Emily Kinney and Michael Sheen

In a way, Bill and Virginia reverse roles for “High Anxiety,” and the shift in their power dynamic creates the most compelling tension of an episode with its share of taut character work. Typically, Virginia is the one making a heartfelt appeal to Bill’s humanity, leaving herself vulnerable as she states plain emotional truths in the hope that he’ll respond in kind. In “High Anxiety,” Bill is the frustrated supplicant, begging Virginia to reconnect with him and share her feelings. Virginia plays Bill’s part—she’s the one who dodges a forthright conversation by citing work concerns. The sex study serves as a perpetual excuse in Bill and Virginia’s relationship. It is always on hand in any argument, ready to be cited as the reason for (and solution to) their perpetual dissatisfaction.

Virginia says that she’s upset about Bill’s handling of the surrogacy program, which is undoubtedly true—she has good reason to be frustrated with the return of Bill’s imperious side after all the work they’ve done together. But she knows, and Bill senses, that it’s not just about the surrogates. In fact, her gloom stems more from that other project taking place at the Reproductive Biology Research Foundation, namely Dan Logan’s search for the most sex-eriffic smell this side of Chanel No. 5. The olfactory investigation has fizzled, with even the most concentrated formula of human pheromones failing to elicit a reaction in 75 percent of subjects. “I’m trying to find a reason to stay,” Logan tells Virginia. Until now, his ostensible reason to stay was their increasingly quixotic hunt for clitoral cologne, but the real reason was that he stayed for Virginia. The question now is whether or not they can admit it.

Virginia cannot. Instead, she again uses the research as a proxy, proposing that they extend it into a probe of the placebo effect. Even if the pheromones don’t work, she posits, perhaps they can make a difference if we tell people that they do work. It’s pretense as medicine, and even Logan is skeptical of it. But in storytelling terms, the placebo business is a smart representation of Virginia’s own wish to keep pretending with Logan as long as possible, so that she never has to decide what—or, more to the point, who—she truly desires. At the end of the episode, Logan says that he no longer has any pretext on which to visit St. Louis for work, but, he proposes, “What if I just came for you?” Virginia answer, “No. It doesn’t work like that.” The trouble, as Logan has concluded, is it doesn’t work like this, either. Virginia refuses to face that reality. She knows she doesn’t have a functional family life or a stable companion, but she is happy with the placebo. Unfortunately, the placebo doesn’t work so well if you’re aware of the delusion.

Where Virginia seeks to pretend, Bill seeks to control. He’s bewildered by his estrangement from Virginia, as he openly admits—albeit only after he scares the bejesus out of her by sitting in her darkened living room, waiting for her to arrive home. Virginia meets his entreaties with a disdain bordering on cruelty. “All better?” she asks with unmasked condescension after she fakes an orgasm for his benefit. Bill Masters is accustomed to dishing out this sort of mindfuck, but he is ill-equipped to receive it. He responds with manipulation, scheming fruitlessly with Betty to ferret out information from Virginia. Betty gives him good advice, reminding him that he can’t control anyone but himself, a piece of wisdom that he promptly and inevitably dismisses.

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At least Betty manages to extricate herself from “reffing a fight between Mommy and Daddy,” as she puts it. Instead, Bill unleashes his frustration on other denizens of the building, like the suddenly pitiable Bible-thumper who is told, “You will feel the pain of damnation first-hand if you ever come into this building again.” (Angry Bill is the most fun Bill.) And Nora bears the brunt of Masters’ need for control when she veers off-script in her first surrogacy session: She touches the patient’s penis, at his repeated and desperate insistence, in a moment when the treatment calls only for non-sexual touching.

Bill’s fury over this debatable error is the most well-wrought aspect of this episode’s script. We can understand why Nora touched the guy’s member, because she has compassion. But Bill’s point of view also makes sense insofar as the study—and especially the surrogacy work, for which he is the lone advocate—is a sanctuary from the vicissitudes of the outside world. In the lab’s confines, Bill understands how people work, and he can direct them accordingly. While Nora’s transgression may not seem shocking to us, to Bill it is an upsetting violation.

The episode wraps up Nora and Bill’s conflict a bit tidily, with a monologue from Nora about the treatment she endured from her abusive father, which happens to be the same thing Bill lived with as a kid. Even though Nora’s personal history is somewhat convenient, it succeeds in giving her character an added charge for the episodes to come. Because she knows Bill’s experience firsthand, she may be particularly well-equipped to heal him—an emotional territory that heretofore has been Virginia’s domain. Maybe Virginia is going to acquire her own jealous streak in the weeks ahead.

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If so, we can only hope it’s handled more gracefully than Libby’s storyline this week, in which Masters Of Sex makes her do the old “I don’t want you, and to prove it I’ll set you up with someone else, but on second thought I do want you” dance. It’s paint-by-numbers plotting, and at the end she and Paul Edley kiss, hooray?

But Libby does have one great scene in “High Anxiety,” the one in which she and Bill commiserate over how much they hate “treacherous” people and wish they could just, like, go away or die or both or whatever. Although it’s short, this is one of Bill and Libby’s most compelling dialogues, as it’s a pleasure to watch the two of them share their distress instead of playing out the usual “Libby’s freakout vs. Bill’s freeze-out” dynamic. The scene gives us a glimpse of how much more entertaining Libby could be if her character had the wherewithal to act as an evenly matched life partner and sparring partner to Bill. Then again, she could never hope to be as heartless as her husband, who sums up their marriage with the epitaph, “We tried our best.” Perhaps the writers say the same about their efforts to make something substantial of Libby, who appears to have found her true companion in Paul Edley and thus, hopefully, is almost ready to make her exit from the Masters Of Sex story.

Stray observations

  • Framed in terms of her complicated relationship with Bill and Dan Logan, Virginia’s objection to the surrogate study makes a certain sense. But it still feels off when she rejects the new line of research so abruptly, and the incident in this episode that triggers her pique doesn’t seem like something that would really make Virginia angry. In fact, the surrogate’s sadness over her pilot brother is the kind of authentic human vulnerability that Virginia would typically confront with aplomb, treating it as a natural part of the work.
  • This week on the Masters Of Sex show-within-a-show, Betty And Helen Are The Dumbest People On Earth: Helen freaks out over Austin’s supposed suicide note without first checking to see if Austin is still home (and alive).
  • The Masters home has never looked bleaker than it did while Bill and Libby were sharing their vituperation cocktails.

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