Masters of Sex is very interested in things that aren’t sex. In particular, in things that are associated with sex, that get all tangled up with sex, but have nothing to do with the physicality of sex or with pleasure in its purest sense. The previous two episodes, Dirty Jobs and then Giants, seemed very concerned with power; with who has it and who does not. With who gets to dominate whom, and who must submit, and who chooses to submit. Who gets their hair washed, who gets punched, who gets on his knees naked in a hotel room. Sex is traded like power, is entangled with power, but Masters of Sex leaves the bedroom quite a lot, and the dominance and submission of the workplace, and of race relations, is as important to its story as sexuality.
This week, with Blackbird, it’s all reversed.
Blackbird, I think, is about intimacy; about the things we want so deeply that they cannot be denied, about love stronger than promises, stronger than right or wrong, stronger than death.
Bill and Virginia teeter on the edge with their sexual relationship. It’s work but it isn’t. It’s an affair but it isn’t. In Season 1, Virginia was very clear with Ethan that sex, to her, was a physical act, not necessarily tied to love. As we’ve gotten to know Virginia, we’ve learned it’s not that simple; the walls between love and sex are carefully maintained for a reason. Nonetheless, there they are. The other side of that wall is where Blackbird delves.
The intimacies of this episode are everywhere. Betty and Helen can’t stay away from each other; their love is so easy, but their relationship is so hard. Watching Betty with Gene, you can think she really cares about him—then you see her with her true love, and you know that you’ve never really seen Betty unless you’ve seen her with Helen. “She knows me,” Ginny says of Dr. DePaul; “I know you,” Bill answers. Intimacy is being known.
Lillian’s intimacy with Ginny is fraught and complex; it requires Ginny to sacrifice everything she thinks is right. Ginny wants to fight, Lillian wants to let go—to truly love Lillian, her friend must allow her to let go, not fight her. After an extensive conversation about whether women kiss on the lips reveals to Gene who his wife truly loves, Ginny kisses Lillian on the lips, and there’s nothing sexual there—it’s just love. And goodbye.
Then there’s pretend intimacy. Gene and Betty have a false intimacy, and of course, so do Al and Helen. But the real play of falsity is the dance between Coral and Libby. Libby was once almost too saintly a character; fragile and loving while Bill was cold and then became involved with Ginny. In her brittleness, her anxious perfectionism, and her desire to control everything that isn’t Bill, Libby suddenly seems like someone who, yes, would have married that man.
Libby doesn’t want to be Coral’s boss, she wants to be her Svengali. She wants to rule, mold, and shape Coral into her own little doll-nanny. Coral is employee, child, slave, daughter, and intimate, all at once. And somehow, Coral has discerned that her one advantage is that Libby has an unhappy and sexless marriage, so that’s how she strikes back. While Libby has a false intimacy in her “happy marriage,” Coral spins a false intimacy with a pretend boyfriend. Both of these women are adept at their fantasy of love and closeness, but have nothing to back it up with.
The surface answer is that Libby is racist and kind of sadistic, but there’s more to it than that. She’s craving intimacy. While Dr. Hendricks is concerned with the perception of black sexuality, Libby is awash in it. She can’t stop staring, fantasizing, obsessing, to the point where she follows Coral and Robert. At this point, Coral is no longer slave-daughter-employee, now she’s rival. Coral has described Robert as “rough” but sexually irresistible. She seems to have done this primarily out of a sense of spite, to strike back at Libby for the humiliation of the hair-washing, but she struck Libby at the heart of her loneliness and lack of intimacy. Libby can’t stop imagining Robert, but her imagination is full of fear; it’s attraction-repulsion. When she bans Robert from her home, yet still craves him, she follows him, and finally, home alone, she caresses the cut on her leg where he touched her.
Intimacy. Craving. The desires that make no sense, that can’t be studied—this is where this episode takes us.
Finally, there’s Bill’s desires. He wants Ginny, but wants his marriage. He wants his respectable reputation, but wants to be a maverick and a trailblazer. Hendricks kicking him out of the hospital will lead to Masters and Johnson founding their own sexuality research institute, as they did in real life in 1964. Bill’s passion for his study, his need to follow it through, has a kind of perversity, undermining his normal career, just as his passion for Ginny undermines his normal marriage. Yet he can turn neither aside; no more than Betty can turn aside Helen. “Bill loves you,” Lillian says to Ginny, and that’s all that matters.