Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Below the Belt’

A review of tonight's “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as I do pelvic exams with a miner's lamp stuck to my forehead…

“This is the way back! I'm broken, and you're the one – you're the only one – who can fix me.” -Bill

For much of his life, Bill Masters has defined himself by his relationship to his abusive father, who always wanted Bill to be more of a man, and the ways in which Bill tried to forge his own brand of masculinity by not fighting back and not crying. Bill has turned himself into a man he feels proud of, but in the last few years of the show's timeline, his split from Virginia has caused him to lose one of the most fundamental aspects of being a man, whether you're a neanderthal like Francis Masters Sr. or a sex researcher like Bill.

“Below the Belt” is, like much of season 2, uneven but with some fantastic material related to Bill and Virginia. In one of the earliest scenes, we see Bill as vulnerable and candid as he's ever been on the show, as he explains the history and nature of his impotence to Virginia and pleads with her to rescue him from this private hell. As he has a heart-to-heart with Frank near the end of the episode, he's the more familiar Bill Masters: smug and cruel and unwilling to acknowledge that he could ever be wrong about anything. The latter is the man Bill wants to be, even if it's hell on everyone around him, while the former is probably closer to who he actually is.

(The stark contrast between the two faces of Bill also might make this a good Michael Sheen submission episode if he manages to crack next year's Emmy field. He's always great, but this one's noteworthy in how many different sides of the character he gets to show at their extremes.)

And what's most interesting about the episode is the way it suggests that the only way for Bill to reclaim his sexual manhood is to give into the side of himself that he finds so disgustingly weak.

Impotence is a complicated issue that can have both physiological and psychological causes. Bill explains that he suffers from secondary impotence, which means he has the ability to perform at times, but usually on his own. But in the company of the only woman he really cares about, his equipment comes to life, briefly, twice: first when Virginia ties his hands with her scarf and takes full control of their lovemaking session, and later after he tearfully admits all the things he should have said to his brother, rather than provoking Frank into pounding his face into its current condition. In the first instance, he can't maintain arousal once Virginia starts pivoting into more conventional sex, while we don't know what happens in the second, since the episode ends moments after Virginia recognizes that Bill has achieved full arousal. But it doesn't seem a coincidence that Bill is at his most potent when he's otherwise at his most powerless.

Will he make that connection, or accept if should Virginia make it for him? We'll see, but a lot of “Below the Belt” involves the key characters battling with denial: Bill over the fact that Frank was also abused by their father, Virginia over the notion that she's still having an affair with Bill that will hurt Virginia, and even Langham over the idea that he might be able to perform with Flo while she's sexually harassing him(*).

(*) On the whole, though, it's unfortunate that the show is devoting so much time to both Cal-O-Metric and Langham's continuing sexual misadventures. Even if this material (which deals with placebo effects and questions of self-image) is more thematically linked to the study than Libby's racial awakening, it's still clutter in a season that's had too much of it. The show ditched a lot of its extraneous storylines with the jump into 1960, but somehow Flo got to come along for the ride. 

There's of course some blurring of the lines between projection and denial. Essie perhaps drinks too much, but Frank also wouldn't be the first AA convert to decide everyone around him is a fellow drunk. (We know, for instance, that while Bill will occasionally drink to excess, his addiction is to Virginia, not the bottle.)

And as Masters and Johnson go further down the road of seeking cures for sexual dysfunction, we're reminded again of the perils of making the study so personal. Virginia's eager at first to try to solve Bill's impotence, but Bett paints her a very dark picture from her days as a prostitute, suggesting that after a while, this particular problem begins to weigh just as much on the partner as the one suffering from it. It's a strong scene, and a reminder that Betty's business skills aren't the only ones of value to the clinic, and also a potential danger sign for the rekindled Masters and Johnson relationship if the breakthrough at the episode's end is as fleeting as the one from their earlier session.

But in the subplot where Lester and Barbara get to know and like each other, we're also told about the dangers of simply giving up. Those two are a matched set of dysfunction, and perhaps they could be happy together simply taking sex out of the equation. But both are aware that giving up on themselves in that area has been a mistake, and I imagine in what we have left of the season, we'll see how each of these screwed-up duos try to conquer their problems in bed, and whether it's even possible for any of them to do it.

Some other thoughts:

* Always pleased to be proven wrong on what seems like a hopelessly stupid plotline, as we never get to the moment where Virginia runs into Dr. Madden out in the real world and he discovers that she's been lying to him. Instead, she just comes out and tells him (off-camera), he accepts it and and once again proves astute enough to cut through all of Virginia's lies and self-deception to point out the real issues she has to address. It was a dumb idea by Virginia, but maybe not by the show.

* That's Adam Arkin as PR man Shep Talley, hired to make sure Masters and Johnson get their due as the pioneers of this kind of research. Arkin tends to direct more than act these days, and in fact was behind the camera for this episode, and will be again for the season finale, which airs in a couple of weeks.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at