Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Blackbird’

A review of tonight's “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as my pretzels are syndicated…

“Blackbird” takes us to the midpoint of season 2, and it's the first time I've felt any genuine concern about the direction Michelle Ashford and company chose for this season.

I understand why the creative team decided to begin season 2 so close to the events of season 1, even though there's so much of the Masters and Johnson story to tell in the '60s and beyond. Bill and Virginia's relationship is the core of the show even more than the sex study, and to jump a year or more ahead in time after ending season 1 on Bill confessing his feelings to Virginia would have felt like a major missed opportunity to deal with that core.

The problem is, we've landed in a relatively uneventful period for the duo, career-wise, and the show has had to scramble to invent professional conflicts for them to deal with even as they're constantly redefining the nature of their sex life with one another. I have no problem with the series fictionalizing aspects of the story, but they have to be worth the bother. As we got to the end of “Blackbird,” I mainly felt like the first half of the season has been shuffling the characters around the chess board, just killing time until the real work can resume.

Bill spends three episodes at Memorial, accomplishes little, gets fired for punching out Doug Greathouse, then spends two episodes at Buell Green, accomplishes little, and gets fired for embarrassing the hospital over his antics with and nasty threats against the local black newspaper. There's some interesting material there involving the history of African Americans and medical studies,  and stereotypical white attitudes about black sexuality, and Courtney B. Vance is excellent as Dr. Hendricks slowly realizes what kind of a lunatic he's allowed into his hospital. But unless African American participation in the study is going to remain an ongoing issue, Hendricks becomes, like Greathouse before him, just another speed bump for Bill to hit before realizing he needs to go out on his own.

Similarly, the Betty stuff had some nice moments between Betty and Helen, and Betty and Gene, but has so far largely played out as a subplot tangentially connected at best to the Masters & Johnson story, and a way to give Annaleigh Ashford something to do while getting her out of the marriage plot that was introduced in the first place because she had to leave the show to do “Kinky Boots.” Again, there may be greater payoff if/when her path gets closer to Bill and/or Virginia's again, but as good as all the performers involved have been, none of it feels all that necessary.

Filling time feels like much less of a sin, though, compared to whatever on Earth it is that the writers are doing with Libby. She wasn't my favorite part of the show last year, but that was simply because her circumstance – as the kind stay-at-home wife oblivious to her husband's adulterous ways – made her scenes less inherently compelling than what was happening with Bill and Virginia, or the Scullys, or any of the other characters. Now, though, an effort to flesh her out has instead turned her into an utter trainwreck. It doesn't really matter whether she's acting out due to post-partum depression, due to frustration that fatherhood hasn't magically turned Bill into an entirely new man, due to resentment that so much of what comes with great difficulty to her comes so easily to Coral, or (as is suggested here) due to a repressed attraction to Coral's brother (not boyfriend) Robert. She has become a crazy person, and maybe that makes her a better match with Bill and his own obsessions, but she's consistently awful without any redemptive moments, as if the deck somehow needs to be stacked more in favor of the other woman in Bill's life. And where I rarely love Betty stories on “Mad Men,” that show has at least put a lot of time into explaining exactly who she is and how she become this person, whereas Libby turned from pleasant blank to racist nutbar overnight.

And the thing is, there is some great stuff in this episode. Every scene between Virginia and Lillian is dynamite, as Dr. DePaul slowly gets Virginia to accept that she's ready to stop fighting. That's a relationship that the show put a lot of time into building, and one that entertainingly shed light on two very different approaches a woman might have taken in this field in this era. It's an opposites attract love story every bit as much as the one between Virginia and Bill, and Lizzy Caplan and Julianne Nicholson were both terrific throughout, and especially here at the end. (I particularly liked how DePaul didn't radically change her personality after taking the bun out of her hair and getting drunk on wine, even though Nicholson looks so much less severe with her hair down.)

The scene at the hotel where Bill comforts Virginia about the DePaul situation was also marvelous, and as important to their relationship as it was to Virginia and Lillian's. They are going to this hotel and taking notes so they can pretend their affair is just clinical research, but they sit on that bed together and talk about Virginia's feelings as if they were a real couple – and finally kiss on the lips as a tacit acknowledgment that this is what they've become.

That the show then borrows a page from “Moonlighting” (seriously, go watch this scene) in having Bill come to Virginia's door to discover that Virginia has started a relationship with Shelley Decklin(*), the guy she met at the end of “Fight,” could ultimately feel like a contrivance designed to walk back the breakthrough in the hotel. But Bill and Virginia's relationship, both real and fictionalized, is so dysfunctional and complicated that I can imagine an emotional roller coaster like this happening even within a short span of time. 

(*) Played by TV's Barry Watson.

“Masters” has earned a lot of trust with me, and it's entirely possible that this season's second half will reveal the first half's stories to be more than narrative throat clearing. But even after all the powerful scenes between Virginia and Lillian, and between Virginia and Bill, I came out of “Blackbird” wondering whether any of these detours from history have been compelling enough to be worth the time spent on them.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at