterion," but they slip away so easily because these characters refuse to deal with bells rung, with water slipping under bridges. And then, in the episode's final moments, as they reach out again for the connections they once had, they can begin to move forward again. And time can once again slow down.

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