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Masters Of Sex: “Below The Belt”

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I know there have been a lot of comments this season about what a jerk Bill is, and the whole time I’ve been rationalizing about Michael Sheen’s great, mannered performance; Masters’ tortured upbringing, which we started examining in “Fight”; and his small efforts to improve himself, like mending fences with Essie in “Asterion.” Until tonight, that is. Tonight, Bill Masters is a fucking asshole.

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I get that he’s troubled by his years of impotence, and his brother is a convenient emotional punching bag for him to dump all that rage onto. It’s still a horrible, indefensible act to goad and taunt his younger brother—slapping him, calling him weak and pathetic, a clown—into becoming a fighter himself. Sure, maybe Francis was being slightly delusional when he said that he was healed and forgiving, but he had moved forward with his life and it was working for him. On some level, Bill can’t accept that and so tears his brother’s strength down instead. It was probably Francis’ use of the word “impotence,” along with “despair,” a common theme this week: The greatest sin is to give up completely.

This week also continues last week’s themes of “delusional stories we tell ourselves,” as everyone tries to convince Bill to write a better story for himself. Libby makes a beyond-futile plea to Bill’s better nature, telling him, “It doesn’t have to end this way.” Francis still tries to encourage him to write his own ending to his story. Gini comes clean about her deception with the shrink, fortunately, but he gets her to consider that she might also be deceiving herself. We’re afraid of what might happen when we finally uncover the truth: In Bill’s case it turns him into just as much a rage-fueled demon as his father was, and he tries to convince his brother of the same. Bill believes that their family disease isn’t alcoholism: It’s monstrosity.

That’s why Essie’s line about how “Everyone has their own version of everything that’s ever happened” is my favorite of the episode, as Bill and Francis try to reconcile the two different versions of their upbringing. Perhaps what makes Bill break down is the realization that his brother was in fact beaten, like he was. That he did leave him. That he’s been lying to himself all these years about what happened after he left home.

There are two episodes left in this season, and I’ve liked enough about season two to give MOS a pass until next week to see how these Bill and Gini elements play out. There are other elements, however, that I just can’t get on board with. Libby’s efforts at CORE now seem to center only around an almost-flirtation with Robert, in an effort to get at least someone in her life to consider her valuable. And the Austen and Flo storyline takes a troubling turn. I’m not sure what upsets me more: Langham prostituting himself to keep his job, or the show’s implication that a woman like Flo would have to have that kind of leverage over someone like Langham to get him to sleep with her. But unlike Bill, Langham has no bedroom trouble, so what does that say in regard to the show’s implied thesis about the need for emotional connection in the bedroom? That sometimes, it’s just not necessary? Austen and Flo’s hookup juxtaposed with Bill and Gini’s abortive sexual domination attempt were the two most uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve seen in some time.

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Thank goodness for Lester, who is always welcome, and Betsy Brandt’s continued stellar performance as Barb: Lester has felt compassion for her since he saw first her in the exam room, and it would be lovely if these two could in fact help heal each other, which is where I hope the show is heading. MOS threw around a lot of “light” and “dark” references this week, and notice how bright the Lester-Barb scene is in the diner: They’re practically the bastions of hope for sexual dysfunction.

Some of the other scenes are so darkly lit: Libby in the tenement hallways, Flo’s creepy apartment with the cat. When Masters’ sister-in-law tries to get him to consider reconciliation with his brother, the lights literally go out on them. Bill says that Francis is “hiding darkness under all the light” and he is the one to unearth it. The brightness of that huge expansive (and expensive, as it turns out) lobby becomes the perfect arena to illuminate what’s really troubling Bill behind his straight-laced, solid demeanor.

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Also brightly lit: All the scenes with episode director Adam Arkin (son of Alan) as the public relations specialist. It’s nice to finally get a hint of Masters and Johnson’s future fame, and the key behind it: The scientists who look like the nice couple next door, teaching America how to have sex. But when Bill protests to Gini that he wanted to be in a medical journal, not on TV, look how ridiculously dark the office is: Bill is in the dark yet again, because TV could bring their message out to millions of people, make them famous, and secure all future funding.

Barb says that “People need to find meaning in something”; for Francis, his saving grace was the AA program and his attempt to forgive his family members. These days, we’re all familiar with “amends” and the tendency of some addicts to project. I can’t tell if Essie and Bill are also alcoholics or not (although Bill has a glass in his hand about every single shot in that hotel room or at his home). But I think it’s interesting what the show has to say about despair, about giving up so completely. Barb and Lester say they both have done it, but it appears that they may be on the way to trying again.

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But Bill, after demonizing himself, crawls into bed with Gini, and smears some of his blood on her, further tainting her with his guilt. He admits that he abandoned his brother, then punished him for it. He finally wants to know what’s wrong with him and says, “I give up.” And it is only in that final surrender—the rock bottom, to use another term from addiction culture—that he is able to heal, with Gini. I still wish he didn’t have to cause quite so much destruction on his path to get there, but am hoping the next few weeks will offer Bill some possible chance for redemption.

Stray observations:

  • “I’m assuming you two are working late tonight, again.” Is Libby aware of more than she lets on?
  • The second Masters baby finally makes an appearance, so we can all stop worrying.
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