Masters of Sex has always tended to go really hard with theme episodes, to mixed results—the metaphor-heavy “Fight” still stands as the series’ best, but oftentimes the show’s tendency to skew too obvious with a concept has hurt it, like in last week’s disastrous “Monkey Business.” So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that “Surrogates,” an episode where, yes, literal surrogacy was occurring while some characters were standing in for others in a more abstract sense, is a little hit-or-miss.
We start with Virginia faking sick to run off to Vegas with Dan as he tries to convince a casino owner to pump smells into his establishment to attract more gamblers. He’s determined to get her to relax, so he books her a bunch of appointments to fill her day—a massage, a dress-shopping excursion, etc.—but as soon as he leaves the room, Virginia cancels them (of course) so she can go do “field work,” observing that winning money produces a lot of the same physical responses that sex does. Meanwhile, while she’s gone, Bill takes it upon himself to open up the surrogacy program—where volunteer women act as surrogate partners for single men struggling with impotency—against Virginia’s wishes. (Based on their one conversation about this last week, her reaction was more “meh, whatever” but this week we’re told repeatedly that she’s vehemently opposed to the idea.)
In his search for surrogates, Bill finds a surrogate of his own in the form of Nora, a young former neighbor of his who expresses a fascination with the work and quickly becomes an obvious Virginia stand-in. Like Virginia, she dropped out of college but intends to finish one day, and she even has had her own experience encouraging animals to breed (although, mercifully, she was just coaxing horses, not a boob-grabbing gorilla). Most importantly, however, she’s got a knack for the material and a fondness for BIll. She recalls falling off a bike in front of his house as a kid and scraping her knee and being intimidated by him as he drove her home without saying a word to her, assuring him he’s changed and is much warmer these days. When Bill catches her sleeping in the lab after being evicted, he insists on giving her some cash, and at the end of the episode, after being emotionally fluffed by Nora, he swings by Virginia’s to drop off some soup for her. She’s surprised and maybe a little touched by the random act of kindness (“How very unlike you!”)...who knew all Bill needed to open up was a little cheerleading?
Virginia, meanwhile, must come to terms with the fact that Dan is trying to be her surrogate Bill. When a 19-year-old Vietnam vet (a surrogate for her son Henry, who is currently in Vietnam) tries to rob them in their hotel room, she refuses to call the police and, though reluctant at first, Dan eventually gives in to her will and offers to pay for the vet’s treatment. Then later on she discovers that he turned down a $60,000 contract with the casino because he’d have to relocate to Las Vegas and leave her. These two are getting more serious than she anticipated they would, and it’s clear she’s got a choice to make somewhere down the line.
On the other hand, Libby’s affair with Paul (which, yes, it turns out, is happening) doesn’t stand a chance at being anything serious. He’s upset that she’s out the door as soon as they’re done having sex, and he suspects he’s being used as a surrogate for Bill, but when he confronts Libby about it, she reveals it’s actually Robert he’s filling in for. We finally (finally!) learn poor Robert’s fate: he died years ago after being hit by a car, and Libby’s still not over him. She can’t give any more to Paul emotionally because she has “already given it all.” This mostly seems like a way to wrap up a storyline that never received a resolution, to rectify the fact that Robert disappeared from the show with no explanation, but weirdly, it kind of works—Libby’s honesty with Paul could (hopefully) lead to some sort of strong connection between them, now that he knows they’re both grieving old partners.
So those were the surrogate hits this week. The misses? Betty and Helen (and Austin) get caught by Bill when he examines Helen and notices her hymen is intact. He’s furious at Betty for lying to him, and she and Helen are forced to go to Plan B: have sex with Austin (who, we learn, is doing this in exchange for $1000 because a custody battle over his kids has left him broke). The problem here is that Betty’s home life only gets sprinkled into the show when the Bill and Virginia action is taking a breather, and as a result, we’re less invested in it. Do I want Betty and Helen to have a baby? Sure. Does it warrant a multi-episode arc and a reintroduction to Austin, a character I thought we were done with last season? Probably not. Lester and Jane have a similar problem: I just straight-up don’t care about them as characters. Their bickering over Lester joining the surrogacy program out of spite is of zero interest to me—although I am curious about what happened to Betsy Brandt’s Barbara, who, like Robert, disappeared in-between seasons. We know they broke up, obviously, but why? And will we ever find out how Jane got back into the picture? Does it matter?
In a lot of ways, Masters of Sex often feels like a surrogate of itself—it’s not quite the same as the great drama we’ve seen it has the potential to be, but it’s sort of the next-best thing.
—Looks like Barton’s finally got a love interest! Maybe now he can have more than one scene a week.
— “It’s hard to understand why people make such a fuss over sex.”
— “Human beings cannot survive without being touched.”
— “I am a lesbian, not a moron.”
—It sort of feels like, three seasons in, the show still doesn’t really completely know what to do with Libby. Has her interest/involvement in the civil rights movement died with Robert?