Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Masters Of Sex: “Blackbird”

Illustration for article titled Masters Of Sex: “Blackbird”

I pretty much cried all the way through this episode of Masters Of Sex. I know it’s been a rough week for us all—especially as we witnessed that current-day Ferguson, Missouri does not appear to be so far removed from 1950s St. Louis. But I have a personal parallel to Dr. Lillian DePaul’s rapid demise, if you’ll bear with me for a moment.

About three years ago, my mother made the same decision as Lillian to stop cancer treatment. Like Gini, I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to fight for her own life, how it was so “easy” for her to “give up,” but I wanted to fight for her. I begged, I pleaded: In a really low moment, I reminded her of her adorable grandchildren. But I’ve never gone through chemo or radiation: I don’t know firsthand how much it fucking sucks. As Lillian described: with the fatigue, the hair falling out, the nausea, the indescribable pain.

I know now—and what I really love about this episode is that Gini figures it out too, by not going through with the emergency call—is that these people aren’t losing the battle. They know the cancer will eventually overtake them, and they’re calling the shots on the way they go out. My mother stopped treatment and was gone in three months, and in her final moments, like Gini, I was the only one there. That last night, again, was just like Lillian’s (minus the drug overdose): a labored breathing that slowly just stopped. I just can’t get over how perfect it was: I’ve never seen anything—not Terms Of Endearment, not Steel Magnolias, not any end-of-life movie over the past three years, or ever—that captured this process so spot-on like this did.

My rationale for this detour into my personal life is to point out that what Masters Of Sex succeeds at, it hits right out of the park. Michael Sheen has stated that the most interesting part of the show is not the sex, but the emotions behind it, and I think he’s exactly right. As it explores our characters’ inner worlds, Masters Of Sex also wrestles with some historical allegories: paralleling this fictional life to Masters and Johnson’s real ones, along with issues like what it meant to be gay in the 1950s, the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, etc.

It’s a lot to take on. Maybe it’s too much. The loveliness of Gini and Lillian—or of Bill and Gini’s first kiss, which we’ll get to in a moment—almost get sidetracked this episode as some of our main characters go completely off the rails. We’ve all been wondering what could possibly be behind Libby Masters’ hairpin turn this season, transforming her from devoted wife to screeching harpy: Is she a poster girl for post-partum depression? A stand-in for the noblesse oblige racism of the times? Or are the show’s creators trying to come up with a viable reason that Bill will leave her for Gini? I’m sure there are reasons behind this, but it makes no sense whatsoever for Libby to follow Coral and Robert with her baby in the car. Director Keith Gordon’s use of a handheld camera to trace Libby’s flight to Coral’s added an element of real-life drama to the situation, but the whole scene left me dumbfounded, and not the good kind of dumbfounded. How would Libby even know Robert’s last name? Why did it take so long for Robert to drive Coral home that night would fall?

We also see an extreme, unrealistic side of Bill Masters, who is suddenly willing to risk his entire study with falsified information—racial stereotyped falsified information, at that—just to prevent a print exposé? Although we’ve seen him try to hide his inner self before, his whole standoff with the newspaper editor is absurd enough to be outlandish. At least Bill realizes how outrageous he’s been, and gets set to leave another hospital, but the damage to his character has been done.


This part of the plotline mimics what Masters and Johnson actually went through, having a difficult time finding a home for their study, bouncing from hospital to hospital. This goes back to the parallelism problem I mentioned earlier: It may be true(ish) to life, but it’s difficult to watch, as various hospital staffs parade by us that we will say goodbye to after a week or so. (I’ll definitely miss Courtney B. Vance, asking if Bill wants to watch him take a leak.)

This week’s theme can be traced to the falling of façades and the retreat of barriers, as Robert is revealed to be Coral’s brother, Masters is about to be exposed as unstable in print, Lillian finally faces the truth about her fate, and Gene learns what’s really going on between Betty and Helen. The phrase “letting the facts speak for themselves” is uttered a few times, but we see several scenarios where the facts and the reality still have a definite distance between them. Betty loves Helen, but still wants to stay married to Gene. When Betty can’t tell Gene what he wants to hear, he knows, God bless him, that he deserves more. And perhaps this was a blunder on the part of the Showtime blurb writers: Last week’s episode summary referred to Robert as Coral’s brother, but that revelation doesn’t come until this week. So Coral made up a hot sex life to make Libby feel inadequate, but to use her own brother for that description was just creepy.


The final wall falls between Gini and Bill as they face their first kiss. I like that it happens fully clothed, as Bill is comforting Gini about Lillian. There can be no mistake; nothing sexual about his intention. It’s affection. It’s love. It’s almost secondary to the purposeful kiss Gini gives Lillian, to show her that there is in fact someone in this world who loves her. But what Bill tells Gini right before kissing her is not “I love you,” but “I know you.” Gini’s evening with Lillian serves the same purpose, to assure her that she will not leave her life without knowing anyone. Gene’s perplexed question to Betty is, “Who are you?” I don’t know about Libby Masters’ comment last week that hate and love are two sides of the same coin, but I do believe that knowing someone is just a step or so away from loving them completely.

Bill being Bill, he doesn’t say ”love,” so why shouldn’t Gini hook up with cute Barry Watson (I knew he wasn’t only just going to stick around for a one-line cameo!), even though that revelation leaves Bill Masters a crumpled man on the sidewalk? God, if there’s a message from this episode, or this week overall, it’s this: Don’t hide how you feel about people. Don’t not tell them. What if Betty and Helen could live together, what if Gini and Lillian could have been friends sooner, what if Bill told Gini how he really felt about her? Although our characters all have valid reasons for their choices, in actuality we all waste too much time hiding or worrying when none of us really knows how much time we may have. Permit me one last clichéd indulgence, please: Life is short, shorter than you can imagine.


Stray observations:

  • Lillian’s story: A; Libby’s story: C-
  • “I drive getaway cars in my spare time.” Dr. DePaul, you will be missed.
  • “This is why we call you Priscilla the Hun. We do; it’s not even a secret.”
  • “I’m sorry, that had too many ‘you’s in it.”
  • Bill calling Libby a “peeping Tom” is a bit much.
  • I’ve always loved director Keith Gordon’s career: He started out as a teen actor in such classics as Jaws 2, Christine, and The Legend Of Billie Jean, then jumped to directing feature films before he hit the age of 30. He’s also directed episodes of The Leftovers and The Bridge this season.