Every now and then, a TV show will knock the wind out of you for reasons that are purely coincidental. Writers always aim to have their work be relatable, sure, but sometimes things resonate in a way their creators could have never imagined.
On last night’s Masters of Sex, that moment came when Bill Masters, having just betrayed his own moral code by threatening to publish false data supporting stereotypes about African-American sexuality if a black newspaper editor published an article portraying him as a revolutionary, gazes at a framed “I AM A MAN” sign on his way out the door. The iconic sign’s obviously meant to remind Bill he’s completely in the wrong by calling to mind Civil Rights protests where it was famously carried, but last night it carried a second, much more recent weight; it’s the same sign being used by protestors in Ferguson, Mo. this week. The episode was obviously shot long before a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb, but it was stunning to think that something intended as window dressing to remind us of the racial climate during the show’s 1958 setting is still a necessary tool to fight the same hatred 56 years later. How utterly sickening to think that in 2014—in the very same city that Bill Masters spotted that sign—we’re still fighting the same battle.
And, as you might have gathered from the episode’s title, race took center stage this week on Masters of Sex, beginning with the revelation that Dr. Hendricks has banned his staff from participating in the study. When confronted about it by Virginia and Bill, he explains he doesn’t think it’d look right, a white doctor observing African-Americans having sex from behind glass, and he reminds Bill of the stereotypes about African-American sexuality and cites the fact that black men were frequently castrated before being lynched (a fact that, in an awful twist, Bill uses later in his argument with the newspaper editor). Bill and Virginia try to rebel against Hendricks’ wishes by reaching out to an African-American reporter to do a story on the study in the hopes that it will attract some black participants, but when her angle becomes undesirable to Bill (she wants to include his conflicts with the powers-that-be at his past two hospitals and portray him as a revolutionary), he tries to kill the story and we see this new, ugly side to Bill that is surprising and reprehensible even to him. As we’re reminded, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a desperate man.”
Meanwhile, Libby continues to become increasingly awful. She’s taken to watching Robert pick up Coral from the window, “like a Peeping Tom,” as a horrified Bill describes it. He tells her something’s got to change with her relationship with Coral, and he presumably means on Libby’s end, but she of course takes this as an opportunity to do a background check on Robert and use his criminal record (which Coral explains was the result of being antagonized by police) as an excuse to ban him from her property, meaning he can no longer give Coral rides to work. Coral says she’ll arrange for her aunt to pick her up, and when it’s time for her to leave, Libby follows her—around the block, where she sees Robert picking her up, and then all the way home, where she’s caught by him in the lobby of their apartment building. It’s there she learns that Robert is actually Coral’s brother, not her boyfriend. Embarrassed, she fires Coral (via Robert, of course) and breaks down in her car.
It’s important to remember that just last season, Libby had an extremely flirtatious relationship with an African-American character. They danced together in her living room, and now, just a year later, she recoils when Robert touches her leg to help her clean a wound. What’s happened to her to cause such a 180? Have the pressures of her crumbling marriage and the new baby turned her into a monster? Is she overcompensating for some sort of attraction to Robert? Maybe a little of both?
Anyway, Libby’s not the only character reduced to tears this week. There’s Betty, who comes unhinged when Helen reveals she’s going to marry Al, eventually inadvertently tipping her husband off to the fact that she’s a lesbian. There’s Virginia, who sobs in the presence of Bill after finding out that Lillian has elected to stop her chemotherapy. “She knows me,” she cries. And—after being reminded in the first scene of the episode by Virginia while in the throes of passion that “we don’t kiss”—Bill finally grabs her by the face, looks her in the eyes, tells her “I know you,” and plants one on her.
And then, finally, there’s Bill, sobbing outside his car at episode’s end. He’s still disgusted with himself for the way he treated the newspaper editor, and he finds out that because of his actions, he’s been fired from his third hospital in as many months. He shows up at Virginia’s door to break the bad news to her, only he’s met with more of his own. Her boyfriend (who she met in the lobby of the hotel the night of the fight, the night that Bill and Virginia opened up to each other emotionally and came this close to being open about their feelings for one another) answers the door. Bill’s shattered, and after he cries, he heads home where he tells Libby he’s not feeling well but extends a loving hand to her. Uh oh.
In many ways, “Blackbird” felt like it could have been a season finale, with a few threads tied up and so many others only beginning to come unraveled. Lilian’s suicide, presumably, concludes Virginia’s involvement with her study. But there’s so much left to dig into this season: what will happen now that Betty and Helen have been found out? How will Virginia’s boyfriend affect her relationship with Bill? Is Libby going to hire a replacement for Coral? Earlier in the episode Bill explains that “All taboos feel dangerous until they’re broken,” but the ones broken in this episode still feel extremely risky. Now that Virginia and Bill have broken their own taboo by kissing and finally demonstrating feelings for one another, the danger for them has only begun. They’re having an affair, and now that they finally can see that, they can begin to wrap their minds around exactly all their love puts at risk—Bill’s marriage, Virginia’s relationship, their reputations. Don’t underestimate the desperate man when placing your bets on who will win the fight.
—What a punch to the gut that revelation that Virginia’s dating someone was. I mean, how can you share a night like the fight night with someone and then immediately meet a different guy in the lobby and start something with him? That’s cold, even for Virginia.
—Is Al really that dumb that he saw Helen and Betty kissing passionately on the mouth and just thought they were close friends?
—It felt a little strange that the Betty-Helen storyline would come to a head so quickly, just an episode after she turned up.
—It was interesting how the talk of two close female friends “lip-kissing” and Lilian’s joke about having intercourse with a corpse were both sort of alluded to in her death scene. Virginia kisses her on the lips after tucking her in and tracing words on her forehead the same way she does with her kids, and after finding her dead from a sleeping pill overdose, she crawls into bed with her corpse. There’s no intercourse—or romance, even—but just a deep bond between two friends, one that caught Virginia completely off-guard.
— “The course of true love never did run smooth.”
— “She’s my friend, and I don’t have a lot of those.”
— “Care is what you have for a stray dog you found in the road. Love is what you have for someone you share your bed with.”
— “He loves you.” “He never says it.” “But you know it, and that’s everything, isn’t it?”