How do you solve a problem like Betty DiMello?
I’ve found the character to be grating since day one (although she’s certainly become less one-dimensional now that she’s been given more to do this season), but more concerning than that, she’s felt unnecessary, off in her own world with no real ties to any major characters besides Bill and non-essential to the plot. And she’s not the only one: With his Margaret affair ending last season, Dr. Langham’s been floating aimlessly around the hospital, serving no clear purpose save for discovering Bill and Virginia at that hotel in Illinois. And other characters like Libby, while certainly vital to the storyline, are often limited to their own worlds. It’s a problem Masters of Sex has struggled with for over a season now, but this week it felt like the writers are getting closer to a solution.
They hit the mark a few weeks ago with the excellent “Fight,” an episode that was entirely Virginia-and-Bill-centric, but of course that’s not sustainable. The minor characters can’t be abandoned forever, but this week’s “Giants” showed that while it may be impossible to bring their stories directly into Bill and Virginia’s world, it does help to have them all follow a similar theme. This week, it was all about power dynamics, and the struggle for the upper hand managed to save the episode from feeling disjointed.
Virginia and Bill were of course still at the center of things (hey, it’s their show). The power struggle between them becomes evident when Virginia finds out second-hand (from Libby, no less) that Bill has changed hospitals again and has brought the study to Buell Green, the city’s predominantly African-American hospital, and she’s been approved to join him. The expectation from Bill here is that Virginia can drop everything and leave Lillian’s study on a whim, and given Bill’s recent history (three different hospitals in three months), she asks for a contract. After a fight with Lillian where it’s implied that Virginia has slept her way to the top, she asks Bill if her participation in the study with him is crucial to her employment. He says no at first, but then changes his mind, but Virginia shows him who’s boss in their next session, refusing to take her clothes off and instead commanding him to strip, masturbate and then perform oral sex on her.
But then she and Bill are thrust into a much larger struggle when their white patients start leaving because they’re uncomfortable venturing into an African-American neighborhood. When a fight breaks out between a racist white patient and an African-American patient in the waiting room, the hospital decides to segregate the room to prevent more altercations. Bill tries to explain to his new boss that many of his patients are leaving, but Dr. Hendricks (Courtney B. Vance) refuses to accept that as an excuse, likening desegregation to jumping into a pool of cold water—you don’t do it slowly, you just dive right in—and explaining that he hired Bill because he’s a pioneer in his field who can bring in patients. But then in a twist at the end of the episode, we find out that Dr. Hendricks is also the one who has tearing down all the fliers for Bill and Virginia’s study, a perplexing and compelling development that will surely be revisited in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, while Bill’s off getting a lesson in integration, Libby spends much of this episode showing her true colors. Since hiring Coral, she’s become…well, pretty awful. The sympathetic housewife, cheated on and trapped in a loveless marriage, seems to be developing a new, Betty Draper-esque persona, one where she’s jealous, racist and paranoid. The shift in her personality feels natural though; as her marriage to Bill continues to crumble, she’s slowly but surely coming unhinged. When Coral’s boyfriend Robert shows up at her door to confront her about forcing Coral’s head under the faucet, instead of feeling guilty, Libby feels threatened. She tells Coral to break up with Robert, and Coral delivers an awesomely passive-aggressive speech about how great her sex life with Robert is that culminates with her not-so-subtly pointing out that Libby and Bill sleep in separate beds. Later on, she tells Bill about the faucet debacle, and he’s (rightly) shocked and horrified. He tells her she owes Coral an apology, and because her husband wields so much power over her, Libby complies—kind of. She apologizes to Robert but not to Coral herself, and when Robert points this out to her, she gets defensive. It’s obvious this is going to be an ongoing battle as Libby continues to let her problems with Bill turn her into a monster.
The power dynamics in this episode extend beyond race into sexual orientation, as Betty’s former girlfriend Helen (played by Sarah Silverman) turns up unexpectedly and throws a wrench in her domestic bliss with Gene—which itself is a very recent development, one that comes after Betty agrees they should look into adoption. Betty wants nothing to do with Helen at first because she sees her as a threat to everything she’s worked so hard to get, but soon she’s laughing and crying at dinner and finding herself powerless against her feelings for Helen. They share a kiss in the bathroom, and although Betty tells her “you can’t do that,” the promos for next week indicate that this won’t be an isolated incident and Helen’s probably going to be around for a while. This is a good thing because Helen brings a new depth to Betty and makes her story feel more high-stakes. It’s one thing to empathize with Betty and lament the position society has put her in when Helen is just a name, an off-screen character we’ve never met, but it’s another thing entirely when Helen is standing before us in the flesh.
“Giants” succeeded by going broad and tying all of its characters’ various plots to one central theme. It’s a theme that reminds us why Bill and Virginia’s study is so important while also giving us a strong sense of the era through gender and civil rights conflicts. So, for now at least, problem solved.
—Glad to see Lillian and Virginia have patched things up, but the promo for next week showing Virginia crying over her felt super spoiler-y.
— “What opportunities do you have outside of diet pills?”
—That scene where Bill admits he’s thinking about Virginia while masturbating was really interesting because it could be read either as a purely sexual thing or as a confession of feelings for her. I’m going with the latter.
— “You were the cold lake, and I jumped in with both feet.”