This might be a little controversial, but I think this episode, as far as good TV goes, is better than the (very great) character study “Fight,” but it takes a whole lot of cringing to get through the episode.
Case in point: Bill Masters tells Virginia Johnson that having sex with him is a job requirement.
Sorry, just wanted to let that sit there. Any attempt to soften the character, or care about him just a little — totally lost.As the show builds this double Bill — this guy who is just trying to be a good doctor, and a good scientist, and is not particularly racist, is also the guy who is forcing his assistant into a sexual relationship.
But let’s, for a second, put the unpleasantness of Masters behind us and return to my favorite characters, the Morettis — the King and Queen and of the Pretzels. Gene (the King), is still angry that Betty lied. Not the lie about being a prostitute — he’s fine with that — but that she knew from the start that she couldn’t have children. So as he goes to sleep on the couch, she begs, pleads, and sings for him. He doesn’t believe her. She says she wants to adopt — that their love will make the babies there. And I totally believe her. Right then. At that moment.
But then we’re reminded that, in the end, Betty is still having sex for money, and that her love is for another. That “another” is Sarah Silverman, wearing a really great hat and gloves, and playing a very fake psychic named Helen. She shows up at the Pretzel Kingdom unannounced, convincing Gene there is a ghost named Paul (or maybe Saul) in their mansion. Banter ensues — between Betty and Helen, between Gene and Helen, between Betty and Gene, and eventually not with Gene’s great pal Al, a pepperoni manufacturer who falls for Helen on a very awkward double date. Betty wants Helen to disappear, but she’s not going to, because they love each other. It’s a little awkward how the show relegates homosexuality to side-plots, but this is definitely where the best storytelling has happened, both with Bert last season and Betty this season.
One of the best exchanges happens over this double date, where Helen, who Betty has described as a problem gambler, tells a story about picking a horse in the Kentucky Derby called “Beautiful Betty,” and that every time she was sad, Betty could look down on the ticket and know that someone was betting on her. When the men ask what happened, we learn the horse broke a leg. Had to be put down. It’s a wrenchingly funny scene that feels real — for those of us regular people who do not have sex as a science experiment, or don’t speak with pregnant pauses or whatever — real hurt, real memories, are often as hilarious as they are painful.
The rest of the episode was not funny.
Masters manages to get Virginia a position at Buell Green, but Virginia was rightfully skeptical, and demands a contract in case Bill quits again. This is reasonable. Bill is offended, and he implies she has no other options, as Virginia’s boss, Lillian DePaul, does not think very highly of her — she knows that Masters and Johnson are having sex. Virginia confronts Lillian, and accuses her of giving her study away out of spite, but Lillian makes some very obvious points. First, that Virginia was going to leave for Bill anyway, and wasn’t planning on continuing the study, and second, that Virginia’s fucking-toward-success makes life harder for all women. True, but very judgy. Virginia points out that Lillian could take the long way because she had money and no kids. This is also true. This fight is very loud, and the secretaries are listening, and Virginia leaves to be with Bill, which was what was going to happen anyway.
This is when Virginia asks Bill if she has to have sex with him to have the job and he says yes, and everyone watching feels sick to their stomachs.
Then they go to the hotel. Virginia tries to grab power where she can — which is her entire mode with Masters. She forces him to strip, and then masturbate, a recreation of the scene from the third episode when gets herself off. When he closes his eyes, she asks what he’s fantasizing about. He stops, and asserts, “You,” which — OK, how can this even be sort of masked as a scientific process now. And it’s meant as a threat. As a reminder that even if she is not having sex with him, he can objectify her without her consent. Her only response is to make Bill go down on her. She remains mostly dressed, he is sad, small and naked, a reversal of the masturbation scene from “Fight.”
This season’s real conflict about race, and it is trying to break apart liberal hypocrisy by turning Libby into a terrible white lady racist. There was some sweet retribution for Libby’s awfulness in this episode. Coral’s boyfriend Robert comes to the door, and tells her it was pretty messed up that she shoved Coral’s hair under the faucet. Libby in turn confronts Coral and tells her that her boyfriend is “very angry” and that she should definitely dump him, which Libby can say because she’s a woman of the world. And then Coral was like, yeah, but he’s a great lay, but you’re a woman of the world, so you know what that’s like. Libby doesn’t know what that’s like because she and Masters sleep in separate beds, obviously. Coral, like Virginia, is a subjugated person using her sex as power, this time to show Libby just how awful her life is.
Then Libby tells Bill about the hair washing, and Bill knows this is very wrong, and tells her so, which she finds upsetting. He couches it in a weird hyper-masculine thing about how he would beat up someone who forcibly washed her hair, but obviously none of that would ever happen because Libby is a white woman.
When Robert comes to pick her up, Libby dashes out to apologize to him, blaming it on baby craziness. He says she needs to apologize to Coral and she doesn’t, because Coral was disobeying her, which leads to the best line of the show: “Pay attention Coral, because this here is good lesson of white people’s inability to take responsibility for their actions and do the right thing.”
White people hate hearing about how racist they are, Libby chases after the car shouting about how Bill works in the black hospital, her very own version of having Black friends.
Bill’s “progressiveness” is her touchstone, but all in not well at Buelle Green. In order to “win” Bill Masters Dr. Hendricks, the head of the hospital, offers him a contract for Virginia, a nice office, and a dedicated exam room so the sex study can continue. This screws over Cyril, a younger doctor who loses his office. Hendricks hopes this trade-off will suddenly integrate the hospital, like “jumping into a cold lake,” but Masters can barely get the racist white women of St. Louis to travel to the hospital. One husband gets into a fight with a Black man who “looks” at his wife, and Masters ends up getting slugged in the face. The waiting room becomes segregated, but Hendricks wants Masters to call up all his patients and make them stay with him — something that ends up charged to Virginia in the same way dealing with study participants is Virginia’s purview. Bill becomes a passive actor for change, leveraging his privilege to help achieve Dr. Hendricks’ goal for what he thinks is a mutually beneficial arrangement (Hendricks is actually tossing study participant flyers, but I figure that will be a bigger deal during the next episode).
But it’s still as show made by white people, and when Hendricks delivers a speech to Bill — that they are similar because they are both relentless in achieving their goal — there’s an equivalence there that doesn’t work for me, one that doubly empowers Masters, a white guy. Sex is definitely about power, yes, and in learning more about sex, there’s a move toward equality, but something seems off. Then again, as the study starts getting participants from Buelle Green, I’m sure we’ll see these parallel power clashes collide.