Masters of Sex Ep. 2.05: “Giants” brings racial issues to the fore

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Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 5, “Giants”
Written by Bathsheba Doran
Directed by Jeremy Webb
Airs Sundays at 10pm (ET) on Showtime

Pop the champagne corks and blow the kazoos, the sex study is back on!

…Or not quite yet. First, there’s the matter of Virginia wanting to ensure she has a contract at Buell Green. Then there’s the small matter of getting white study subjects and patients to be cool with going to an all-black hospital. The first issue is smoothed out over the course of the episode. The second? Not so much. Civil rights have some ways to go from where the show is (and in real life, but that’s a separate issue). And new character Dr. Hendricks, played by an energized Courtney B. Vance, is intent on pushing social norms past their breaking point. In a rousing, Martin-Luther-King-Jr.-name-checking speech at the episode’s climax, he implores Bill and Gini to embrace a mixture of black and white subjects in their study going forward. But then at the end, he’s revealed to be the one tearing down the flyers advertising the study. To what end? We’ll find out.

As expected, the change of locale has brought racial issues to the fore of Masters of Sex. Besides the A-plot, which sees its most heated moment in a nasty confrontation between a bigoted white man and a black man who did nothing more than look at his wife, there’s the continuing subplot of Libby being terrible to Coral. This episode confirms all our worst fears: Libby’s actions, more than simply motivated by her powerlessness in her personal life (though that’s certainly a factor), do indeed stem from racism. “My husband works in the Negro hospital!” she screams at Coral and her boyfriend Robert (whom Coral uses to lord Libby’s lack of a sex life over her) after her hideously botched apology to them, a ’50s variation on “I have black friends!” if there ever was one.

I said the same thing last week, but it’s truly a marvel how this show makes no bones about the prejudices its otherwise sympathetic white characters carry. I’ve read a lot of kvetching in online discussion over what’s happening with Libby this season, and I understand the distress; we’re seeing a character whom we were invited to feel nothing but warmth towards during the first season cast into a drastically different light. But I have faith that this is going somewhere interesting. It probably isn’t Libby seeing the error of her ways, but still. And the show is hardly painting her as a monster, or even casting her racism in black-and-white terms. Her attempted apology is badly bungled, but still sincere. And remember the widowed maintenance man with whom she danced in season one. She’s not the only character to get this treatment either — Gini can’t help but wonder at the differences she might see between “white sex” and “black sex,” much to Bill’s annoyance.

But Gini is more focused on finally having it out with Lillian, in a sequence that delivers the biggest emotional torque of the episode. We’re approaching an end for Lillian’s character, if this isn’t it already, and Julianne Nicholson is bowing out with just as much class and brilliance as she’s always shown on the series. The best part is that neither of them are completely wrong or right in their fight. Lillian has just cause to be concerned with Gini compromising herself in her sexual relationship with Bill, while Gini isn’t off in feeling that it should have nothing to do with her employment, because she deserves each step up she’s made, dammit. Still, she’s affected enough by Lillian’s words not only to ensure that she’s on equal terms with Bill in the eyes of the hospital, but also to demand he submit to her at their next hotel tryst.

And submit he does. Gini shows Bill what it feels like to be a subject. Not an observer or a recorder or a participant: a lone, scrutinized subject. She makes him completely vulnerable before her and eventually gets him to admit that he’s thinking about her when he masturbates. And then she lets him come to meet her, and he comes on his knees to pleasure her. It’s a spectacular scene, though its hurt by cable television’s hypocritical, all-pervading fear of showing a penis. Doing such a thing would have made Bill’s vulnerability truly palpable. Though the scene rebounds with a nice visual flourish at the end, as the camera pans away from Bill and Gini together to a mirror, empty save some luggage sitting on a bed. A portent of things to come?

The last big plot in the episode revolves around Betty, who appears to have settled the baby-related drama in her life with Gene, only for a completely new wrench to arrive in the form of her ex, Helen. Old-time mores of sexual preference join the racial issues in this episode. Betty and Helen are both torn between their yearning love for one another and their desire for stable, ideal lives. Betty feels she’s attained the latter (“I got gold faucets now. A hat for every day of the week. And I can eat beef bourguignon for lunch if I want.”), and the intrusion of her old life is a gnawing reminder that maybe it’s not what she really needs. Annaleigh Ashford is a rock star in this episode, from her tentative Broadway-styling apology approach on Gene to her tearful bathroom row with her ex. And Sarah Silverman matches her beat for beat as Helen. It’s annoying that even now, each time Silverman takes a dramatic turn, people are surprised by how great she is.

“Giants” is all about the influence people can wield over one another. It’s most evident in the Betty/Helen plot, but Libby and Coral’s continuing struggle and Bill and Gini’s silent wrestling match for dominance showcase it as well. Sexual politics and power go hand in hand, and Masters of Sex is as much about those who do and don’t have power and what they do with it (or their lack of it) as it is about sex. Not only is the sex study back on track, but it’s primed for a whole new power dynamic, both in its range of participants and behind the scenes. Let’s see where it goes next.

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