Michael Sheen, Judy Greer, Josh Charles, and Lizzy Caplan

Too often this season, Masters Of Sex has wasted time on secondary plots that not even the show itself seemed to care much about—like Barton’s rote dalliance with his ultrasound technician, Tessa’s mix of teen angst and Snidely Whiplash skulduggery, or Betty and Helen’s pat quest to have a baby. Not only have these narrative excursions struggled to justify their existence, but they’ve also scattered the show’s energy, draining its momentum. “Party Of Four” is the sort of tight, focused hour that Masters needed to air a month ago. With just two storylines—a fantastically messy dinner in New York and the illusory bliss of Libby’s home life with surrogate father Paul Edley—the episode has the space to develop its characters with nuance. Their emotional conflicts simmer, and in some cases real consequences emerge, a welcome shift from the lifeless ennui that has become Masters’ crutch. It may not match the heights of the second-season highlight “The Fight,” but “Party Of Four” has at least some of the same spark.

The premise of the New York plot is strained, but that’s an acceptable shortcoming given the delicious tension that results from the setup. Having secured a deal to publish a second book, Bill invites Virginia to dinner with Mr. and Mrs. Dan Logan, a meal at which Bill declares that his enterprise has all the money it needs now, so Dan can go away forever, thank you very much. (It’s hard for Bill to enjoy a moment of triumph without rubbing it in the other guy’s face.) In essence, Bill has carefully laid the groundwork for a delightful evening where he can strut and watch everyone else at the table stew in his victory.

And aside from a reservation snafu, the night goes pretty much according to Bill’s plan. Sure, Virginia is already upset with her supposed working partner when they arrive at the restaurant, and she only gets angrier as the dinner from hell unfolds. But Bill isn’t looking to please Virginia. He’s looking to corner her. Knowing her passion for the work, he has once again maneuvered to make Virginia sacrifice all else if she plans to keep pursuing that passion. “You’re entitled” to a life outside of work, he tells her. “You just don’t want one.” Not that he intends to give her much choice in the matter.

The issue of choice also defines the relationship between Alice and Dan Logan, whose marriage is less a union than a toxic intertwining. When Dan lamely defends himself by telling Alice that he’s “always been straight” with her about his serial affairs, she protests that his honesty was no virtue—after all, Alice’s only practical option was to look the other way in any case. Dan counters, unconvincingly, that Alice’s own “behavior” left him without a choice. “Every time you’ve disappeared down that bottle … I’ve had to come find you,” he complains. They’re snared in a mutual trap of resentful obligation.

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Both men view Virginia as an escape from their respective misery. Hurt and panicked by the way his longtime companion has drifted away from him, Bill intends to exploit their joint research as his trump card—the irresistible draw that ties Virginia to him whether she likes it or not. And for Dan, Mrs. Johnson is a lifeline out of the vicious circle of spite he shares with Mrs. Logan.

The most fascinating scene comes near the end, when Dan and Bill are left alone at their tiny dinner table. Like a Bond villain detailing his grand plan to a helpless 007, Bill lays out his pathetic intention to place Virginia’s name alongside his, with equal standing, on their new publication—a renewal of “vows” in their “marriage of the mind.” Virginia won’t be able to resist returning to the partnership because, Bill reasons, “In my experience, when the train is leaving the station, and you’re not on it, you run twice as hard and twice as fast.”

Bill maintains a smug assurance that he knows Virginia well, and he’s not wrong. But Dan knows her, too, and he argues that the best way to win Virginia’s devotion is simply to “tell her how you feel about her.” In Bill’s formulation, to know her is to control her. In Dan’s, to know her is to love her.

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The one downfall of this storyline is that while Michael Sheen and Josh Charles get to explore diverse colors of emotion with captivating flair—in that climactic faceoff with Dan, we see Bill’s face churn through triumph, vindictiveness, fear, and vulnerability—Lizzy Caplan is forced to muddle through by iterating on a few different shades of pissed. Even Alice, a character we’ve never met before, gets to play both instigator and victim as each subsequent glass of champagne causes more drunken truths to spill out of her mouth. Virginia meanwhile, does little but snarl and fume.

That’s an inescapable problem at this point in Masters’ third season. The trouble is not with the writing of this particular episode but rather the whole notion of a “Who will she choose?” arc centered around Virginia. The character deserves better than a drawn-out love triangle story, especially one like this, in which Virginia’s very identity seems to hinge on which man she chooses. Sure, on one hand, Masters is making a point about the no-win scenarios offered by the patriarchy of Virginia’s time. But by holding her in a directionless limbo until she picks a beau—as Masters has done in the latter half of this season—the show has implicitly treated Virginia, the character, with the same disregard that Bill Masters inflicts on Virginia, the person. “Party Of Four” can’t quite untie that knot.

The Libby/Paul Edley plot is not as engrossing as the main story, spending more time than necessary on scenes that cast Paul as history’s greatest father. Everyone is too happy, and we all know by now that Masters Of Sex only grants Libby happiness so it can be snatched away. Indeed, her hopes of a new life are in pieces by the end of the episode, because while the show may dither when it comes to resolving Virginia’s plight, it never hesitates to make Libby miserable.

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But even though “Party Of Four” builds to the obligatory Libby Speech, tonight’s tearful peroration is rather more beautiful the usual pity party. Libby’s constant breakdowns have become a cliché because she’s always bemoaning the terrible things that have happened to her, the innocent waif being buffeted by waves of sorrow. This time, it’s different. When Libby has that last conversation with Paul, she makes a reasoned and difficult choice to keep her children with their father. It’s not a speech about the world being cruel to Libby Masters; it’s a speech in which Libby takes command of her narrative.

The upshot is a compelling answer to the question of why Libby stays with that terrible, rotten, no-good Bill Masters: because he’s less of a monster than his father was, and maybe, with concerted effort, Bill’s kids can grow into something better than him. For once, Libby draws a through-line that extends beyond her own suffering. Poignantly, it leads her to make a choice that deepens her own plight.