“Some tricks look easier the more you practice them.”
We like to believe that we’re the main characters in the stories of our lives. We like to construct narratives where there aren’t any because structure is comforting. Form is comforting, and if we think that everything we’re doing is part of a larger process, or simply the result of the past pushing through us, it can be a lot easier to swallow whatever is going on in our lives. So, it makes sense that here, in an episode particularly interested in the past and the narratives we’ve put around it, we’d get to explore some very fractured characters.
Barbara Sanderson has been a fascinating recent addition to the show, and I still love that someone who was introduced and seemed to be nothing more than flimsy secretarial comic relief has become one of the more complex, damaged characters that the show has gotten into.
It’s really hard to watch Barbara bawling and being a mess as Bill tries to treat her with the dialator, and it turns into Bill and Virginia having one of their better arguments over the right sort of treatment Barbara should be getting. Virginia thinks they need to cure the psychological aspect to make any of this work while Bill says they’re merely helping the part of her that they can help. This feels like more of an extension of what was gotten into last week, and it’s nice to see the effects of that carrying through.
What’s even more devastating than Barbara in the exam room is her confession to Virginia that her brother telling her that their incest was in fact all her idea. That she brought this on herself and there was no larger villain at play. Virginia dismisses that her brother could just be trying to manipulate her, but Barbara’s pretty sure of his calm resolve. The idea of Barbara shifting the blame onto her brother as a way of shirking responsibility and a means of dealing with this is more than plausible, and a pretty incredible revelation, if it is actually the case. In both her and Virginia’s situations, they’re trying to turn the past into a story that it wasn’t.
We see Virginia continue to tell Barbara’s story to Madden, the psychologist, but it’s an unsuccessful operation. It’s kind of great how quickly he cuts through what Virginia’s trying to pull here, commenting on the disconnect between what she’s saying and her emotions during it; “Almost as if she was talking about someone else.” The predictable route here would be Virginia getting analyzed herself while she tries to get help for Barbara, and it seems to be what they’re doing. Virginia’s wide-eyed naivety as she stumbles out sentences, slowly revealing more about herself, as opposed to Barbara, helps it dearly though. We later see at the Park Plaza Virginia trying to take care of Bill despite his resistance, and it feels a natural result of Virginia being unable to help Barbara, as she tries to build her own narrative.
Bill meanwhile is trying to deal with Lester’s impotence by hiring a prostitute who is well familiar with the ailment to help him get along. There’s some smart directorial work here as Bill talks about Lester being nervous, as the camera focuses on Bill’s manic fidgeting with his pen, speaking volumes for him so that he doesn’t have to. Lester and Barbara’s stories were intercut together last week, but here it seems that Lester might be interested in her even. This comes off a little schmaltzy, and if the two of them ending up curing each other’s dysfunctions, it’ll be more than a little suspect. But we’ll see where this goes.
Lester’s been given a pretty big focus since the time jump, and he’s fit in quite well. They’ve indoctrinated him in a shocking amount of time, and this French New Wave-loving, sexually repressed individual is rubbing off on me. I hope he sticks around.
Libby continues to try to move forward with CORE in regard to the Leonard Gilroy beating she witnessed last week. CORE tries to push her hand, feeding her an answer to help bolster her testimony forward as they try to re-write the past. Libby going through cross-examination prep is some wonderful stuff and a nice change of pace for her. Her crucial role being rendered unnecessary though is the peak of it all, as she’s sent away, not being seen as important.
Libby’s material has really painted her in an awful light this season, but we forget that we’re largely not seeing the actions of this woman who is forced to be alone, raising children more or less as a single parent, as Bill is out doing everything we focus on. She’s a woman that hasn’t had sex in over a year with Bill, yet we never, ever get even a glimpse of her considering an affair. After the help she did with the board last episode, and her establishment with CORE at the end of this one, Libby’s really become one of the stronger characters. In a very powerful way, she’s taken the narrative of her past, and explicitly this season with everything that’s gone on with Coral, and used it turn her into this strong person. Her past gives her agency rather than riddling her with dysfunction like everyone else in this episode. The horrors of Coral even play a lot better in retrospect when you view them as part of the pieces that get her to where she is now. Her presence and competence become so strong in fact, it seeps into Virginia, causing her to question what she’s got going on with Bill.
Frank is another recent addition who greatly gets put under the microscope here, and viewing Bill through his inclusion is illuminating. Frank takes Bill to one of his AA meetings where he’s celebrating his one-year anniversary of being sober of all things. Frank delivers a speech about disappearing acts and his struggling childhood, which eventually became the reason for his alcoholism, and Bill listens to all of this, seeming to actually be cut deep. It feels like he might finally realize how similar he and his brother are, how much pain they share, and that Bill might even be proud of him for being able to divulge such personal struggles at this meeting when Bill can barely even tell the truth to people. It’s a great scene, but the moment of Frank calling for him right after Bill’s left might be a little too much, a feeling that’s kind of rampant throughout this episode.
This of course becomes all the better when we learn that Bill didn’t leave because he was touched or feeling bad for his brother, but rather, he was disgusted with him. He claims that everything Frank mentioned about their father actually all happened to him, and who is Frank to complain when he actually had a good childhood while he was the one who suffered.
There are some wonderful parallels between what Bill is doing here and what’s happened with Barbara misappropriating her story. Frank insists that why isn’t it possible that they both had bad runs, and that Bill is more and more like their father, with both of them having abandoned him. It’s not surprising that we even get into the area of Bill’s own sexual dysfunction, it feeling like just his proximity to the past is resurrecting it and bringing it forward.
Repeatedly, we see the past dragging itself up through the episode, looking to be changed, but can it? Even when you think it has been, has it really? This conversation gets boiled down to the end of the episode, as Virginia is optimistic on the matter, and Bill is not. They argue over what they’re doing here, with Virginia finally aware that all of this has nothing to do with the study at this point. That all of this has been terribly cruel to Libby, who has been there for both of them. Bill fights to believe the lie and hide behind it, but Virginia has clarity now. Having this paired up with the idea of Bill’s very own sexual dysfunction, we’ll see if familiar behaviors are fallen back on, or if these two are finally able to emerge from this and move forward.
Bill may want to tell a story where he’s the main character who has a wife he loves dearly and a study partner who delights him sexually, with everything in perfect harmony. But sometimes the past isn’t just the past, and it can’t be ignored, and sooner or later it’s going to remind you that it’s the one calling the shots and your narrative should actually be in the fiction section.