Josh Charles and Lizzy Caplan

It’s odd that Bill’s storyline this week, in which he makes a unilateral decision to launch a therapeutic sex surrogacy program, never offers a strong sense of Virginia’s objections to the new venture. Bill and Virginia discussed the topic of surrogates in “Monkey Business,” but glancingly so, and in tonight’s episode her concerns are represented only by Betty’s indistinct reminder that Virginia’s not gonna like this. This elision works out, though. By eschewing the usual Masters vs. Johnson ethical debates, Masters Of Sex gives itself more time to directly explore the phenomenon of surrogacy, with varied but sometimes insightful results.

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Masters recruits surrogates because he believes in the power of a stand-in—someone who can play the role of a partner without the baggage that a “real” companion would bring. The theory is that a surrogate allows self-exploration without obligation. Accordingly, this week the main characters play-act at their lives with convenient understudies, and the differences between the substitute and the genuine article prove illuminating.

Bill, for instance, discovers a faux Virginia in the person of Nora Everett. Nora is sexually liberated, enthusiastic about the research, and intimidated by Bill. She didn’t finish college, but “I’d like to someday,” she mentions, just to make extra-double-sure viewers don’t miss the parallel. Nora impresses Bill from the start, but she doesn’t fully arrest his attention until she recalls memories of him from her youth. After she scraped her knee outside the Masters home and Libby cleaned her up, Bill drove Nora home and, as she tells it, didn’t say a word to her the whole time. Yup, sounds like Bill! But now Nora perceives a kinder, more empathetic William Masters: “You’re nothing like I remember you,” she says, and Bill lights up—at least, as much as he ever lights up.

Over the course of the series, Bill has struggled to relate to people with more compassion, and Virginia has been there for most of those struggles. She has seen his cold, monstrous side, and she has helped to restore some warmth to his being. In Nora, Bill sees a tantalizing alternate version of Virginia who never had to see the worst in him (aside from that miserable car ride, of course). Virginia has witnessed the agonizing process of Bill’s effort to become a better person, while Nora only observes the results.

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So when Bill hands Nora some cash so she can find a place to stay, she says, “Thank you.” Conversely, when he brings Virginia a bowl of soup for her flu, she says, “How very unlike you.” Because she doesn’t question his generosity, Nora allows Bill to imagine himself as the person he’d like to be—which in turn gives him the added confidence to show more kindness in his personal life. And that’s how a surrogate is supposed to work. If Nora is as effective in her sexual surrogacy as she is in her emotional surrogacy, she’ll be a great boon to patients at the Center For Reproductive Studies.

Virginia’s dealings with surrogacy are more complex than Bill’s, intriguingly so. Her surrogate is Dan Logan, but who is he standing in for? There’s more than one answer to that question, and the indeterminacy here gets at the larger issue of what Virginia wants from her life. At times, Logan is an obvious Masters substitute—like when he and Virginia deliver an impromptu tag-team pitch to the casino owner. The crackling rhythm of their banter in this scene matches countless Masters & Johnson masterclasses we’ve seen over the years.

Then comes the burglary kerfuffle, in which Logan collects himself amid the heat of anger, at Virginia’s insistence, to have some compassion for the 19-year-old Vietnam vet who broke into their room. (There’s surrogacy all around in this scene, as the desperate kid is an obvious stand-in for Henry.) Here Virginia sees both a father figure and a companion who listens to her desires even in a crisis.

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Thus Logan becomes an appealing surrogate for George Johnson. “You would have been a great father. I can tell,” Virginia tells him. Indeed, he’s a respectful, admiring work partner and a good family man. That’s why she’s smitten with him. Yet he has one key difference from Masters: Logan isn’t liable to change the world. He offers her everything but that, and unfortunately for him, Virginia’s ambition outstrips her affection. The chance to prove the world wrong is too enticing to pass up, so Virginia will never commit to Logan. We can see it in the look of concern that washes over her when she learns that Logan has grown attached to “the St. Louis area,” refusing a plum contract in Las Vegas. It dawns on her that she’s treating him as a surrogate—perhaps without even realizing it—but he’s in this for real.

Any episode that provides such well-wrought insights about the two lead characters is a worthwhile hour on Masters Of Sex, which is fortunate, because otherwise “Surrogates” falters. The ongoing marital spat between Lester and Jane holds no charge because Masters has never given us any reason to invest in this couple. There was some reason to care whether Lester and Barbara (Betsy Brandt) made a go of it, even just as friends. Not with Lester and Jane. This week, their sniping in the middle of Bill’s orientation session is a cringeworthy interlude—Masters at its clumsiest, and to what end?

Meanwhile, Barton is evidently sealed off in a universe separate from the rest of the show, like a Beverly Crusher warp bubble filled with gay doctors. Barton’s two-scene sub-subplot asks the question, “Hey, is Barton going to have sex with this dude?” and then instantly, joylessly answers it with “Yeah, probably.” Along the way, Barton learns about gaydar. He cautiously asks how his new piccolo-loving colleague divined Barton’s sexuality, and the gay doctor replies, in essence, that he just notices stuff. Perhaps the script could have conjured a bit more substance for this pivotal moment in Barton’s life.

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Libby’s contractually obligated Nervous Breakdown Of The Week is less crazed than usual, and it finally wraps up a loose end that the show has ignored for most of season three. Even with their affair in full pelvis-pumping swing, Paul Edley feels distant from Libby, and his probing questions eventually get to the root of her sorrow (the latest root of her sorrow, that is). Edley suspects that Libby uses their interludes in apartment 7-D to imagine sex with Bill, an unlikely notion to say the least. Libby corrects him and explains that actually, Edley is a surrogate for Robert, her affair from last season. She tells the story of how Robert was tragically killed when Masters Of Sex ran out of ideas for his character, a crescendo of self-pity that builds to perhaps the Libby-est line in Libby history: “I can’t give you any more of myself because I have already given it all.” Pretty bold of Libby to play the emotional-scarring card with a guy whose braindead wife secretly hated him. Still, she is married to Bill Masters.

The blue ribbon for dumbest storyline of the week, though, goes to Betty and Helen. At the end of “Monkey Business,” it was reasonable to assume that Betty recruited Austin to inseminate Helen the natural way. While the sex would certainly be awkward, Betty has plenty of experience with passionless, functional intercourse, so she’d be well-equipped to guide her partner through the unpleasantness. And Helen was desperate to become pregnant by any means. Instead of going the straightforward route, though, Helen and Austin pose as a married couple who need Masters’ help to conceive. In other words, Betty and Helen have two options:

  • Option A: Helen has sex with Austin.
  • Option B: Helen takes part in a flimsy ruse designed to fool Betty’s highly intelligent, often vindictive employer. The plan involves Austin, a man who, given his history, would undoubtedly raise Bill’s suspicions. And it entails a physical examination of Helen’s anatomy by Bill, the world’s leading expert on sex organs.

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Yet their first instinct is Option B. Betty makes some fair points against Bill in their climactic argument, but it’s tough to have sympathy for someone so daffy that she would risk her livelihood on an inane contrivance. While this episode has high points, it also engages in Masters’ most miserable brand of surrogacy, in which harebrained schemes act as a substitute for thoughtful plotting.

Stray observations:

  • The surrogacy theme extends almost everywhere in this episode: Virginia even manages to find a surrogate for her work while in Las Vegas, conducting observations of orgasmic gamblers in a manner that parallels her research in the lab.
  • Is there anybody who comes to the Center For Reproductive Studies with genuine motives anymore? Lately, it seems as if everyone is looking to hoodwink Bill Masters.
  • Has the show ever told us what happened to Betsy Brandt’s character? I guess she was hit by the same car that ran over Robert Franklin. Maybe that’s how all no-longer-interesting Masters Of Sex people die. They just toss them in front of the car.
  • You can tell Libby rehearsed that Robert speech in the mirror.

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