What gives one person power over another person? In “Giants,” Masters Of Sex explores all the different dynamics that involve someone getting the upper hand on someone else: Life status, professional status, knowledge, desire. Bill Masters says he’s not destined for history, but Gini and Dr. Charles Hendricks (a powerful Courtney B. Vance) know he’s lying: He wants to be a giant, but he can’t do it on his own.
For one thing, he’s dependant on Virginia. So much so that when she—fueled by Dr. DePaul’s insistence that her affair with Bill is perpetuating “the sick belief that women need to open their legs to get a leg up”—tries to stop their private sessions, he has to insist that they’re part of the condition of her employment. He’s in charge of this part of her career, which makes her feel powerless (she even has to find out about the Buell Green move from Libby), but his desire for her makes her dominant in that arena. So she gets back at him in another role-play in one of their hotel trysts by ordering him around with the stop-watch and watching him masturbate. When she tells him to stop after he admits that he’s thinking about her when he’s doing it, he continues his submission by going down on his knees in front of her. The camera then pans tellingly from oral sex to an empty mirror.
This episode was created by two MOS newbies, Boardwalk Empire writer Bathsheba Doran and Downton Abbey director Jeremy Webb. I quit watching Downton Abbey after the show started killing off all the characters I liked, but I doubt Webb filmed anything quite so graphic on that set. The shot to the mirror is so pronounced, though, I wonder what the director is trying to say. Because a second shot, of Betty and Helen sitting in front of a mirror in a ladies’ lounge, indicates their long past stretching behind them—one that they’re not yet free of. So maybe we were glimpsing Masters and Johnsons’ future, and all that has yet to come for them.
Sarah Silverman is unexpectedly delightful as Helen, especially when she’s in her fake medium mode, convincing Gene that their living room is haunted by a 93-year-old man who choked on a chicken bone. We heard about the character as Betty’s true love in season one, and her re-appearance in Betty’s life (and her knowledge about Betty’s past) has the power to upend Betty’s current status completely. It’s too bad, because right now Betty and Gene offer almost the only (and desperately needed) light moments in the entire series, like when he tells her her voice sounds like migrating geese, or “That vacuum has two inches of dust on it, that’s how much vacuuming you do.” And their conversation about adoption, after all of Betty’s previous deceptions, is sweet, as she knows he’s in once he says “once we love them.” It’s too bad she’s in it for the lifestyle Gene offers instead of what a wonderful man Gene is. But now that Betty is no longer in fake fertility treatments with Masters, is it a stretch to keep these two in the Masters Of Sex universe?
There will be no reason for the Morettis to show up at Buell Green Hospital, for example, where Masters and Johnson are having no shortage of trouble. As suspected, Hendricks’ hiring of Masters was an effort to integrate the hospital, which is initially so problematic that the patients have to be separated in the waiting room (and the waiting-room fight is a horrific throwback to the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman). Even the casual depictions of racism (the term “colored,” Virginia’s speculation about racial differences in the sex study) stand out enough as to be absolutely appalling. After commenting that a black hospital is one step above a hospital in a penitentiary, Libby later states that there’s something in the air, and we can only pray that it’s the Civil Rights Movement. Hendricks mentions Martin Luther King in his rousing speech at the end of the episode, which amusingly ignites Virginia, while Bill remains hopeful that they can help the hospital as well as themselves. The final shot of Hendricks is portrayed as so over-the-top sinister, though, as he is revealed to be the person who is ripping down the sex study flyers, you have to wonder what’s really behind his efforts. What does he have to gain by sabotaging the study?
It’s gratifying to see Virginia so pleased to be recognized, finally, for what she’s excellent at professionally, and just in time, too, as Dr. DePaul wraps up her time at Maternity this week. Perhaps the power indicator here is that no matter how self-sufficient we think we are, there’s going to come a time when we’re going to need someone: If a child finds us passed out on a bathroom floor, someone else is going to have to drive us home. Gini and Lillian offer such strong portrayals of 1950s women—Gini as a single mother, and Lillian as a female in a predominantly male profession—I’m glad their fight was so gratifyingly epic (and what was going through the minds of all those secretaries?) but I’m mostly glad that Lillian didn’t apologize afterward (and I loved Julianne Nicholson’s smile afterward: If this is her storyline wrapping up, she will be missed on this show). Lillian has someone to take her to chemo and sit in the car with her afterwards and sometimes, that’s all we need.
And finally, the least-powerful character in our overall power play: Libby Masters, saddled with silent sex and reduced to throwing newspapers at cars. Her efforts toward Coral and Robert can easily squash any possible sympathy we might have for her as she invites Bill back into her marital bed: We’ve seen his sexual game, and this is not it. I loved Dolan’s “Beautiful Betty” racetrack story that Helen told, but I have a harder time buying Coral’s monologue about Robert. Former child actress Keke Palmer has been amazing as Coral, with her slight digs about the Masters’ twin beds, or internally scoffing at Libby as a “woman of the world,” but I had a hard time buying that she would sit on a bed and tell her employer about her lover’s breath in her ear. Might be a case of Masters Of Sex favoring style over actual substance.
Because the show does have style, beautifully: the lighting, Michael Penn’s music, year-perfect fashions and cars. The reemergence of Masters and Johnsons’ actual study hopefully will help the show gain some traction, plotwise. Otherwise we are still exploring Bill and Gini’s erosive pull toward each other: While Bill maintains that sexuality offers as many possibilities to study as the Milky Way, it would be nice to see more of this, perhaps with relationships outside of these two. I suspect we will, as, pointedly, Bill and Gini haven’t kissed yet. And a kiss, apparently, is one of the most powerful forces there is.
- “First of all, I was Miss Melba Snyder in my high-school production of Pal Joey, before they booted me out entirely, and second…”
- I am loath to compare MOS to that other stellar period piece, Mad Men, but do so many names have to come from the same 1950s handbook? Betty, Gene, even a Helen showed up in MM’s first season as the scandalous neighborhood divorcee.