A few weeks into the series, it seems as though Masters of Sex has finally discovered a storytelling technique that’ll be fundamental to its success: because we already know these characters’ futures, we have to look to backwards to their pasts to get any kind of development or growth.
“Thank You for Coming”—hey, a sex pun! Get it??—saw both Virginia and Bill receiving visitors from their pasts. We meet George, Virginia’s smirking musician ex-husband, first. He’s three months behind on his rent and needs a place to crash, so he’s taken the liberty of inviting himself over. Virginia refuses at first, before succumbing to his charms and sleeping with him. The next morning, he offers to watch their kids, saying “You can pay me less than you pay your sitter.” Virginia’s incredulous, yelling “I’m not going to pay you to babysit your own children.” So, strapped for cash, George shows up at the study—which, now that it’s back in the hospital, can offer subjects a little monetary compensation—gives a fake name and, to Virginia’s horror, participates.
Meanwhile, it seems that Libby really is somehow miraculously pregnant, despite Bill’s low sperm count, as she now has a visible baby bump and we’re told she’s due in four months. Bill’s mother comes to visit, and from the get-go we can tell their relationship is strained. At dinner, she gleefully tells an embarrassing story about Bill hemming his knickers to trick her into thinking he’d grown out of them so he could finally graduate to regular pants. Bill’s face tenses up, and as the whole table laughs at his ingenuity, he grimaces. “I was made to wear those knickers until I was 14,” he spits. “Fourteen.”
Back at the hospital, he realizes that a woman who has asked him to tie her tubes because she “can’t afford” any more children—something that was illegal without the husband’s consent at the time—actually is doing so to prevent bringing another baby into an abusive household. He puts two and two together after snapping at her son for messing with one of the models in his office. After he sees how scared the kid is, his anger passes and the boy expresses surprise that he’s not going to get hit, saying if he had been in Bill’s shoes, he’d want to “knock some sense into him.” Later in the episode, as Bill strolls into the operating room to deliver the woman’s new baby, we learn via flashback that he too was abused by his father. A young Mrs. Masters is seen standing nonchalantly in the kitchen as we hear a scuffle upstairs and a child crying. She turns up the volume on the radio—mirroring Bill’s actions earlier in the episode when he sleepwalked into the kitchen and turned the TV volume all the way up—to drown out the noise and does nothing. Then we’re back in the delivery room with Bill, where he pretends to see a bleed that doesn’t exist so he has an excuse to tie the woman’s tubes.
The more we learn about Bill, the more fascinating a character he becomes. Michael Sheen is a strong actor who—up until this point—has been doing the best he can with some pretty disappointing writing, but this week, when given the right material, he really was finally able to deliver. The scene where he blows up at Virginia’s kids at a dinner party after Henry accidentally causes the toilet to overflow (“What are you doing?” he shrieks as he snatches some towels out of the kid’s hands. “People wash their hands with those!”) was especially heartbreaking, and when he quietly asks Virginia in the car later whether she knew before she had children that she’d be “good at it,” it’s obvious that a big part of his reluctance to have kids comes from a fear of following in his father’s footsteps.
The Virginia-Bill romance also took another baby step forward when Virginia reluctantly revealed to Bill that her ex-husband participated in the study. She doesn’t tell him the fake name George used, but Bill’s not dumb; he figures it out and invites George back for a one-on-one follow-up interview, grilling him about his sexual history with Virginia and recording the conversation so he can lustily revisit it over and over. This felt a little too obvious, but it was just a slight hiccup in an otherwise satisfying episode. By looking backwards and making its characters more multidimensional, Masters of Sex just might finally move up from knickers to trousers.
-No Betty this week. Not necessarily a bad thing.
-Here’s hoping Ethan is the next character to get fleshed out. His whole “obsessed with Virginia” storyline is getting old fast, and the introduction of the provost’s 19-year-old daughter as a potential love interest for him this week just felt weird.