Josh Charles and Lizzy Caplan (Photo: Michael Desmond/Showtime)

When Al Neely was asked on an intake form to describe his initial attraction to actress Isabella Ricci, he wrote, “She was 20 feet tall.” Neely remembers watching Ricci at the movie theater. As she was projected onto the screen, she overwhelmed his senses and ignited his desire. Now, some time later, they sit in Masters and Johnson’s sex clinic wondering where that fire has gone. Neely insists that the problem is with his wife, and he’s right, in a way. No, Ricci isn’t frigid—Masters determines as much in short order—but she does suffer from a different physical deficiency: She is not 20 feet tall.

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Rather, Ricci is a human being, with all the complexities and imperfections that entails, and the longer Neely and Ricci are together, the more he sees her humanity. Thus the exciting fantasy grows distant. The giant woman in Neely’s mind illustrates the phenomenon at the heart of “Two Scents”—the vexing gap between fantasy and actuality, between what we think we want and what actually brings us happiness over the long term.

Unrealistic expectations cut both ways for Bill and Virginia’s couple of the week. If Neely was attracted to the idea of bedding a big-screen movie star, Ricci was attracted to his outsized attraction. Her face glows when she talks about the way he said “I want you” at the Brown Derby or the time he “had” her in a Roman fountain. “It was like we were gods,” she says, recalling the animalistic quality of those early days with Al “The Ape” Neely. Like her husband, Ricci was ill-equipped to sustain the marriage once she no longer saw Neely as a beast-god and instead saw him as a man who turns on the TV to avoid sex. They both cheat on each other, and they even make passes at Masters and Johnson, because they yearn for a partner who doesn’t yet see through their fantasy versions of themselves.

Although Virginia shrewdly diagnoses her celebrity patients, she’s not immune to the allure of fantasy when it comes to her own life. When Dan Logan tells her that she deserves a “proper courtship,” she gently rejects him, but the idea sticks in her head nonetheless. Later in the episode, she parrots the term to Bill when she says, “Starting a relationship in a lab is hardly a proper courtship.” Then she slips into an alternate reality where Bill and Virginia met by locking eyes across the table at a dinner party, and their intrigue for each other caused the evening’s noise to fade into the background.

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Bill dismisses this as a “schoolgirl fantasy,” but Virginia remains unsatisfied, and the direction of this scene gives us a hint as to why. In the Center For Reproductive Studies lab, Bill and Virginia appear to be a typical married couple, settling down for the evening in a tastefully appointed bedroom. We see their interaction through the observation window, however, which makes the pair look like characters on a movie screen, play-acting at authentic romance. Bill maintains that the truth of their bond is the important thing, but for Virginia, framing matters, and this shot helps us see why. It takes a lot of energy to maintain real warmth when your relationship was conceived in such a sterile context.

So while fantasy might be an unsound foundation for a couple, that doesn’t mean it can’t play a healthy role. Bill comes around to this idea by the end of the episode. He stops the elevator and gives Virginia a romanticized version of their first encounter that essentially replicates her dinner-party imagery in the hospital setting. Virginia remembers the gruff, businesslike manner with which Bill bullied her into sex, so his revisionist history doesn’t take hold with her.

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Virginia is drawn instead to Dan Logan, a character whose gentlemanly air might come off as schmaltzy if the character were played by an actor with less talent for calm nuance than Josh Charles. Logan tells Virginia that she deserves more from him than a brief coffee date in a charmless lobby, and when he wants to conduct an “experiment” with her, he doesn’t strap wires to her and take notes; he holds her hand and dances.

It’s not that Virginia sees a real future with Logan. She sees a different version of the past—a more romantic one where she is the beauty pageant winner, the 20-foot-tall woman, who lets herself accept admiration rather than always working to convince herself she deserves it. It makes sense that Logan would attract Virginia while she reckons with her past, as he deals in aromas—which, as we have seen, evoke personal histories. Every time somebody smells one of Logan’s vials, they end up talking about years-old memories. Even the woman who sniffs a tube of Lester’s sweat is reminded of an old high school locker room.

And in the same moment, there’s another, undetectable smell beneath the jock-strap bouquet on the surface. The subject is aroused without even knowing it. Our animal instinct, which exists in the present, can conflict markedly with our rational perception, which is shaped by our past—hence the “two scents” of the episode’s title. A lasting love depends on some unaccountable interaction between those two aromas. Virginia, fairly enough, wishes she could find both scents in the same person.

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Not all projections are as sexualized as the 20-foot woman. Bill sees an alternate telling of his own past in an unlikely avatar: Dennis, the poor kid who Bill terrified in “Matters Of Gravity.” In Dennis, Bill sees the 20-foot boy who might have been able to please his father. Yes, that was never possible in practice, as Bill knows on a rational level, yet the fantasy remains a powerful one. So Bill befriends the thick-knuckled young quarterback. Johnny Masters is old enough to see that Dennis is the kind of child Bill wishes Johnny could be. Sadly, he’s not yet wise enough to understand that Dennis is the kind of kid Bill wishes he himself had been.

Libby, meanwhile, dabbles in her own fantasy of single life. As exemplified by apartment 7D, it is a realm of privacy, freedom, and non-judgment. When the building super mentions how painful it has been for him to experience a divorce where children were involved, Libby doesn’t want to have her idyll shattered, so she brushes him off: “Nothing bad is going to happen to my kids.”

Then she gets home to find that while she was off indulging herself, something bad happened to her kid: Johnny hurt his ankle at football practice. The mishap has the boy more enthusiastic about football—more enthusiastic about anything—than we’ve seen him before. Like his father, he’s invigorated by the experience of suffering pain and living to tell the tale. But the sight of her ailing son, even if the injury is inconsequential, wracks Libby with guilt, because it happened while she was savoring her child-free fantasy in Joy Edley’s secret apartment.

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Nothing drives Libby to insanity faster than the notion that she’s less than a perfect mother. Last season, it was the trigger for some of her most vicious and senseless sniping at Coral, the nanny (even before the added element of romantic jealousy came into play). And in this episode, her matronly guilt sends her once again into Crazy Stupid Libby mode, as she tells a well-meaning Paul Edley that his wife was planning to leave him before she had a stroke. Libby may not be a bad mother, but she sure can be an implausibly awful person. The weight of her unfulfilling past has a tendency to bring out an animal viciousness in the present.

The final scene sees Bill consulting with a zookeeper who’s vexed by the sexual apathy of their prize gorilla—an actual ape to parallel the metaphorical ape of Al Neely. It’s a droll capstone to conversations throughout the episode that have cast animal sex as the epitome of simple pleasure. In one of those exchanges, Bill says that comparing human sex to animal sex is a “dangerous” oversimplification, but at the midpoint of season three, Bill is realizing that even animal attraction is more complex than he realized.

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The complicating factor is context. When Bill looks at the gorilla, the point-of-view shot is anchored by the animal’s gaze yet dominated by the bars that cage him. With that framing, it’s obvious why this beast isn’t feeling frisky. Yet throughout “Two Scents,” Bill has made the case to Virginia that their lovemaking could thrive in any setting because of their special affection for each other. Virginia has countered that no, the context matters—for reasons she can’t quite explicate. The daunting task for Bill and Virginia is to understand those reasons, for the sake of both their research and their relationship.

Stray observations:

  • Has there ever been a show that wasn’t enhanced by the presence of Josh Charles? Whenever he’s in something, he makes it better, whether it’s an adult drama like Masters Of Sex or an absurd comedy like Wet Hot American Summer: First Day Of Camp.
  • Perhaps in response to “Matters Of Gravity,” an episode that made Tessa the mastermind of a ludicrously hurtful and diabolical scheme, Virginia’s daughter comes back to earth this week and is allowed to experience some empathy for her mother. She experiences firsthand the psychological misery of life with Edna Eshelman, and as she recovers, she’s excited to bond with Virginia over her magazine essay. They’re now both published authors. When she notices Virginia’s rumpled blouse—which, to her eyes, indicates that Virginia is giving into the same man-pleasing pattern that Tessa struggles to avoid—the daughter’s disillusionment is poignant. It’s a convincing emotional arc, which is more than can be said for some Tessa moments this season.
  • Another good Tessa moment tonight: The disorientation that washes across her face as Grandma instantly changes the subject from her winning essay to the hairdo on the opposing page. And then when Edna tells Tessa not to be so much like her combative mother, Tessa rather stunningly comes back with, “Maybe she has a good reason to fight.” Tessa really brings it in “Two Scents.”
  • In lieu of football tickets, Al Neely offers Virginia a free night at the Icecapades. It’s funny because Virginia would hate the show, but I wish she would go anyway so we could watch her make droll, sarcastic remarks the whole time.
  • Bill’s first act as assistant football coach is to undermine the head coach’s authority, and then he doesn’t bother to show up to the next practice. Coach Edley must be thrilled to have Bill Masters on board.

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