For at least a decade now, critics have been telling us that we live in the age of the antihero. There’s a reason why Batman, most tortured of heroes, has ruled the box office, while the Boy Scout Superman has so little cultural cachet. But nowhere is the trend more pronounced than television, where The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire are all built around the lives of mysterious, violent men. These characters capture an angst indicative of both the prevailing national mood, and the changing concept of masculinity. We allow them to be both perfectly human and perfectly monstrous, and all we ask in return is that they be interesting.
Thus far, William Masters fits the bill of an intelligent, calculating man, capable of immoral acts in the service of his goals, which are not always clear even to him. But, through no fault of Michael Sheen, he has also been aggressively boring and deeply unlikable. This episode begins to change that, and though the series has a long way to go before I am invested in him as a character, it is an important first step.
We begin by meeting the young Bill Masters, who is not yet a physician, showing his studies on the mating habits of rabbits to future Provost Scully. Even then, his real interest was the study of human sexuality, which he discussed with a passion and lack of restraint that he has completely lost in the intervening decade (oh, how the decades do intervene). In the present day, we see once again how crucial Masters’ work is as he tries to explain birth control to a young woman who believes her cervix resides somewhere in the vicinity of her elbow.
After what I hope is an extensive anatomy lesson, Bill bumps into Betty, who still wants her tubes untied so she may take the throne as Pretzel Queen. Bill refuses on the grounds that it really sounds like she is making this whole thing up. Betty retaliates by screaming “Bill Masters invented an electric dildo!” at the top of her lungs until he relents and promises to re-open her womb.
That night, Bill and Ginny return to the cathouse to watch the hookers pleasure themselves, although there is very little actual pleasure on display. One woman fakes her orgasm with such exuberance it’s a wonder she doesn’t break Ulysses, another can’t remember the last time she climaxed, and a third can only be excited by a firm slap to the rear. Bill’s problem is that he assumes these proclivities are the result of being deviants or misfits; he fails to recognize that there is no normal when it comes to sex.
One of the women recounts her adolescent abuse at the hands of her uncle, and the fact that Masters and Johnson are shocked is a testament to how much they have to learn. An unfortunate reality of working with prostitutes, though, is nearly all of them have some form of infection in their reproductive systems, which is tragic and also a rather pointed elbow in the side of the Obamacare debate.
The next day, a new lady doctor arrives on the scene, Lillian DePaul (Julianne Nicholson whom you may recognize from Puccini for Beginners, where she played bi). She’s smart, single, dresses austerely, and stares at vaginas for a living. So that is like one square short of a perfect lesbian bingo. WAIT, WAIT. SHE IS WEARING FLAT SHOES. THAT’S A BINGO, FOR SURE.
Ginny is instantly fascinated with her, and defends her to the other secretaries, who are weirded out by the thought of a lady gyno. My new fondest hope is that Ginny and Lillian will kiss and things. I will be using all my shooting star and 11:11 wishes towards this goal, and I expect you to do the same.
Ugh, Ethan are you still here? Fine, here is your allotted paragraph. When an egregiously pregnant woman turns out to be carrying quadruplets, Ethan figures he can get famous by delivering them, because he is everything that is dreadful in the world. Bill takes the case away at the last minute because Ethan probably would have killed them all, and that makes Ethan sulk even harder than usual, but nobody notices because nobody cares.
To broaden the parameters of his study, Bill has Betty recruit some male volunteers before going into surgery. But like the rest of the women, years of untreated infection make Betty’s tubal reversal a moot point, and she won’t be able to have children. But this still doesn’t deter her from abandoning her life of lesbianism to live a sheltered, straight lie. For her, it’s not about romance, it’s about survival. It’s be poor and sick for the rest of her days and love Helen, or be free from the worst and the best of life with King Pretzel. It’s a choice between two cages.
But in her final act of Betty-ness the lads she recruits for the study are comely homosexuals. Quite flustered by their copulation, Bill decides the stud must be moved from the cathouse, to watch straight people have boring, vanilla sex.
That night, Ginny brings RoboLibby a casserole, and finds her sobbing over her infertility. Unable to break the bonds of sisterhood any further, Ginny breaks the news that it is actually Bill who is unable to conceive. For a moment, RoboLibby’s circuits overload, smoke pours forth from her ears, and she very nearly reprograms herself into a machete-wielding feminist. But lo and behold, she turns out to be with child after all, and much like Eve in Wall-E, all her functions are immediately rerouted to the care and protection of her fetus. So you’re off the hook this time, Bill.
Outside the hospital, one of the handsome gay prostitutes approaches Bill about being of further use to the study. It was the first time someone in the mainstream had made him feel worthy of thought and study, as opposed to a dirty secret to be used and then discarded. But that’s precisely what Bill does, telling the young man that he is too far outside the norm to be useful. This guy has the same survivor’s bravado as Betty, but his heart is broken by this news. In his pain, he blurts out that Bill isn’t the first member of the medical establishment to fuck him.
Of course, we know without having to be told that he’s referring to Scully, and we know Bill will use this information to blackmail Scully into approving the hospital for the study. What does come as a surprise is the gentleness with which Bill delivers this blow. The actual speech:
Bill: The men who pay to see him [the prostitute], they’re not convicts or reprobates. They’re not degenerates. They’re family men, living a double life, suffering in the shadows. I don’t believe in shadows. I believe in the light of scientific inquiry. I believe I have a responsibility to those men, whether they’re salesmen or lawyers or the provost of a major university.
Despite the fact that this is quite possibly the kindest blackmail in history, Scully’s face drops like Bill just took a bulldozer to his glass house. It certainly destroys the longest and most meaningful friendship of Bill’s life.
So, I’m not sure we’ll be seeing Betty anymore, which is tragic since she has the rare ability to make a Midwestern accent raunchy. But I’m going to stick around with Masters and Johnson, because thus far, the show has gone out of its way to address the stories of gays, women, and (so far) one person of color. And I got a feeling about Lillian, y’all.
What about you? Will I see you next week?