“Masters of Sex” recap (2.3): Loving Strangers


Hello and welcome back to Room In Rome Masters of Sex. Okay but seriously, there were crazy parallels between last night’s episode and that much-maligned piece of lesbian cinema. Two people meet in a hotel for a night of illicit sex, in which they blur the lines between truth in fiction in telling the stories of their lives. It’s not a particularly easy episode for a recapper, since the majority of the action took place in that room between Bill and Ginny (and Elliot, the most boundary-crossing bellhop in history. Mind your own fucking business, Elliot.) with brief interludes regarding the fate of an intersex infant.

In many ways, this episode was both the most subtle and most ambitious effort Masters of Sex has attempted to date, but two themes are relatively simple to parse out from the action: ambiguity and masculinity. The night begins with Ginny preparing to meet up with Bill for one of their regular study sessions, and talking to her daughter. Ginny Junior is explaining the finer points of narrative structure to her mother, which goes like this: handsome prince rescues beautiful princess and they live happily ever after. Ginny tries to prod her towards a more nuanced understanding of life (What if the prince weren’t handsome? What if the princess rescued him?) but for her, the story is set in stone and she cannot tolerate its being altered in any way. (Luckily for her, most of popular culture for the next fifty years will leave that story exactly as-is.) So right now, we’re already playing with some deep-seated gender roles.

Next, we go to the hospital, where Bill delivers a perfectly healthy baby, normal in all respects but one: the infant has both male and female sex organs. He delivers this news to the baby’s parents, along with assurances that, based on the bloodwork, their child is genetically male. The father (a lamentably heavy-handed caricature of the patriarchy) refuses to touch “it” until he has some equipment he can recognize.

Episode 203

Bill assures him that in time a surgery will make their son exclusively male, but the father refuses to wait and also questions the masculinity of a boy that might need testosterone therapy. He demands, in the strongest possible terms, that Bill cut off the penis. Anyone who has watched the show at all knows this rigid definition of manhood is pushing some serious buttons with Bill’s father issues, so he forcefully commands the father to sleep on it. Like Rip van Winkle sleep. And obviously, here from the perspective of 2014, we can argue that this child should have the opportunity to choose what gender to live as, but back in the fifties, we can agree that Bill is fighting the good fight.

That night, Bill and Ginny meet at their hotel just as THE LONGEST BOXING MATCH IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD begins. Seriously, the thing goes for eight hundred thousand rounds and it’s not like either of the men is a young Cassius Clay or something. The whole thing plays out on the hotel TV over the course of the episode and I think it just tries to be a metaphor for too many things (Bill and Ginny’s relationship, Bill’s childhood trauma, masculinity as a whole). It’s the metaphorical equivalent of a vacuum cleaner, and it gets seriously clogged with all it tries to suck in.

Anyway, Ginny can see that Bill is visibly perturbed—though how she can tell the difference between that and his TGIF face is beyond me—so she goes to take a bath, but is interrupted when Bill throws her against a wall and “has his way” with her. This brings up an interesting question, and one I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer: do Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan have sexual chemistry and are they even meant to? For me, this scene of bathroom sex is utterly devoid of heat, but that may only be because of, you know, the whole gay thing. It’s also possible their sex scenes are meant to feel clinical and unbalanced; the real Virginia Johnson was essentially coerced into her sexual relationship with Masters, an historical fact that has been senselessly glossed over for TV. But deliberately portraying these scenes as being uncomfortable for Ginny and the audience seems to violate the show’s prime directive of humanizing Bill. Please let me know in the comments what you think.


Anyway, after the sex, Bill tells Ginny about the incidents with the intersex infant, and shakes with rage over the child’s bullying father. Really, Bill’s advocacy for his patients are the only times he is ever remotely in danger of being likeable. Not that likeability is the end-all be-all of a character; it just seems unfair that Ginny should have to do all the work on that front. When Ginny sees Bill is upset about the infant/his own issues, she refers back to the boxing match. She goes on about how she wouldn’t want some Neanderthal man, only good for pummeling. It’s an elaborate and sweet effort to soothe Bill’s insecurities, but she just happened to pick the wrong insecurities. He tells her he actually took up boxing as a teenager, for motives that instantly seem murky. When she tries to probe deeper, though, he retreats into his fussy refusal to engage.

They try a different tack over dinner, where they try out some role-playing in their secret identities of Dr. and Mrs. Holden. While the pretend games start out as just that (Dr. Holden does secret work for the government and Mrs. Holden’s mother went blind in a prison fight) eventually neither of them can tell if they’re joking. Ginny shares a story of her first love, a man who she believed she would spend her life with until he went off and married his actual fiancé. Ginny says it was then she learned to harden her heart against love, which I find sort of problematic. On the one hand, a relationship like her first one would leave scars on anyone, but on the other, do we really need Ginny to have a heart made of ice to explain her character? Is it not enough that she’s just not in love with Bill?

Speaking of Bill, his big reveal is that he has a twin who is a famous actress in Russia and was horrifically abused by his father as a child. We already knew that, and could deduce that those beatings were responsible for his interest in boxing, but we didn’t know that Bill’s dad abandoned him on the steps of his boarding school at the tender age of 14. This is the episode’s big Hail Mary, and if you don’t feel for Bill now, you never will. But it’s worth noting that while all of this backstory is being exposed, it’s intercut with shots of the intersex infant, being poked and prodded and treated as a revolting sort of curiosity by the hospital staff. Those shots are easily the most emotionally affecting of the episode. It is physically painful to see an innocent child, unaware that anything is “wrong” with it, tampered with by adults who foist their own damaged worldviews on everything they touch. You realize, as the episode progresses, that the baby’s father will indeed get his wish to remove his son’s penis. The effect of this horror is twofold: one to remind you of the importance and righteousness of Bill and Ginny’s work, and two to serve as a metaphor for the ways society’s dirty hands shape who we are.

In Ginny’s case, the first man she loved damaged her heart irrevocably. In Bill’s, his father’s expectation that he be a man while he was still a boy stunted him emotionally. But it’s an intensely flawed parallel, because the scars of emotional and physical abuse are NOT the same as a child being misgendered for the sake of its parents’ comfort. Because the infant has no opportunity to cope or adjust, whereas all adults must learn to do just that in order to function. Anyone who has survived trauma is haunted by the specter of who they might have been had they remained unscathed. But Bill is an adult, and rather than working through his issues, he has a wife he treats as a prop, a mistress he coerced into sex, and a baby he neglects. One of the best illustrations of this contradiction is a scene in which he says his father told him the beatings would stop if he begged for mercy, an offer he always refused. He follows this up by asking Ginny to beg him for sex, which she awesomely denies and proceeds to pleasure herself right in front of them. The double-standard seems totally lost on Bill. So, do I understand Bill Masters better after this episode? Certainly I do. But do I like him? Sorry, show; still no.

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