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Masters of Sex, episode 10: The case for and against Bill Masters

Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) continue their "work" in the hotel room.
Bill (Michael Sheen) and Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) continue their "work" in the hotel room.
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.

A couple of days ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who's even harsher on this season of Masters of Sex than I have been. His reasoning for this is simple: the bulk of the season has been built around breaking down Bill Masters's psyche, in exploring a complicated figure so full of darkness he refuses to examine himself.

The problem with this is that the audience is way, way ahead of Bill in this regard. He's just starting to catch up to stuff we've known since season one, and that creates such a huge knowledge gap in favor of the audience. It's generally good for the audience to figure things out before the characters do, of course, but it's not ideal to have that stretch across years. Then we get restless, just waiting for the characters to catch up.

"Below the Belt" has some issues — particularly because of the fact that the completely extraneous (and downright bizarre) Cal-o-metric storyline continues to exist — but it's notable for featuring what seems like Bill's biggest breakthrough yet. Of course, that breakthrough, the one that finally allows him to call his father a monster, is also tied to a giant fist fight with his brother and the psychological divide that's causing his impotence, so it's always all or nothing for this show.

But the fact remains: this show only really works if you completely buy into Bill Masters, perhaps more than ever in season two. So that leaves me wanting to make both the case for and against the man. And with this episode, that seems more appropriate than ever.

The case against Bill Masters

Masters of Sex

Bill Masters, grade-A jerkass. (Showtime)

Let's face it: Bill is a grade-A, 200-proof jerkass. There's never been a scene that proves this better than Bill laying into a heartbroken Francis, who's just attempted to explain to his brother that alcoholism has been tearing their family apart for two generations now. He tells Francis that his problem isn't alcohol; it's weakness. He never had what it took to stand up for himself, and that's what got him in trouble with the drink too.

It culminates in that fistfight (and notice both how that and the episode's title rhyme with "Fight," which looks more and more like the season's structural cornerstone), and while this is all theoretically interesting, it's also one of those things where you find yourself asking why you're meant to be this interested in this man. Bill isn't a very agreeable person to anyone. He's probably nicest to Virginia, and the number of times that he's been unbearably cruel to her, just as a matter of course, is almost countless.

The standard answer to this is that Bill is brilliant. He's the guy who launched a study of human sexuality that would change the world. He's the guy who realized what he had in Virginia and bucked societal convention to elevate her role. He's the guy who follows the science where it leads and comes to conclusions that might shake society to its core but mostly just make him shrug. Bill Masters is a super genius.

Except as presented in the show, he often seems like a guy who's just sort of lucky to be where he was, when he was. His big idea was to launch the study and follow the data where it might lead him. But the idea of a study about human sexuality wasn't so crazily original that no one had ever thought of it before. Alfred Kinsey, for instance, existed prior to Masters and Johnson, and Bill himself spends much of this episode terrified of another scientist who's closing in on some of the team's findings and stands a good chance of stealing their glory.

Yeah, in the beginning, Bill made some impressive discoveries — particularly in categorizing the stages of human sexual response — but as time has gone on, he's seemed less into the study for the sake of learning anything about sexuality and more for the sake of showing off his own amazingness. That means we've got an incredibly vain glory-seeker who might have had a few great ideas but has largely coasted off of them since. The only reason he's anywhere at all is because he's a white man who's allowed to fail over and over and over, then come up with some new scheme. And, yes, the show comments on that, but does it need to have this guy as the main character?

But perhaps worst of all is that Bill is basically not self-aware at all. He's constantly lying to himself about who he really is and what he really stands for. That can be an absolutely fascinating basis for a TV character, but Bill's breakthroughs come so very slowly that the audience keeps waiting for him to get with the program, as outlined above. The lack of self-awareness can stop the character dead in his tracks.

But even as I can see all of that — and even get tripped up by it sometimes myself — I'm a pretty big fan of Bill Masters, whom I find one of TV's more fascinating characters. And I simply don't have a better explanation for it than I find the guy interesting.

Masters of Sex

Bill decides that he and Virginia need to hire a PR guy to get their names out there. (Showtime)

The case for Bill Masters

In general, I think Bill and Virginia are the best characters on the show, and I bought into that line of thought long, long ago. I like the way that Virginia tempers Bill, and the way that her attraction to him almost acts as a character flaw. (It's never even completely clear to Virginia herself why she's sticking with this guy.) I like the way that Bill's construction of himself as a hard shell of masculinity around a mixed-up, jumbled center constantly forces his issues to the fore. And, finally, I just really like the way Michael Sheen plays the guy. I find his performance one of the best on TV. (Again, turn to that fistfight to see an actor in complete command of his craft and his character.)

In short, I think that all of the things that are so detestable about Bill Masters are things the show wants us to think. Now, we could get into a debate about authorial intent here, and whether we should care about what showrunner Michelle Ashford and her team want us to think, as opposed to how they've made us feel. But in general, I think that Masters of Sex works best when Bill Masters is being held up as an example of mid-20th century America's own hypocrisies.

This isn't accidental, either. This season has made clumsy, fumbling stabs at talking about equality in the United States, particularly when it applies to women and black people. And most of that hasn't worked nearly as well as it probably should, but it's always been contrasted with the way that Bill Masters is able to punch out doctors and run out of money and just generally make an ass of himself over and over again. He is white-guy America incarnate, always able to skate by and get away with murder.

Again, much of this material has been clumsy. Even in this episode, Libby's visits to the CORE office (which Bill spies upon at one point like he's the spurned first wife hiding in the attic in a 19th century novel) feel like they've been airlifted in from another series entirely, just to give the character something to do. But it's been there because, all the while, Bill has been building to a pitched storm of fury, a dam break that threatens to wipe out everything around him. And we start to see the first piercing of the concrete here, as the character begins to give way.

There's another reason this approach works. Masters of Sex is a show, on some level, about how we tell stories to ourselves to order and organize our lives. Bill and Virginia mean to puncture the "official" story of human sexuality, in order to help people better understand who they are and what their sexuality means to the overall story of themselves. And in season one, that was easy to paint, ultimately, as a triumph of the human spirit. Bill and Virginia might have been shouted down by small-minded people, but we knew that history would ultimately reward them.

Season two has flipped this on its ear. This is no longer a story about people confronting small-minded prejudice and forcing others to deal with uncomfortable truths. It's become, instead, about how our heroes prop up and support — sometimes without knowing — other prejudices and false stories. It's, in many ways, a season about confronting your own privilege, and how hard it can be to live in a way that indicates you're cognizant of it.

And, again, that's not as immediately easy to embrace as what season one did, nor has everything about it worked. (It hasn't helped that the show remains stuck in a historical "in between" place, where everything — including the medical cases of the week — is neither here nor there.) But I appreciate the show for going there, and I appreciate the way the show keeps rubbing the characters' noses in the fake stories they've built their own lives around. Everybody on the show is a liar, creating in their heads a world that fancies them the hero. But, then, isn't everybody alive?

There's a scene in this episode where Lester and Barbara end up eating together at a diner, and they talk about how the only sin is despair, is believing that all hope is lost and nothing can ever be changed for the better. In its own way, this is the story both of season two of this show and of its treatment of Bill Masters. He might be a stubborn jackass, and he might be a hard character to really warm to. But he's learning, gradually, just how much of his own life has been governed by despair, by an inability to see beyond the blinders he forced himself to don as a child. To do the work he needs to do, he needs to learn to see beyond those blinders, to leap out into some other unknown. And the process of getting there might be messy, but it's ultimately necessary.

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