As season two of Masters Of Sex draws almost to a close, this week MOS explores the difference between reality and artifice. Masters and Johnson are being filmed for CBS, which brings everyone’s strengths and weaknesses to light: How horrible Masters looks in a different hairstyle and without a bow tie, for example (above).

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What’s great about this episode is that it brings us back to an element of MOS that hasn’t been explored much this season in favor of other, deeper, internal journeys: The momentum of the study and how it was about to change how the way the world looked at sexual behavior. The 1960 CBS censors have problems with words like “masturbation” and “orgasm,” so how could Masters and Johnson possibly translate in such a climate? It makes sense that the two took off when they did, a few years later, making the cover of TIME in 1970, not 1960.

Although the show is playing fast and loose with actual facts, again: The Nixon-Kennedy debate happened in September 1960, but Martin Luther King was arrested on October 19 of that year, while Clark Gable’s heart attack happened on November 6 (not on the same day). And I can’t find any evidence of Masters and Johnson appearing on television before their first major work was published in the later ’60s. But the (apparently fictional) prospect of being interviewed on national television about the study offers MOS a chance to make strong statements about how we sell ourselves, the difference between sincerity and artificiality, and again, what happens when the truth comes out.

Although Masters himself hired the p.r. man, Shep (Adam Arkin), he is still uneasy about this publicity process. Bill has his own issues: Still sporting his wounds from his fight with Frank, still yet to mend those particular fences, trying to promote his study without selling himself out completely, with Lester filling in as the voice of reason (as a documentarian, Lester has many issues with the liberties CBS takes with reality: Filming a fake couple in an intake interview, for one; how weird Bill looks in that tie, for another). Watch how Bill futilely applies makeup throughout the episode, trying to hide the bruises that show who he really is. Although Bill finally gets in some comical moments in front of the camera: He’s actually forgotten how to smile, and has to admit that no one wants to sit next to him at dinner parties. It’s only when he talks about the reason behind his work, the need to make sex part of the basic American vocabulary, that he begins to blossom on-camera. Still, Bill knows that Virginia is much more TV-friendly; he agrees with the cameraman’s on-point “beauty and the beast” assessment (after last week, we know that he is fully aware of the beast inside him).

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Bill and Gini still skirt around the truth, but they get there eventually. Gini finally comes face-to-face with the fact that she has ignored her children in the face of the “study” (how many nights a week do those two meet at that hotel, anyway)? Even when she’s not in the hotel, she’s working around the clock, so that she can’t even keep track of her children’s school projects. Her kids pay more attention to the babysitter and every aspect of their new stepmother than they do to her.

What’s amazing about Lizzie Caplan is that Virginia never voices any of her anguish to the kids directly: When they ask her who will give her Christmas presents while they’re in Europe, her shock actually catches her breath, backed by Michael Penn’s haunting score: She’s almost completely, entirely alone. As a mother, she has been lying to herself about much how she has neglected her own children in favor of Bill and the “the work.” The nice divorce lawyer in the building says he notices how she “bolts for the elevator, racing straight for tuck-in time,” but is she racing for that or toward Bill? The realization that she has knowingly put her children in second place would be beyond devastating for any mother to face.

By the time Bill and Gini’s episode-ending confrontations come around, we’ve seen all the anguish that has come before them. Bill is so insecure at this point, he wonders how Gini can stand to be with him; Gini, who has thrown away everything else in her life, wonders how he can possibly doubt her. At they end, they cling desperately, and she comforts him like a child, because the real truth is that all they have is each other.

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Austen and Flo are more successfully tied to the episode theme this week through their subplot of artificial fantasy and play-acting. Trapped Austen has to jump through any number of hoops to get Flo through her Gone With The Wind fantasy:

Lacking a man who wants her desperately, she has a man she can force into pretending that he wants her desperately. The end result must ring hollow to say the least, as she notes, “Kind of ruins it when I have to tell you what to do every second.” It must be better than nothing, “even if the game is about pretending,” but how much? Their pillow talk afterward appears to be more gratifying, as Austen wisely notes of Flo’s desire to defy anyone who ever ignored her: “I think maybe that’s your story.” Somehow the detailed level of play-fantasy has now offered these two the opportunity to open up more than ever before.

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And one of our characters is actually breaking free from artificial convention with the most effective sales pitch of the night. Libby Masters, in a bare and candid performance by Caitlin FitzGerald, finally opens up to Robert about why his attentions toward her at the CORE office have meant so much: Even when it seemed like he didn’t like her, at least he was reacting to her; even negative attention is better than no attention at all. And as Libby appears to have disappeared from everyone’s life who mattered to her, as she sees herself displaced in her husband’s life through the viewpoint of the CBS cameras, she reaches out to the one person who at least notices her. I’ve had troubles with this particular storyline, which has been building toward this result for some time, but I have to say that the satisfying payoff this week helps mend a lot of the ills that came before it (“the ends justifying the means,” as Lester scoffs). It’s interesting that as everyone else is piling on falsehoods and fake elements on top of themselves, Libby has peeled all of those away to reveal the truth about her feelings for Robert and how invisible she’s felt all along. Her pitch, her reach for him (Shep comments that “Even if it’s outside your grasp, it’s the reaching people respect”) is so honest and effective that Robert is unable to refuse.

Throughout Libby’s story, Masters Of Sex strings us along through a series of devastating details. Instead of Libby and Gini being played against each other as they have been in the past (Libby usually dressed in light clothing and Gini in dark), in this episode they are dressed similarly, which somehow highlights their differences even more. As everything appears more truthful through a camera lens, it becomes all the more obvious to Libby that she is “the woman behind the man behind the woman behind the man.” But her differences with Robert resonate as well, even down to the radio stations they listen to, the giant chasm between “A Theme From A Summer Place” and jazz music. Robert calls everyone else in the CORE office by name, but not her. And yet, “You can swear in front of her,” is about the highest compliment Libby’s received so far.

Flo asks, pointedly, “When has self-awareness ever changed a person’s behavior?” But Bill, Gini, and Libby all appear to be finished with lying to themselves in the face of their own self-awareness over the past few weeks. We can only hope that these realizations will lead to some revelatory emotional conclusions in next week’s finale.

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Stray observations:

  • “Betty around? The girl that sounds like Wisconsin?”
  • I’m sure it’s extremely difficult to cast child actors, but shouldn’t Gini’s kids look a little older after the time jump?
  • Looking forward to see how this is all going to wrap up next week. Masters Of Sex has already been renewed for season three.

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