Masters of Sex Season 2, Episode 10: “Below the Belt”
Written by Bathsheba Doran and Eileen Myers
Directed by Adam Arkin
Airs Sundays at 10pm (ET) on Showtime
“Everyone has their own version of everything that’s ever happened.” There’s more weight and truth to these words Ann Dowd speaks than in any of the many speeches she got to deliver in The Leftovers. It’s an easy sentence to seize upon as a master key to interpreting the ideas in “Below the Belt,” but “easy” doesn’t mean “unintelligent.” It’s there from the opening scene, in which Gini confesses to her psychiatrist that she’s set all their sessions up as a charade to try to help Barb. It’s in the fundamental misunderstanding between Langham and Flo about the nature of their new sexual relationship. And of course, it’s at the heart of the episode’s biggest conflict, as Bill and Frank clash over whose version of their past is the truth.
Bill has been on a downward spiral this entire season. It began in earnest after “Blackbird”, when he discovered Gini had a beau, but it was really set in motion before then, before the season itself, really. He’s been flailing ever since the day he tried to proudly present the results of his study to his colleagues at Washington University, only for them to either laugh at or scorn him. He alludes to those events in this episode, his terror plainly evident at the idea of experiencing such humiliation again. More than anything else, Bill craves respect, and he’s been feeling it in short supply lately. And that’s combined with the humiliation of his inability to perform sexually. And now that is combined with the intrusion of his brother, whose presence reminds him of the past, which is the reason he’s so screwed up in the first place.
Frank is a fascinating character. He seems truly to be in a better place than he once was, but at the same time, he’s been made worse by AA in certain respects. He can’t help but filter everything he sees through the lens of who is and isn’t an alcoholic now, leading him to make the baffling claim that both his mother and brother also suffer from the disease. Every move he makes is simultaneously well-intentioned and laced with accusation. We saw it last week, when he brought Bill along to the AA meeting, only to try to use it to force a conversation between them. We see it this week in his horrifically loaded “I forgive you for leaving me” statement, a backhanded “forgiveness” if there ever was one. He’s far from the model AA member.
And yet AA ideology, or at least some of its ideas, permeate Bill’s descent. This is him “hitting bottom,” as they say. The abortive attempt to get him and Frank to sort things out instead ends with him goading Frank into acting like their father, giving in to savagery. And yet, after his (well-deserved) beating at Frank’s hands leaves him bloodied and bruised, he crawls back to Gini, admits that he’s the monster, and confesses “I give up.” So now there’s nowhere to go but up, right? Right? At the very least, the two of them make some headway on treating his impotence in this episode.
Bill and Frank’s story looms large, while all other concerns are thoroughly relegated to subplots. Gini sort of bounces around between different threads. The way the episode begins, with her conversation with the psychiatrist, makes it seem like the focus will be on her, but that proves not to be the case, though she’s still wonderfully present here (her mesmerizing session with Bill and her deeply uncomfortable conversation about deception with Libby being the standouts). Meanwhile, Libby continues to work her way up at CORE, despite the justified resistance of, well, pretty much everyone there. By the end though, Robert holds at least a smidgen more respect for her, since she handles herself well in canvassing the Pruitt-Igoe projects (by the way, the story behind Pruitt-Igoe is an essential piece of history in American housing ideology. Check out the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth to learn more).
For the first time, Betty is not given much to do, while Langham has his own B-story. And it’s a strange one. Flo (whom I can still only see, and might only ever be able to see, as Artemis from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia somehow transported in time) coerces him into a sexual relationship, the threat of firing him hanging over his head. Is this some kind of weird karmic backlash against Langham’s ruthless womanizing? Is it a purposeful twist on the cliched ’60s idea of the male boss extracting sexual favors from a female employee? Whatever the case, it feels more like an excuse to give Langham (who is, remember, one of the main cast, for who knows what reason) something to keep busy, rather than an organic development.
The final notable thread in “Below the Belt” belongs to Lester and Barb, who, as many viewers predicted, are able to bond over their mutual sexual frustrations, although this comes after some unpleasant theological debate. Their dueling worldviews reinforce the episode’s main theme — theology (or lack thereof) is, after all, the biggest “version of events” that a person can have. The two of them are able to end up on friendly terms despite their initial friction, which is a small boost of hope that Bill and Frank might someday have their own reconciliation. Now that he’s at his lowest, Bill certainly seems primed for it.
Another glimpse of the future comes in the form of Bill and Gini’s meeting with a “PR man” (played by Adam Arkin, who also directed the episode), which foreshadows how the pair will eventually reach a national spotlight: by playing the role of a couple there to teach America how to have sex. Bill is resistant to the idea of going on television, but the titles of the final two episodes of the season (“One for the Money, Two for the Show” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) suggest that it’s happening anyway. Despite the season’s overall lack of focus, it might now have the direction it needs to carry it through the finale.