Masters of Sex: Blackbird

 Posted by on August 18, 2014 at 12:42 am  Masters of Sex
Aug 182014


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.


  7 Responses to “Masters of Sex: Blackbird”

  1. This episode was loaded with big corner-turns: the end of Lillian’s plot, the end of Bill’s working within the hospital system, and seemingly the end of the Betty/Gene/Helen story. (Though since Betty’s a regular on the series this season, I guess it will somehow continue.)

    I’m very unhappy about the Betty Draper-izing of Libby this season – she’s been acting so nasty and borderline nuts. But I thought every scene with the lead characters in this episode was tremendous, especially the Ginny/Lillian story. After everything that these two have been through, and the gradual development of their friendship and finally lowering their walls, this was a really, REALLY moving ending. Between those scenes and the one with Bill and Ginny finally kissing and admitting their emotional connection, just give Lizzy Caplan an Emmy nomination now!

    But am I the only one bothered that Ginny isn’t paying enough attention to her kids?

  2. I wonder if there is any evidence that Libby Masters was a racist. Does it matter? The son of Thomas Dewey protested when a movie depicted him as receiving bribes from the Mafia — something wholly made up. More recently the son of a baseball player objected that the movie about Jacky Robinson falsely made his late father a racist “character” to make a point. As someone has said you cannot, in law, libel the dead –which means that you can.

  3. As more than one recapper/reviewer has noted, Masters of Sex doing this exploration of racism in late-fifties Missouri is pretty ironic and sad in light of what’s going on there right now.

    While MoS gets lots of stuff wrong about its period in terms of dialog and attitudes, Libby’s being at least somewhat racist is to be expected. She was raised in a racist era in a racist country, and she could easily be simultaneously socially progressive AND subtly prejudiced.

    My own born-in-the-twenties parents were hardcore New Deal/New Frontier Jewish liberals who championed the civil rights struggle and admired MLK… but when my sister brought home an African American/Jamaican/Chinese boyfriend circa 1980, things quickly got very ugly. It was an atavistic reaction that had nothing to do with their intelligence or ethics, just their buried programming from earlier in their lives.

    • I think, as I said above, that MOS is very concerned with power dynamics. It juxtaposes the marginalized with the empowered. This makes sense in a show about sex. The complicated and confusing sexual dynamics in the Masters/Johnson relationship is contrasted against the Scully marriage last season and Helen/Betty this season.

      In addition, we see the complex dynamic played out in non-sexual ways, and race is one of them. It was fascinating, this episode, to bring that full circle, and show the sexual component of racism: The “Mandingo” and the “Jezebel.”

    • I’m aware that it would have been unusual for someone in that era to *not* have racist attitudes, but I think that it should be definitive before characterizing a real person that way. The point about the interrelationship of sex and racism is very well taken.

    • Ginny had the expected reaction, “calling 911” when she discovered “Lillantha” dying of her purposeful overdose. Then she becomes “modern” when she hangs up and lets her friend dir quietly. I thought Ginny’s very long, very intimate (but not sexual/seductive) kiss was sweet – and perhaps selfish – as much for herself as for Lillian.

      Were both decisions (to kiss and to let die) too modern for the time? After all, as Ginny said to Ethan in the Pilot: “Friends Kiss” – and she was very friendly indeed, after that.

      Remember, when Pretzel King’s pal told him of the Betty/Helen “lip lock”, the game was up.

      • And another thing.

        I wonder if Pretzel King will be able to live without Betty – despite everything?

        The Don/Megan breakup was extended, periodically awkward, and agonizing. Will MOS work this breakup the same way.

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