“We’re two men, trying our best.”
Perceptions and the white lies we must tell to maintain them can control our lives. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that nearly everyone wants to have control over the perception or impression people take from them. Some people are willing to go farther than others in this degree, which is the wonderful moral playground that this episode of Masters of Sex wallows about in. There’s a scene emblematic of all of this about halfway through this installment that sees Betty and Gene having dinner together. At this point, even after all of the lies that Betty has told him in order to preserve the “wholesomeness” of their marriage; after her being obsessed with him viewing her as the perfect, virginal housewife, he reveals that he actually had sex with her as a prostitute before they met for the “first time” in church. He didn’t even register as a blip on her radar, but he’s known this entire time what her history has been, and it never shook his perception of her. He’s still seen the best in her and trusted her when she’s done so much fabricating.
This episode is all about these sort of relationships: the trust involved, and what we’re willing to do to keep up appearances. The pressure of Virginia not being apart of Masters’ study may finally be starting to get to her as her dreams begin to haunt her by painting her as an inadequate being of objectification as the study flourishes without her.
Meanwhile Johnson continues to resort to shilling diet pills to make a living, but takes opportunities like preying on her seemingly stable neighbor or a receptionist while DePaul is undergoing cancer treatment. These are great little character moments and a perfect distillation of why Virginia continues to survive through all of this (and just how much Caplan is bringing to the role). We see the same sort of playfulness when Masters tries to trick Greathouse into no longer being present at his studies due to telling him he’s developing sexual feelings for him through transference (when the obstacle of “old men masturbating!” fails to work). Even our favorite resident sister-in-law bedder, Langham, calling out Virginia on her and Masters leaving the hotel together is deftly covered up by Virginia; all of these are examples of perceptions and the ways we bend the truth in order to keep them stable and get through life.
Langham’s discovery also leads to DePaul turning her back on Virginia when she feels that her ability to trust her is compromised. It’s crippling to see her abandon Virginia when it’s clear how very much she needs her as she stumbles over simple things like saying, “short filmstrip.” Her treatment scenes are amongst the creepiest the show has ever done, reminiscent of some alien abduction morgue, warping our perception, as distant music emphasizes the feeling of isolation.
It makes sense that Masters and Johnson are both so reflective of this theme, particularly since the focus of the study this week is on menopausal women, a reflection of perception too, with women seeming to be getting more amorous during this stage when that seems contrary to making sense. Even the work being done is pushing out this message. Elsewhere in these hospital walls, the dirty work that Bill must do and his twisting of the impressions at hand with Betty and Gene’s fertility again comes under the microscope. Masters is forced to bend his morals to not only keep his job safe (an idea that becomes much more ironic considering where things head later on), but also to protect their marriage in a twisted way. It’s fascinating to see Masters struggling to lie to Gene here about being infertile when it’s exactly what he was doing to his wife not that long ago. Again, this reflects that Masters holds himself to some special sort of standard and exception that he’s above certain rules.
All of this seems to be forming cracks in the ice though, with repercussions slowly beginning to form, regardless of how much care is being taken. Like it’s said throughout the episode, as careful as we are, there are tiny insects that invade our lives. We may look pristine and keep up appearances, but underneath we’ve covered with bugs that itch and irritate.
Which brings us to more of the horror show between Libby and Coral, as she forces herself to wash her hair for her in a scene that’s just as uncomfortable as if she was asking Coral to disrobe and get naked for her. All of this is once again coming down to trust and the perception of honesty. Coral gets her digs in in front of Libby’s guests as she proudly “axes” a question, but the ensuing unraveling of Libby that follows afterwards is even more interesting. Why is Libby feuding with her so much? Is it out of fear of the perception that she’s doing a bad job with her child as it cries off in the distance, or that his father has yet to significantly bond with him yet? Masters being able to calm his wife down is a welcome change of pace and a nice image to see him handling things at home. However, this too is a perception in flux as when she comes down harder on him later, he’s nearly rendered a speechless mess, stuttering away in defeat (in some more phenomenal work done by Sheen this season). Later when Langham is talking to Bill outside as they smoke cigars, Libby is cast in light as she works in the kitchen in the background in what’s some beautiful composition work by Michael Engler, who does a commendable job here as someone else takes the director’s hat away from Apted for the first time this year. This idyllic image is in flux, in danger of vanishing at any moment as Langham asks Masters if everything with Virginia is worth it.
It’s some exciting stuff to see Masters blowing things up again with what ends up happening with Greathouse; he seriously jeopardizes his position at any hospital, as his attempt at dirty work to keep the image of his study pure, blows up in his face. Virginia is also thrown into equal disarray as DePaul ditches her, and Libby seems to finally be having enough of her husband’s antics and losing it. Things should be very interesting moving forward as Masters tries to continue movin’ on up, not even halfway through the season and the status quo is already seemingly destroyed.
But whether we’re sticking to the images of ourselves that we’ve grown accustomed to, or we painstakingly get our hands dirty to change the narrative and re-frame who we are, we must do our own homework. The impression and perception of getting our work right isn’t enough. We won’t always have help behind us, or a partner to fall back on. There won’t always be a Buell Green hospital to storm the doors of. We must ourselves be strong.