These last two episodes of season three may not qualify as a resurgence, but at least Masters Of Sex reacquired a sense of purpose in the closing weeks of an inconsistent stretch. Bill’s reckless quest for control of his personal life and Virginia’s miserable descent into a self-inflicted purgatory finally come to a head in “Full Ten Count,” as the series’ two leads each end their years-long battles to preserve everything they thought mattered to them. Bill and Virginia have been fighting for so long—with each other, with their families, with the world—that the lingering question of the series finale is a tantalizing one: What happens when they stop fighting?
Virginia gives up her fight, and Libby hers, after both of them realize just how toxic Bill’s influence has been on both of them. He had essentially ensnared them both. Virginia was tied to him by way of the sex research, which inspired her and gave her life a welcome meaning. And for better or worse, usually the latter, Libby and Bill shared their children. But even if they have created wonderful things with Bill, the problem is that he uses those same collaborations to exert control over them.
Bill’s so controlling that he’s not even always aware when he has someone in his grasp, but with Virginia, Bill has pulled the marionette strings consciously—to the point that he even boasted about it to Logan at last week’s entertainingly disastrous dinner. He loves that the work held Virginia hostage, and his refusal to release that hold on her is what finally drives her to leave. He’s right that their research is important to her, Virginia concedes, but she tells him, “You’re wrong in thinking I want those things in place of happiness. I want to be happy in a life bigger than work. I can’t be a whole person without that.” When Dan urges Virginia to “see things you already know,” this is the breakthrough he was hoping for.
Yet while Virginia insists she doesn’t want the thrill of work “in place of happiness,” what goes unsaid is that she has long dreamed for both. Indeed, this wish goes unsaid because its remoteness is too painful for her to say out loud. But we see it in those closing moments of this episode, with Virginia glancing back again and again to see if Bill has come chasing after her. Dan asks her if she’s lingering because she hopes Bill shows up or because she hopes he doesn’t. In truth, she’s looking back at a fading dream—the audacious fantasy that she could feel “whole” and still be one half of Masters & Johnson, heroes of the intellectual vanguard. Bill tries to rekindle this hope when he confesses his love to her. He holds out the possibility that Virginia can have work and happiness both. But she has decided that contentment is a tall order when the very career that gives you purpose is also used as ransom by your working partner. She cuts that Gordian knot by boarding the plane with Logan.
Bill’s control of Libby has been more unwitting, albeit not entirely so. He does appear genuinely stunned to learn that she has known about his relationship with Virginia for quite a long time, and he even has the temerity to be offended when he finds out that his wife and his mistress had a secret “pact” to maintain the status quo. (“Taking a page from your own playbook, Bill,” Libby sneers—one of many satisfying attacks she unleashes in their fantastic confrontation at the police station.)
Amid his selfish moments, though, Bill is also visibly drained as he takes stock of the lowly, precarious existence into which he has manipulated his wife. He didn’t even have enough respect for her to think that she might already be aware of his obvious affair, but in this moment he has enough shame to understand how he has tortured her. He has made her feel not just ignored but stupid: “You are the biggest fool that I know,” she tells him, “but much to my heart’s regret, I am the second biggest fool.” Like Virginia, she feels stupid that she sacrificed her happiness for someone who would risk everything to, say, help a fawning, young, attractive protégé make rent and continue with the Important Work. And just as Virginia does, Libby decides that severing ties with Bill is the only way to save herself from being consumed by him.
This leaves Bill, the perpetual fighter, alone to spar with himself. Perhaps, though, this isn’t such a drastic change from the Bill we’ve been watching all along. One overarching narrative of the series is that Bill is afraid of passing his father’s monstrousness along to the next generation. That fear sidesteps the more immediate reality. Forget the next generation—the elder Masters’ abuse of Bill never ended. It’s being perpetuated by Bill. In “Full Ten Count” we see his face twist as he dons a belt, and later as he takes it off. It gradually dawns on Bill that he has indeed continued his father’s tradition of cruelty, by beating up himself.
Bill has been doing the old bastard’s job for him. He always fights back; he always refuses to give in. But by defining his approach to the world as an outgrowth of his absolute opposition to his father’s aggression, Bill has unwittingly made his father’s presence in his life absolute. When he tells the cab driver, “I’m gonna stay down,” he is denying the power of the belt to determine his actions. So what happens when Bill stops fighting? That’s the question that Masters Of Sex promises to answer in season four. The more practical question is whether, after a desultory string of episodes, Masters still has enough promise to make it worth tuning back in for the answer.
- Virginia tells Dan, “ I just keep waiting for everything to click into place. So I can say, ‘Finally, my life is exactly as it should be.’” I love this simple, poignant line. It crystallizes why Virginia has allowed herself to drift in such a limbo this season. It doesn’t really justify making viewers suffer through the boredom of that limbo, but at least it gives the character some credit—she’s aware that she’s been on a treadmill, and she knows why.
- Making good on the plans he spilled to Dan last week, Bill tells Virginia he intends to remove his “M.D.” title from their second book to make it clearer that they are equals. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan perform this exchange with admirable subtlety. The offer fails to have the effect that Bill desired, and Virginia has enough of a clear head to see it for what it is—yet another way for Bill to use her own ambition against her.
- Tonight’s Bill-vs.-Virginia and Bill-vs.-Libby confrontations were worth the price of admission. I often criticize the campy aspects of Caitlin FitzGerald’s performance (even though they’re sometimes the most enjoyable part of the show), but her laugh when Bill “reveals” his affair was delicious.
- The roller coaster of Barton’s storyline continues as he and his boyfriend go out to dinner together, and Barton is a little uncomfortable, but it’s fine. What heart-rending twist will this tale take next?
- I don’t think that Betty’s “Little, Brown man” running gag was quite as funny as the writers appeared to believe.
- If you’ve kept up with the show this season, I’d love to hear in the comments if you intend to return for the fourth season next year, and why.
- Thank you for reading The A.V. Club’s Masters Of Sex reviews this year, and a tip of the cap to my predecessor on the Masters beat, Gwen Ihnat, for critiquing the previous one-and-a-half seasons with such aplomb.