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Masters of Sex, episode 4: Secrets are revealed, and the season gains direction

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Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) insists Coral (Keke Palmer) shampoo with a formula designed to get rid of lice.
Libby (Caitlin FitzGerald) insists Coral (Keke Palmer) shampoo with a formula designed to get rid of lice.
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.

My initial plan for this week's Masters of Sex review had been to ask where all of this was going. Don't get me wrong: I'm fine with a little mystery in plotting. Season one of the show took its sweet time getting where it had to go, and it ended in a wonderful, resonant place. So I was willing to be patient.

But even with an episode like last week's — a tremendous, moving episode that I have watched several times now — I found myself wondering if this was what the show was now. Was it just going to be a series of vignettes that poked at some of the series' most important themes, then danced away from them, agile as a boxer? Or was all of this pointing somewhere? It was hard to reconcile the brutal emotional honesty of "Fight" with, say, Libby passive-aggressively pushing Coral to pronounce "ask" a certain way. They were both terrific plotlines, but a part of me wasn't sure how they occupied the same universe.

Well, now we know. "Dirty Jobs" serves almost as much a statement of purpose for the rest of the season as it does anything else. And if it is any indication, then Libby's barely veiled racism was deeply important to where the season is going. Because Bill Masters has a new job and a new home for the study (one he will occupy with Virginia, finally): a black hospital.


Dr. Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson) learns the truth about Virginia and Bill.

The future is coming

In a way, "Dirty Jobs" almost perfectly prepares you for that final shot of Bill meeting with the board of Buell Green Hospital (outside of the fact that Courtney B. Vance is credited in the opening credits, so you keep waiting for him to show up). It does an elegant dance around the fact that all of the characters on the show are keeping at least one (and sometimes more) major secret, except for Libby, who at least seems unaware that her husband is cheating on her. Then it enmeshes Libby in a plotline where she seems completely unsympathetic. It's all very curiously structured, like a puzzle missing a piece.

So it's tempting to just write about how this episode nails the weight of those secrets, the way that they hang over the characters and define everything they do. Dr. DePaul, for instance, tries to get Virginia to fess up about her affair with Bill, and when Virginia doesn't, some part of DePaul realizes that the "study" Virginia will always care most about is Bill's and not DePaul's.

Or take the scene where Austin and Bill discuss cheating on their wives outside on the Masterses' porch, most of the warm lighting coming from behind them, where Libby is moving about the house, preparing dinner. It's so easy to turn Libby into just an obstacle in this story, because so much time and effort has been lavished on the relationship between Virginia and Bill. But Libby is still a person, whose feelings matter. By making her a ghost hovering throughout this scene, director Michael Engler and writer Steven Levenson remind us of everything that's going to explode once she finds out about her husband's infidelity.

And if there's one thing "Dirty Jobs" makes clear, it's that you can't keep something like this locked down forever. Exposure is always imminent. The true face of someone will always be revealed, eventually. The future is always coming.

That ties in beautifully to the final scene, doesn't it? A world where racial minorities stand up to the white majority and demand equal treatment isn't just coming, so far as these characters are concerned. It's already here. If there's one area that the recent wave of period piece shows has faltered, it's in depicting the Civil Rights Movement, one of the signature moments of the ‘50s and ‘60s. For as great as Mad Men has been, it has rarely given its handful of black characters anything close to the depth its white characters have had. The same has gone for any number of other period piece series that weren't even a patch on Mad Men (outside of Boardwalk Empire, which did a great job portraying the black experience in 1920s Atlantic City in its fourth season).

Now, to be sure, Masters of Sex is still viewing the minority experience through the lens of the racial majority of its time period. It is highly unlikely that the series will ever cease being about Bill and Virginia, for instance. But simply by putting the two characters in this setting, Masters creates a scenario where they'll be forced to deal with the predominant issue of their time.

Bill Masters might see his new job as a quick solution to his temporary problem of having lost his job and salted the earth with Greyhouse (who quickly calls every other hospital he can think of to toss mud on Bill's name). But he's inadvertently solving one of the show's biggest storytelling problems, too, by dragging it headlong into a very interesting story running parallel to the one it was already telling.


Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) tries to interest a neighbor in diet pills.

Trapped by the script

Of course, what we don't know is how all of the other characters are going to react to Bill's decision. The fact that there are vital characters — or at least interesting actors, like Betsy Brandt — scattered across almost all of the show's major settings suggests that we're going to keep following almost all of these people. And though Bill has found a place where both he and Virginia can work together, she's making headway, almost begrudgingly, with the sale of the diet pills.

There's also the matter of Libby, whose polite paranoia boils over in this episode, when little Johnny is revealed to have lice. What's fantastic about her storyline is how hard it is to take. She behaves like a seriously unpleasant person, all but accusing Coral of bringing the lice into her home (when Coral rightly protests that she is unlikely to have head lice, and is even backed up by Bill on this point). And yet Levenson's script finds an at least vaguely sympathetic reason for her to feel this way. She's sublimating all of her emotions about how little Bill wants to step in and help out with their son into exerting control over the nanny. She knows that she can't get Bill to change, much as she might want to, and she doesn't want whatever will result from asking him to change. So she pushes back against Coral, and it makes her seem outright awful.

Masters has always been a series with a deep interest in following women who feel trapped by the supposed script they're meant to follow as prospective housewives and mothers in the world of late ‘50s America. Really, only Libby fits the bill when it comes to the major characters, but the other women in the show's universe wrestle with the thought that what they want from their lives and what society expects from them are very different things.

Virginia, in fact, all but comes out and says this tonight, when she's trying to argue that she needn't follow the script for selling diet pills, that she can do much better when she just improvises. This is an argument she's already had with her boss, and to the show's credit, it paints it as one that her boss is simply tired of hearing about. She doesn't want to trap women by making them feel bad about themselves, by making them compare themselves to her and come up wanting.

But, her boss says, it's what moves the merchandise. And when she finally tries those techniques on a neighbor, they seem invasive and cruel, but they also seem to work. You can't rely on anybody but yourself, Virginia tells her daughter after Tessa attempts to get her brother to do her math homework for her. But she's also stacking bottles of those pills in her closet, a constant reminder of how hard and isolating it can be to have only oneself to rely upon.

It's these scripts that trap the characters in ways they don't really every know how to deal with. DePaul, for instance, is boxed in by her oncoming mortality, while Betty is boxed in by what her husband wants and expects from her. And then there's Libby, who has always wanted exactly what she has now, but finds herself cornered and unable to break free, with a husband who doesn't seem to give a damn. She lashes out at Coral because she's latently racist, and it's socially acceptable for her to lash out at a younger black woman, yes. But she also lashes out at her because she, herself, is trapped, even if she wouldn't put it in those terms.


Austin Langham (Teddy Sears), the conduit through whom all office gossip apparently passes.

Surprises are coming, too

But, then, sometimes people will surprise you. That's what Betty finds, after her husband, Gene, discovers that she's been keeping the fact that she can't have a baby from him ever since she first met him. The scene where he finally confronts her about her duplicity is one of the better ones in the episode, and it also neatly lays out how well Masters of Sex handles the muted explosions of secrets coming to light.

Gene, who has discovered that Betty never had fertility tests after trying to pay her hospital bill (an event Betty seems to face as if she always knew it was coming), immediately dispatches with his wife's talk about how she was so scared to lose him, how she was just an innocent girl who met this nice guy at church and didn't want things to go south. No, he says, he met her the first time at the brothel where she used to work. And she was so nice to him that he never wanted to leave. And then, through some miracle of fate, there she was at church, and there he was, and their relationship could begin. He wouldn't have dropped her if he knew she couldn't have a baby, because he felt, somehow, the hand of a greater power at work in bringing him and Betty together.

But this gets to the heart of Masters of Sex, too. Betty, as the audience knows, is a lesbian, and she deliberately had a tubal ligation, and that she might not ever have children. Gene doesn't know either of those things, but we know that on this show, he will probably find at least one of them out eventually. (My money's on the tubal ligation, because I'm not entirely sure Gene would know how to process the idea of his wife being a lesbian if she was married to him and was good at faking being into the sex.)

Then the question becomes more basic: How much does a person have to lie to you about who they are before you decide they're not the person you fell in love with? We've talked in these reviews before about how the show considers the weird zone where sex, love, and intimacy all meet and interact, but don't necessarily have party with each other. Is Betty and Gene's marriage a real marriage if it's built on a sham? What if both of them do love each other, in a way? Or what if just one of them does, but he loves with a kind of ferocious purity that might make up for anything else?

These are not easy questions to answer, and they're not the sorts of things television typically deals with. And, yes, now that I know this season is headed toward Bill and Virginia reviving the study at a black hospital, I'm feeling much more of a sense of momentum. But I'm also interested in these smaller secrets, these smaller time bombs ticking away beneath the cool veneer of the show. What will happen when the time runs out, when everything blows?