As their study blew up in their faces at the end of season one, Bill showed up on Virginia’s doorstep to dismantle their lives a little more. “I finally realized there’s one thing I can’t live without,” he told her. “You.” In the season two premiere, Bill is having his cake and eating it too, while the women around him make sacrifices for his happiness. With Bill out of work for much of the episode, Masters of Sex edges more towards Mad Men territory: it’s as much a time capsule of an era — full of what the time’s socially-accepted misogyny, racism, and homophobia — is it is a workplace drama dealing in debauchery. The former could land Masters of Sex in the modern TV canon eventually — that is, if Bill Masters wasn’t less relatable than Don Draper.
If season two’s promo images — with Bill and Virginia caressing in bed — weren’t enough of a spoiler, what transpires after Bill shows up at her door gets pretty steamy. Finally, sex between the two leads, on a show about sex, is hot — slow and tense, like they haven’t done it a million times. Without all the wires, it’s as though Bill’s a new man between the sheets. At the end of the episode, Virginia has a flashback to the scene, in which she answers questions Bill’s take cannot tackle.
In one particularly cheesy bit of post-coital dialogue, Virginia and Bill sum up the second season as it stands: “There are no instruments, no points on a graph,” he says. “How will we possibly interpret what’s happened here?” Virginia replies with a smile. Ethan calls at that moment (because of course he does), and she declines his marriage proposal on the spot, saying she can’t leave the area. “It is a rare man that could understand how a woman would choose work over love,” she coolly tells Bill when he asks about the reason. His smirk barely masks his sadness, the egomaniac wanted her to say it was all for him.
We have to see something different, or at least condensed, the second time Bill and Virginia’s big sex scene plays out. We see only what matters to Virginia, instead of the full story: Bill putting her name on the study; sex in which she is dominated to her pleasure; a tidy break-up with Ethan in which he calls her crazy for either loving Bill enough to stay, or pathetic enough to stay for a defunct study. Is it because of work, or because of love? Is she Lillian DePaul, or is she Libby Masters? The lines may never be clear again for Virginia, or at least viewers may never fully know her motivation. It’s bound to keep things interesting.
Flash forward to a hotel 30 minutes outside of St. Louis. “Dr. Holden” and his wife — i.e. Virginia and Bill — get a room. It’s revealed in the episode’s final scene that this has become a pattern under the auspices of “research,” since Bill is a “happily married man” who doesn’t want to “lead Virginia on.” “Of course we aren’t having an affair,” he tells her, attempting to mask his bruised heart. “We never were.” As Virginia agrees to the terms (“research,” that’s laughable), it’s a bit difficult to feel like Bill doesn’t always get what he wants. That’s at the crux of “Parallax,” along with the exploration of the good things Bill has in his life but does not appreciate: a doting wife and mother, a new son, a mistress who loves his work as much as he does, and soon enough, a new job and home for his research at Memorial Hospital. Bill Masters’ suffering stems not from what he doesn’t have, but rather, the things he has but does not want.
Virginia, meanwhile, lives with the study’s repercussions, which means being sexually harassed by doctors, shunned by secretaries, and selling diet pills to make ends meet. At one point in the episode, Dr. Langham is skewered by his wife in front of hospital staff and his kids, for sleeping with her sister. Unless the writers are aiming to flesh out Langham’s character this season, the horrified look on Virginia’s face explains why such a scene made the cut in the premiere. She’s the mother and the mistress, so she understands explicitly.
As for the new mom in Bill’s life, Libby immediately goes to work trying to find Bill a new job. She’s especially too-good to Bill now, post-baby, wearing some of her most glamorous ensembles yet and offering herself up socially to Memorial Hospital’s head of obstetrics, Dr. Greathouse. “All I’m asking for is two hours,” she says when Bill protests her leaving the house for a luncheon with Mrs. Greathouse. It’s hard to connect with Libby when she allows herself to be duped, though it’s becoming clear now by her line of questioning that she suspects Virginia and Bill may be more than colleagues.
In Libby’s absence, Bill cannot be bothered with his son, turning up The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” when John starts to cry. His mother, Essie, finds him like this and calms the baby. In yet another selfish move, he tells his mother to go, admitting to her that he sleeps with Virginia regularly and has no plans to stop. Michael Sheen gives one of the most horrifying performances of the series up to this point, via the brief monologue lobbed at his mother: “I am my father. You know it, and now my son knows it too. You know, the real magic here on some malevolent sleight of hand is I have also turned into you.” Masters is not just frigid, he is capable of being a monster.
When Libby returns, he sternly tells her they will never speak of his mother’s departure again, and that she should get to work hiring help right away. Is it bad that I’d like to see Libby pull a Margaret Scully this season and find sexual satisfaction in another man’s bedtime worship?
Across town, the Scully family is quietly suffering. Barton has just started traumatic electro-shock therapy. “We can beat this” talk abounds when he crawls into bed with Margaret. She puts down Lolita when he places her hand on his erection, but she knows he is trying to envision her as a boy when he flips her over. “Let me try it in my own way,” he pleads, but she can’t stand to let him take her one remaining sliver of womanhood away. It’s a telling scene that speaks to marriage’s immense sacrifices and ultimate breaking points. Barton doesn’t take the rejection well: he attempts suicide, and in the episode’s more horrifying moment, his wife and daughter catch him in the act and cut him down from the rafters. They keep quiet, even when Bill drops by the house.
For as dysfunctional as the Scullys are, Bill could stand to learn something about the protective nature of family from his former boss. The first episode of what is being touted as a more “intimate” season finds Bill turning into the villain and the hero.