Masters of Sex: Below the Belt

 Posted by on September 15, 2014 at 7:04 pm  Masters of Sex
Sep 152014


Masters of Sex really is an amazing show, and Below the Belt took us in an unexpected direction. It was clear that at some point, Bill Masters’ impotence would be resolved, but then the episode misdirected us, sending us into Virginia’s distaste for the situation, spoken by Betty, but Betty was not a symbol or surrogate for Virginia; she was another person who understood. Don’t hope for me to cure you, Virginia wanted to say, it just results in me, too, being impotent.

To an extent, all this conversation about impotence is about impotence, in the larger sense. It’s about having no power and no choices. We can see Austin, sexually harassed by his little fireplug of a boss, as helpless in the presence of his own erection as Bill is helpless to the absence of his own. I’d say Flo’s behavior is sexual assault, not harassment; we’d have no trouble understanding that if the genders were reversed, but a priapic man like Austin is a comedic foil, and what could be more humiliating to a philanderer than a fat woman? Yeah, not loving that whole plot arc, although I quite love Artemis Pebdani in the role of Flo. Meanwhile CORE fights the impotence of blacks in a racist system, and Libby tries to “do something” to alleviate her utter lack of power at home.

Truly, though, this episode is about confession. Because last week’s Story of My Life twisted the very notion of confession, this week earned the ability to explore it straightforwardly without becoming maudlin. The first confession we’re treated to is Virginia’s, confessing to Dr. Madden that she’d been telling Barbara’s story and not her own. Of course, therapists are used to clients lying to them, although this version is somewhat extreme. Still, he responds appropriately, and Virginia is again placed in a position of trying to justify, and yet having to face, the adultery she enables. The confession, then, opens a new door, to a new truth, it isn’t an end unto itself so much as a beginning.

As an aside, I’m quite fond of John Billingsley as Dr. Madden. I am nerd enough to admit I recognized him as Dr. Phlox. It’s always remarkable to me how little his appearance changes when you strip away the alien makeup. Seriously, see for yourself:

Virginia’s confession takes us dizzyingly to the final scene, where Bill’s confession opens the door to sexual function. He has locked himself down, denied his own culpability in the monstrous events of his childhood, and it has robbed him of sexual function. Of course, Bill isn’t culpable for abandoning his brother, he was a child when he was carted off to boarding school. Even when he entered college, how might he have rescued Frank? All he could do was save himself. Nonetheless, he believes himself responsible, but can never give voice to that belief. It is giving voice to it, not whether or not it’s true, that frees him.

Before all of that, though, we must look squarely at what Frank is saying. Last week, about Frank, I said:

But then Frank twists that reason around as well, puffing himself up with his own wisdom and his own forgiveness, but really, sounding to me like he twisted away from truth and towards bitterness. In his last bit, comparing Bill to their father, is Frank doing much more than taking a shot at the brother who abandoned him? True, Bill is terrified of becoming his father, but Frank’s version is fundamentally about Frank, and doesn’t qualify, to my mind, as insight into Bill.

Bill and his mother agree with me. Frank wants to be the One True Forgiver, just a little bit better than everyone else. But then, as we dive deeper, we see that Frank must cling to a story about everyone being an alcoholic, because only that story saves him. Previously, Bill had clung in exact parallel to a narrative that Frank had never been abused. It was a security blanket that protected him from the horrors he left behind and allowed him to move on. Similarly, Frank’s insistence that everyone in the family is an alcoholic is a security blanket that lets him look at the horrors of the past with compassion and forgiveness, and allows him to move on. But Bill’s story has crumbled; he’s raw and exposed, and he knows one thing he can do: He can fight. I find it interesting that Virginia pinpoints Bill’s impotence to the night he met Shelly, since we know that Virginia met Shelly the night of the prize fight. Here’s Bill fighting again.

The fight is horrifying and beautiful. Bill has placed Frank in the position of being the monstrous father; the one who hits while Bill laughs and takes it. This is dark stuff; the beauty is in the writing and the acting; here’s yet another Emmy reel for Michael Sheen to submit next year. But it’s also beautiful in that Bill has found a release—it may be nightmarish to find this fight to be a release and a relief, but it led to his admission that yes, he felt responsible for his brother. It led to the end of his impotence. Bill learned as a boy that he had control over exactly one thing: Whether or not he could take the pain and not beg for mercy. In taking it from his brother, he finally found a modicum of control, of potence.

I’ve exhausted myself writing without ever talking about Lester and Barbara. I’ll leave that to you all in comments.

P.S. Any show with an appearance by Adam Arkin is okay in my book.


  6 Responses to “Masters of Sex: Below the Belt”

  1. I’m not very familiar with 12-step programs but does the concept of “amends” mean that one goes to people in one’s life, explicates their sins to them, and then magnanimously forgives them? (Proving one’s moral superiority and greater enlightenment.)
    Will Lester and Barbara lose their respective sexual dysfunctions in mutual bliss? Will they become a long-running couple,on the show, with various plot-driven ups and downs?

    • Quite the opposite.

      Step 8 – Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
      Step 9 – Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

      Frank should be making amends, rather than egoistically forgiving others.

  2. Interesting episode, and as ever, whenever the show sticks close to Masters and Johnson, I think it’s awesome. I’m not crazy about the Libby or Austin plots: I was spoiled by last season’s tremendous Barton/Margaret arc(s). But Lester and Barb are touching and adorable, and I’ve also been a big fan of Adam Arkin since Northern Exposure (and his father Alan Arkin since I was a little kid.)

    And as an old-school Trek fan (I watched from the first TOS episode in 1966), I recognized Billingsley as Dr. Phlox just from his name in the cast list, before he even appeared. Another great character actor!

    But I have one overall complaint with this season: where’s the Study? There’s lots of talk about it, but the show is giving so much time to its assorted melodramas that we never see the Study underway, or even get much real detail about the supposedly groundbreaking discoveries they’re making. So much telling about The Work, but no showing: bad drama syndrome number one.

    • I think the trajectory of the study is mostly Same Ol’ but with more data. Bill wants to cover his ass and get many, many examples of things we’ve already seen. Meanwhile, the expansion of the study into dysfunction is being explored via Lester and Barbara.

    • I agree that the show should get back to more nudity and simulated sex… I mean more focus on the study.

  3. Bill’s constant emphasis on the fact that if there is one thing he’s not it’s “weak” is interesting. One would think that people who do not feel weak would tend not to talk about “weakness” a lot. His ferocious denunciation of his brother might seem like projection. Any thoughts, anyone?

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