Review: ‘Masters of Sex’ – ‘Giants’

A review of tonight's “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as it's okay because we're taking notes…

This episode is called “Giants,” but it's largely about the little guys and gals trying to seize control of oppressive situations. When Virginia learns that her active participation in study is now a job requirement for Bill, she takes charge of their latest session at the hotel, forcing him to strip and follow her every command. (It's a nice role reversal of one of the scenes in “Fight.”) Libby similarly demands sex from Bill (and gets it in the most functional, depressing way possible) after telling him how angry she is with him, while Coral's boyfriend expresses his displeasure to Libby about the lice shampoo incident. (And when Libby tries to bully Coral into breaking up with him, Coral instead takes advantage of what she knows about the Masters marriage to rub Libby's face in how much more intimate her relationship is.) Betty's ex-girlfriend Helen barges back into her life, bitter about Betty's sham marriage to Gene. And Dr. Charles Hendricks, Bill's new boss at Buell Green, tries to manipulate Bill and Virginia into helping him integrate the hospital, even as he's secretly undercutting their sex study by trashing all of Virginia's fliers.

Of course, in many cases these role reversals are unsuccessful, or temporary at best – and in many cases a matter of one oppressed person turning against another.

The episode's highlight comes pretty early with that Bill and Virginia hotel scene. It's so loaded with tension – both emotional and sexual – that it made me wish we were in for a spiritual sequel to “Fight.” In general, those characters are so well drawn by all involved that it can be tempting to wish the show would scrap all the side characters and just give us wall-to-wall Bill and Virginia. But the rest of the ensemble provides dramatic, emotional and social context to the work they're doing, and to the horribly dysfunctional relationship they have. And, frankly, I wouldn't want to have to do without someone like Betty, without seeing the ebbs and flows of Virginia's awkward friendship with Lillian DePaul, whom she continues to take to the doctor even after they've stopped working together. (And their earlier argument about Virginia's path versus Lillian's was pretty crackling in its own right.)

Still, this is a pretty sprawling episode, particularly in the Betty/Helen/Gene corner of things. Right now, that triangle feels thematically connected to everything else in the way it deals with pressures to conform socially and sexually(*) – it's essentially season 2's equivalent of the Scully family drama – but because Betty doesn't have an ongoing professional link to Bill (at least at the moment), it plays out as more tangential, despite how great Annaleigh Ashford is in the role, and how good Greg Grunberg has been since they've allowed Gene to be more than just a clueless mark. This is not a straight rehash of what the Scullys went through – Betty doesn't hate who she is, but has simply decided it's easier to pretend to be someone else (and she has much more experience and skill at it than poor Barton did) – and the introduction of Sarah Silverman as Helen complicates things further, but I do wonder if/when this story will again intersect with what's happening with the study.

(*) In Betty's argument to Helen for how miserable their lives would have been had they stayed together, she interestingly notes that they'd have been just as uncomfortable in the lesbian community as they would posing as spinster friends in the straight world. I asked a few lesbian friends – plus blogger Dorothy Snarker – for their take on the bit about not being served by a butch at a bar. The consensus was that while femme/femme couples weren't unheard of back in the day, they were rare, and Betty and Helen could have been looked down on either for breaking the usual pattern or because other lesbians assumed (correctly, in Betty's case) that they were trying to pass as straight.

Bill's new position at Buell Green is a fictional one, but it unsurprisingly creates a lot of tension and professional difficulty for Bill and Virginia in short order, as the staffers resent all the perks being given to the new white doctor, while Bill's patients respond very poorly to his new location. One thing the show has done a very good job of is giving Bill attitudes that seem enlightened without coming across as anachronistic. He's not socially progressive, but simply a stickler for science. In “Fight,” he doesn't want the baby to be a boy because he has a deep understanding of gender identity issues, but because the biology says this is a male child; here, he surprises Virginia with his insistence on including black people in the main study because he points out the only biological difference between blacks and whites involves skin pigmentation. Bill sometimes winds up a crusader, but usually not because it's his primary motivator.

We'll have to see whether Hendricks is tearing down the fliers because he disapproves of the study, or because he thinks a hamstrung Bill Masters will be more useful to his own agenda. But as professional adversaries go, he already seems more complex and formidable than Doug Greathouse. (And I'm always happy to watch – and listen to – Courtney B. Vance.)

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at

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