Masters of Sex: “Blackbird” Season 2 Episode 6 Review

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This week’s Masters of Sex is devastating, as everyone’s walls begin to come down.

They say that honesty is the best policy, but Masters of Sex is quick to show how polarizing the truth can be. It can be completely liberating, or it can leave you out in the cold. “Blackbird,” is an emotionally wrought episode that allows us to see the good and the bad of people letting other people in on their true selves. Not all of it works  in terms of authenticity, but everything bears great importance for what lies ahead.

The most heartbreaking narrative arc in the episode goes to Lillian, who decides to forgo the rest of her cancer treatment. Virginia can’t comprehend why someone would just give up and stop fighting, but as viewers we’re privy to Lillian’s bleak existence as she lies on a table for her radiation and is becoming less and less like herself every day. She knows the cancer will eventually take over, and so this is a way for her to go out on her own terms. It’s far from ideal, but at least it’s her choice.

While Lillian’s acceptance of her fate is certainly distressing, the real poignancy of this plot derives from Gini’s realization that she’s losing one of her best friends. Despite all their arguments, and despite all of Gini’s attempts to remain guarded and push ahead, the two have formed an amicable relationship that goes beyond the boundaries of employer and employee. I have to give credit to the writers here. The connection these women share has been established with the perfect amount of subtlety, so when the big emotional climax arrives, it feels like a punch to the gut. Credit goes to Julianne Nicholson as well, who’s continually played Lillian with a wonderfully understate delivery. I assume this is her last episode, and I know I’m not alone in saying that she’ll be sorely missed.

In the end, Gini accepts the wishes of her dear friend and decides against calling an ambulance after finding Lillian has overdosed on pills. Instead, she lies with her, and waits for her stifled breathing to eventually come to a stop. The moment is achingly realistic, and perhaps one of the most genuine things Gini has ever done. Lillian previously admitted that she’s never really been in love, but at least she didn’t have to die alone.

Though greatly upsetting, this truth is something of a positive for Gini, as it shows she’s capable of opening up to people. Not so positive is what happens to Betty, as she fights to keep her marriage with Gene intact. It was clear from her kiss with Helen last week that she’s still not over her old flame, but her husband has given her a comfortable life she’s afraid to leave. When her secret is revealed, she scrambles once again to win back Gene’s affections, but this truth proves to be too much for him to bear. Gene realizes that he deserves better than this, and rightly so, but it’s still unfortunate to watch Betty lose everything she’s worked for. The cruel twist of fate here is, had she been honest from the start, things might have worked out differently. Betty is so intent on giving people a fantasy version of herself, when all they want is to get to know the real her.

Another person who has a hard time accepting the truth is Masters himself, who tries to put a stop to a potential PR scandal. He discovers that Dr. Hendricks has been deterring his employees from participating in the study as a way of avoiding possible racial stereotypes that come with sexuality. In order to go around him, Masters and Gini meet with a journalist to try and dispel the notion black people have a different sexual makeup. By allowing black participants in the study, they can “let the facts speak for themselves,” and show that skin color is of little import in the bedroom.

Of course, “the facts” turn out to be more than Masters can handle. The journalist decides to paint a portrait of him that depicts instability and outrage at the system, hoping it will resonate with her readership. Masters is worried about the damage this will have on his reputation in the medical community, and sinks to using racist tactics in an attempt to stop the piece from going to print. I found this to be a little unbelievable, simply because Masters has always been a champion for minority groups and those that deviate from societal norms. Earlier in the episode, Masters tells Libby she’s overreacting when she says she feels unsafe around Coral’s boyfriend. Later, he tells the editor of the newspaper that he’s willing to print lies about the black community if the story is published. It just doesn’t add up.

Still, this plotline serves to highlight an issue that the real William Masters and Virginia Johnson had to face when getting their study off the ground. The two researchers did indeed bounce from hospital to hospital because no one was willing to take them seriously or abide by their terms. In the end, Masters is forced to realize that he is, in fact, outraged at the system. If he wants to get his study off the ground, he’s going to have to do it himself. He’ll lose the privilege and respect of being affiliated with a medical institution, but he’ll finally be his own boss.

Libby Masters has been in a perplexing state all season, fighting to have some sort of control over her life. Her power struggle with Coral has shown some disturbing behavior, but it’s clear that Libby feels like she’s losing her grip on her family. I’m not sure if she wants her husband to desire her, or to simply open up to her, but Masters is obviously not giving her what she wants. This week, Coral’s “boyfriend” Robert is revealed to actually be her brother, meaning Coral made up her story about how good of a lover he is to make Libby feel inadequate. Good on you Coral, although it’s pretty creepy that you talked about your brother like that.

Libby’s arc unfortunately also dips into unrealistic territory when she decides to follow Coral and Robert home with her baby in the car. Her actions don’t make any feasible sense, but they do allow for an interesting interaction between her and Robert that shows a glimpse of the intimacy she’s so desperately craving. The truth about Robert’s identity shocks Libby, but her real truth scares her even more. She has a void in her life that her husband hasn’t been able to fill for quite some time.

With all of this going on, “Blackbird” allows little time for Masters and Gini to appear onscreen together. When they finally do, however, it’s absolutely electric. In a brief scene, Masters comforts Gini in their hotel as she breaks down over Lillian. Lizzy Caplan and Michael Sheen display a perfect amount of chemistry as Masters helps Gini understand that it’s okay to let people in sometimes. Gini is able to seek solace in him, so much so that the two finally share their first kiss. For all the sexual experiences they’ve shared, they’ve never once locked lips before. Before their lips touch, however, Masters utters the words, “I know you.” It’s not “I love you,” but it’s pretty damn close.

This new level of intimacy is exciting, but also frightening. These are two people that have always been about their work, and suddenly they’re standing on completely new ground. It makes it all the more disheartening for Masters when he later goes to seek solace in Gini about their new career direction and is greeted at the door by her new beau (7th Heaven‘s Barry Watson). There’s no reason why Gini shouldn’t be dating—especially since Masters himself is a married man—but this news still comes as a low blow. Opening your heart to someone can be a wonderful experience, but it can also leave you feeling absolutely alone.

Despite some plausibility issues, “Blackbird,” proved to be another impressive entry in the season. This show has a knack for illustrating universal lessons without seeming pedantic, and while telling an utterly captivating story. If there’s anything to take away from this week’s episode, it’s this: life is way too short to pretend to be something you’re not, or keep yourself from something you want. Cheesy, I know, but it’s the honest truth. Grade: A-

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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