Masters of Sex Ep. 2.06: “Blackbird” says a painful, beautifully intimate goodbye

Masters of Sex, S02E06, "Blackbird"

Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 6, “Blackbird”
Written by Eileen Myers
Directed by Keith Gordon
Airs Sundays at 10pm (ET) on Showtime

“Blackbird” is a frustrating episode, containing some series-high moments of emotional potency along with some utterly baffling decisions. The biggest disappointment is that after just two episodes at Buell Green, Bill and Gini are already leaving it behind. That and Libby firing Coral makes it seem as though the show may be done with exploring racial issues, at least for the moment. This is apparently true to the real-life experience of the Masters/Johnson study, which had difficulty finding a hospital to accept it for some time. Still, I’ll miss Dr. Hendricks. We’ll see where things go from here.

By now, it’s clear that the absence of the actual sex science, which has been the biggest recurring complaint lodged against the show this season (well, except for Libby’s horribleness, and we’ll get to that in a second), is a feature and not a bug. As mentioned above, the severe stall in the sex study has a historical basis. But more than that, this lull in the science allows the show to demonstrate all the ways it can go about its themes in ways that don’t relate to its initial “hook.” This is still very much a series about sex, intimacy, secrets, repression, social taboos, and how all of them and more interact. In place of the study’s centering effect is a common sense of flailing. Bill and Gini are grasping for stability. Libby is struggling as she feels more and more powerless. Betty and her husband watch their seemingly picture-perfect ’50s marriage collapse. The newly-divorced Langham (Remember him? Yes, he’s been AWOL for two episodes in a row now, but Teddy Sears is still a credited cast member!) advised that the best way to handle such situations is to steer into the skid, but no one is doing a very good job of that.

No one, that is, except perhaps Lillian, who is the shining gem of this episode. Informed by her doctor that she has little to look forward to in her life except a few more months of unpleasant radiation therapy, she opts to embrace the end and stop treatment. This mortifies Gini, who can’t imagine giving up on a fight — ever. The two have their final iteration of the same conflict they’ve had all season. Gini is an optimist, Lillian a pessimist. Or perhaps Gini is a dreamer, and Lillian is a realist. In any case, Lillian finds tremendous peace in settling on her fate.

This spurs on two separate scenes of harrowing intimacy, neither of which involve sexual contact. In the first, Gini talks about her frustrations over Lillian with Bill, and slowly realizes that she’s her best friend, and Bill comforts her, assuring her that he’s there for her. And then they kiss for the first time, the pretense that there’s anything platonic or scientific about their trysts briefly dropped. It’s a wonderfully romantic moment in a show that usually focuses on the opposite spectrum of attraction and relationships. But it’s the second intimate scene that truly shoots you in the heart. Gini goes to make amends to Lillian, talking with her about her life, putting her to sleep the same way she does her children, and doing everything she can to assure Lillian that there is one person left in the world who cares about her. It culminates in another kiss, the first chaste yet extraordinarily emotionally-charged same-sex kiss on TV that I can think of.

It almost feels too close to watch, like you’re intruding on something you shouldn’t. Julianne Nicholson has more than proved herself one of our most undervalued actresses with this performance, and she will be missed. Because of course, when Gini returns to Lillian’s house to retrieve a letter she left behind, she finds that she’s swallowed a heap of pills and is falling towards the end. And in one final stone to the stomach, Gini finally learns that this is where surrender is appropriate, and watches her friend die.

Incredibly, there’s other strong stuff in “Blackbird” as well. Betty and Gene’s story, though now almost entirely disconnected from Masters and Johnson, also lays bare its characters’ souls. Gene has finally figured out his wife, though she’s still in denial, stubbornly insisting that they can make things work. She can’t let go of Helen, but Helen isn’t willing to divide her life the way Betty has. But Gene isn’t interested in that kind of settling, in propping up an illusion. He’s possibly the most straightforward character on the show right now, and is all the better for it.

Bill’s storyline in the episode starts off intriguing before veering sharply into upsetting territory. In a refreshing change of pace, the mystery of why Dr. Hendricks has been sabotaging Bill’s efforts to get African Americans to participate in the sex study is resolved in a prompt manner. Better yet, Hendricks’ explanation makes perfect sense: given the unpleasant (to say the least) treatment that black people have received in scientific studies throughout history, he doesn’t want to be seen to facilitate any further abuse. Bill schemes to force Hendricks’ hand by going to a reporter, but this backfires when he learns that the article she plans to write will also be terribly unflattering to him. This leads to Bill going to her editor to attempt to kill the story, but he’s having none of it, even when Bill threatens to release bogus “findings” that would cast African Americans’ sexual practices in a gross, stereotypical light. But the editor calls his bluff, and Bill gets nothing for his trouble but a firing. Repeatedly throughout this episode, Bill’s attempts at manipulation that have worked in the past get shut down. Hendricks, the reporter, and the editor are all too used to bullshit from white people for them to buy it from him.

And then there’s Libby. I’m simultaneously riveted and repulsed by her storyline this season, which finally seems to be dragging her into the realms of cartoonishness. I really, really hope that this is the breaking point for her desperation over her isolation, because it seems to have long crossed the line of being bearable. Her latest humiliation, of learning that Coral’s “boyfriend,” whose sexual prowess she boasted about, is in fact her brother, leads to her firing the girl. Once again, there’s a moment between Libby and Robert in which it looks like she might edge towards decency, but she then pulls away in a panic. I get that there’s a complicated dynamic between Libby’s sexual frustration and a bizarre possible attraction towards Robert, but I think we’ve all had enough of this subplot by now.

But it’s going to be Gini making constellations out of Lillian’s freckles with her finger that we remember about “Blackbird.” It’s sad to say goodbye to Buell Green and Julianne Nicholson, but by now, Masters of Sex has more than earned our trust. Before firing Bill, Hendricks imparts one last bit of advice, reiterating that it’s better to jump into the ice than ease one’s way in. The sex study is the important thing, and that’s what Bill should concentrate on. This series can work just fine without it, but it will be exciting to see where further research takes its characters.

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