Ask and ye shall receive. Last week I lamented the fact that Masters of Sex wasn’t devoting nearly enough screen time to its sole compelling storyline, Bill and Libby’s fertility struggle. As luck would have it, “Standard Deviation” devotes a pretty major chunk of the action to this plot, and as such, it’s the series’ strongest episode yet.
But of course, it still takes a while to get to that point, and we have to sit through a few heavy-handed scenes beforehand. (Women in the ‘50s don’t know where their cervixes are! Prostitutes have a lot of sex and are riddled with disease!) However, this week is the first one where most of the bajillion different storylines Masters of Sex threw at us actually came together to form one cohesive arc and gave us a real sense of where the series could be headed.
We start the episode in 1945, flashing back to Bill’s medical-school days in Rochester. He’s in the lab with Scully watching two rabbits go at it, and he expresses interest in moving beyond animals and studying human sexuality. Most of this sequence feels a little too obvious—”I don’t know anything about sex!” Bill declares—and Scully is predictably deadset against the idea, but it does establish just how far these two go back. Back in the present (well, back in 1957), Bill’s brothel-based study isn’t going so hot. We have to sit through a bunch of prostitute masturbation scenes to be presented with the rather obvious notion that these ladies do this for a living and don’t get any pleasure from sex. One of them tries for 20 minutes before admitting she hasn’t had an orgasm in years and can’t remember what it feels like. Another puts on a big show and doesn’t admit until Virginia notes that nothing registered on their monitors that she was faking. One can only climax if she’s being spanked by Bill—who awkwardly obliges while wearing rubber gloves. Yet another implies she was molested by her uncle. It seemed like a whole lot of time to devote to a pretty simple concept—that prostitution isn’t glamorous and in fact is a pretty hellish way to make a living—but it set up one of the episode’s central conflicts: Bill decides the study can’t continue in the brothel with its limited sample because the pros he’s researching don’t represent the norm.
Meanwhile, back at the hospital, a new female doctor, Dr. Lilliann DePaul (Julianne Nicholson), is introduced. She basically wanders around the hospital for a few scenes this week so secretaries can gawk and say obvious dated things like “No lady doctor is looking up my skirt” while Virginia declares her to be an inspiration, but it’s clear we’ll be seeing more of her as the season progresses. Ethan convinces Scully to let him take the lead with a woman who is pregnant with quadruplets, and Scully agrees on the condition that he takes Bill on as his second, but of course, Ethan being the greedy little shit he is, he decides to fly solo.
Betty’s operation to have her tubes untied is scheduled, and Bill—practicing the same negotiation tactics she’s used on him—catches her while she’s vulnerable and convinces her to help him recruit some men for the study. Once he gets in there on the operating table, however, he finds that there’s too much scarring as a result of her pelvic inflammatory disease and even if he untied her tubes, she’d still be unable to have children. Like last week, there are a lot of different things happening here, a lot of action crammed into one episode, but this time, all the threads actually weave together. Because Betty’s operation takes longer than expected, Bill sends Virginia to deliver some food to Libby, who is on bed rest after a 16-hour fertility treatment. Recognizing that Bill is basically torturing his wife, Virginia tells her that he is actually the sterile one.
While this is going on, Bill finds out about the quadruplets and demands that he take over the case because it’s an extremely risky delivery. Scully caves, Bill reluctantly gets his picture in the paper with the babies and Ethan broods jealously (which, so far in these first three episodes, seems to be his specialty). But, like the Betty story, this all serves a purpose: in the next scene, a still-pissy Ethan breaks the news to Libby that she’s pregnant. Wait, what? At this point, it’s unclear whether Libby actually somehow miraculously got knocked up or Ethan is lying to her to spite Bill. This is nowhere near where this storyline appeared to be headed, but we’ve got nine more episodes this season to delve deeper into it, and I’m eager to see how it unfolds. One thing’s for sure: the perplexed look on Bill’s face at the end of the episode when Libby reveals the big news indicates that this baby (or non-baby, depending on if Ethan’s telling the truth) is going to have a huge effect on their marriage.
The pregnancy will (hopefully) play a major part in the remainder of the season, but it wasn’t the only big twist in “Standard Deviation.” Betty holds up her end of the bargain and delivers some male participants for the study, but Bill is dismayed when he discovers they’re gay escorts. He boots them from the study because in his mind, their sexual behavior “deviates from the norm,” but not before one of them offers a parting shot of “You know, you’re not the first person in the medical field to fuck me.” Cut to Bill blackmailing Scully—who is apparently a closeted gay man—to get the study back into the hospital. It’s a twist that gives the Scully character a lot more depth, especially when you consider the two other flashbacks we get this episode. In one, he tells young Bill that he’ll need a wife and family to maintain his image if he wants to study human sexuality, saying he’ll need to learn how to hide in plain sight. The final flashback, however, is the most moving; Scully, celebrating his new gig as provost of the Washington University hospital, tells Bill the university rejected his application for a fellowship there because he seemed too smug before revealing he stuck his neck out for him, insisting that the two were a package deal and refusing to accept the provost position unless Bill came with him. “See you in St. Louis,” he grins, as a grateful and humbled Bill bursts into tears.
The flashbacks gave these characters some much-needed depth, as we learned key details about their relationship and their history. Here’s hoping others—like Virginia and Betty, for starters—who need a little fleshing out will get a similar treatment in subsequent weeks. This week’s episode deviated from the first two in that it actually presented an overarching story audiences can latch onto. Let’s hope it becomes the norm.
-Mae Whitman (Ann from Arrested Development) appears as one of Bill’s patients, but her guest spot felt like a waste of her talent. She got like, 45 seconds of screen time.
-We finally meet Betty’s fiance, Gene, who—quite predictably—is a dopey schlub who is completely head-over-heels for her.
-It’s interesting to me that the show has been so gratuitous with its nudity and sex scenes when straight couples are concerned, but when we get a gay sex scene, it’s limited to one shot of two shirtless guys—above the waist, of course—lightly kissing before we quickly cut away. And we still haven’t even seen Betty’s lesbian lover, Helen.
-”You’re saying I’m a deviant?” “I’m saying you deviate.”