“Masters of Sex” recap (2.9): The Blind Leading The Blind

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Lately I’ve gotten really into The Knick, the new Cinemax show about a pioneering team of surgeons circa 1900. I don’t get to write about it here because there aren’t any lesbians (I’ve got my eye on you though, Cornelia!) but it offers some pretty perfect contrasts with Masters of Sex. Both shows center around physicians inventing their fields as they go—in The Knick’s case, the field is surgery—and focus on the difficult, mercurial doctor leading the way. Much like Michael Sheen’s Bill Masters, Clive Owen’s William Thackeray is brusque, engages in duplicitous and self-harming behaviors, and pushes away every person who tries to get close to him. They both do irreparable damage to their patients out of ignorance (in Thackeray’s case he is ignorant of the location of the appendix) and Thackeray is, if anything, more racist than Masters. But I find myself enthralled with Thackeray—I lean forward every time he comes on screen—whereas when Bill Masters enters a scene, I take the opportunity to check Twitter.

The difference, I believe, is one of heat. William Thackeray burns so bright and so hot he is in danger of scalding everyone who comes near him. Even in his rages and excesses he is thoroughly, gloriously himself. Bill Masters, on the other hand, is cold, hollow, and absent. This episode deliberately points that out in Bill’s brother’s speech about the disappearing act that runs in their family. But while you can explain Bill’s coldness, even sympathize with the monstrous conditions that created it, it still doesn’t make him a compelling character. It is nearly impossible to become invested in his salvation or damnation, because he pushes the audience away the same way he pushes away his wife. The show’s ability to make something out of this nothing will, I think, determine whether or not it succeeds or fails.

That’s my main observation for this recap, and I’m just going to breeze through the rest of it, since nothing gayer happened than Betty saying the word “flexible.”

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So we pick up in the therapists’ office where Ginny is attempting to receive analysis-by-proxy, by pretending that she is Barbara, incest victim (Ginny has more aliases than a Russian spy these days). The therapist initially questions the authenticity of her story, but since he gets paid by the hour, he goes ahead and dispenses some advice, which is to pretend to go back in time and stop the abuse from ever happening. Look out for this guy, Ginny. The last shrink with this strategy was on Skins. Just make sure he doesn’t have any baseball bats stashed around the office.

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Episode 209

At the Masters residence, it’s a family reunion, with Bill’s brother, mother, and sister-in-law all present. I kind of expected Libby to be like, “You have a BROTHER?” but apparently she knew, so they spend a quiet evening with Bill being predictably dickish about his brother’s alcoholism, no doubt because his own drinking has gotten out of control. He sneaks out to meet up with Ginny, although he still refuses to tell her about his impotence.

Bill chooses an alternate way to address his affliction, by using poor Lester as his proxy (Poor Lester is his full name, incidentally). He gets Betty to enlist the services of a prostitute to try her best on Lester’s shy penis, in spite of Lester’s repeated refusals. When he goes to his “treatment” Lester is essentially assaulted by the lady, to the extent that he dissociates entirely from the experience. As painful and tragic as it is to watch, I do think there is value in dismantling the toxic notion the male libido is always raring to go.

It’s a close second in the lab rat Olympics, and Barbara takes it.

First, Bill penetrates her with a dilator to cure her vaginismus, even though she sobs the entire time. Lester watches through the window the whole time, and even though it’s kind of creepy, I do get the sense that they’d be a good couple, and capable of healing one another. Ginny tries out her shiny new therapeutic method on her, but Barbara misinterprets it and confronts her brother face-to-face. The way her brother remembers their creekside explorations were that they were Barb’s attempts to keep her brother all to herself. So Barbara is left feeling more guilty and confused than ever and Ginny is left feeling like maybe one session of counseling doesn’t make her the next Dr. Freud.

Easily my favorite storyline this week is Libby’s transformation into a civil rights warrior. She goes to CORE to offer her testimony is the beating of their secretary, and is very nearly persuaded to commit perjury and attest to seeing more of the crime than she actually witnessed. Robert stops her in her tracks, saying that she would do more harm than good to the cause. Libby is feeling just as confused as ever, until she talks with her sister-in-law. That good lady relates the story of how she discovered Frank’s drinking habit, and finally found the courage to make him choose between her or the bottle. You can see the gears turning in her mind as the realizes that Bill too has unexplained late nights and bouts of impotence, but rather than going to confront him about it, she shows up at CORE and offers her services as volunteer secretary. I just love that she has given up on Bill and taken to focusing on her own betterment. I wish everyone else would do the same.

Ugh, speaking of Bill, the inexplicable center of all things, we now must cover his storyline. Frank, his brother, takes him to AA, where he gets his chip for spending a year sober. This is a very big moment for Frank, and he uses it to tell his story. It’s one we’ve heard before, but from Bill’s perspective. Frank remembers the same father, with the same mindless temper, the same tyrannical grip over the happiness of his family, and movingly recounts the ways he learned to disappear. As a young child, he would simply run to a neighbor’s house. As an adolescent, he disappeared within himself. And when he became a man, he lost himself in alcohol. He addresses this speech to Bill, only to find that his brother has walked out in the middle of his story. When Frank confronts Bill about this, Bill says something that perfectly illustrates everything that is odious in his character: he accuses Frank of stealing the stories of things that happened to Bill. As Bill remembers it, he was the whipping boy and Frank was the golden child. Frank, who is a model of restraint and decency is like “do you really, honestly think that you are the only person who has ever suffered? You realize our father was an equal opportunity son of a bitch, right?” And Bill finally gets an inkling of the fact that he has, in many ways, turned into his father.

He certainly reenacts his relationship with his father with Ginny, searching for love with someone who is unwilling or unable to get it. But the ethics of their sexual relationship have finally (FINALLY) started to bother Ginny. It’s actually the ghost of Lillian’s reprimands ringing in her ears that remind her that her affair with Bill is hardly a victimless crime. The victim is sweet, credulous Libby. She tells Bill as much, that what they’re doing is wrong, and Bill runs his hail mary. He admits that he is impotent, and he needs Ginny to cure him. I guess it might have worked back in the day, when a thousand guys hadn’t already used that line.

Episode 209

I’m frustrated with this show, post-Lillian, guys. Do you think these clunker episodes are the exception or the rule?

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