I think knowing what happened to the real William Masters and Virginia Johnson is really changing the way I am experiencing the show. Since this week’s episode, Phallic Victories, focused heavily on Virginia and her new roles as Lillian’s assistant and Ethan’s girlfriend, I am having a hard time participating in these storylines because I know they are all going to fall apart eventually. Even though I have been rooting for them all along, I can hardly watch the sweet, romantic scenes between Virginia and Ethan without picturing Ethan’s still-beating heart lying on the floor, ripped from his chest, as Virginia steps over it to go back to Bill. That is the reality of the situation; history can’t be unwritten. And it doesn’t much matter how charming a team Lillian and Virginia make; we know that is going to end as well. It wasn’t called the DePaul and Johnson study, after all. This episode had some beautifully wrought and poignant moments, yet I can’t help but feel like I am borrowing trouble by investing in these storylines because the tension building throughout the season must find release soon (if you will pardon the expression) since we are only one away from the season finally. That spells disappointment for those of us who are happy to see Ethan playing house with Virginia and her kids and Virginia playing Girl Friday to Lillian.
The disappointment will be acute, as this episode frivolously made some promises upon which I know they won’t be able to follow through. Bill and Virginia are completely estranged, unable to even say hello to each other in the elevator, and Bill seems to be falling apart without her, professionally and personally. Planning to present his study results for his colleagues at the hospital, he is openly distracted and terribly grouchy, ignoring Libby altogether and yelling at Jane,
calling her Vir-Jane. He is imagining Virginia, fantasizing intellectual exchanges, as he tries to think through his work and his presentation, and it is here that it seems Bill is not that interesting without Virginia. The only time we ever see who Bill really is, is when Virginia has to tell us, and even though technically it is Bill who is the author of these fantasies, it is through Virginia and her voice that we get to know Bill. Even when Libby comes to work in Bill’s office to help Jane, we still don’t see him through her eyes. In fact, he is so disconnected to her that I was rooting for the new doctor for a love interest for Libby. She is like the new kid at school in every scene, and the show needs to give her something to act around, besides a pregnant belly. Hopefully, her questions about the couple from the files will give her something interesting to do in future episodes.
Without Bill, however, Virginia shines on the two-day bus trip to a medical conference with Lillian. No longer trapped behind her sexuality by Bill and his feelings for her, the dynamic (although we know it is short-lived) between Virginia and Lillian is charming and goes a long way to shed light on how the show feels about female dynamics. They are a little heavy handed in hammering about the discriminatory practices in medicine and how unfair a world it is for women, however. Does anybody really need to be reminded that much that the 1950s was an oppressive time for women? Each episode is so heavy laden with historical recap that it feels a bit unnecessary at times, yet the scene in which Virginia and Lillian arrive too late to the conference could have sufficed as the only political comment, as the two women discuss penis envy; Lillian is rife with it, feeling betrayed by her anatomy (but we know that probably has more to do with her cancer than anything), yet Virginia has no such longing to be a man, viewing her feminine characteristics as gifts with which she can get whatever she wants – even among women. The theme of sisterhood, rarely discussed in this series, becomes more prevalent as these two pair up, evidenced by their wooing of the doctors’ wives. Lillian sees something in Virginia, and as they ride home, Lillian hints at turning over her work to Virginia after she dies. This is such an intriguing turn of events, but we know it is for nothing because Virginia (as history dictates) will return to Bill sooner or later.
When she does return to Bill, what is to become of the world’s best boyfriend Ethan? He has settled into playing house quite nicely with Virginia and her children and even stays with them while Virginia goes to the conference. He even has a man-to-man chat with Virginia’s ex George about stepping up to the plate to do the job of father, and confesses he is going to ask Virginia to marry him and move away with him when he finds a new job elsewhere. He is in deep, and as much as I want to root for him, we know how it’s going to end. He is standing on the train tracks, and the Bill/Virginia machine is bearing down on him. I can’t look away, even though I know he is going to get creamed.
With only one episode left, expect next week’s episode to be explosive and dramatically climactic. I will leave you with my wish list: I hope Barton and Margaret settle their stuff, stay married and continue to have sex with whoever they want. The world doesn’t need another divorce. I hope Ethan finds a way to stay at the hospital (and if we are really talking turkey, I wish he and Libby would find their way together after they each get their heart broken by Virginia and Bill, respectively), and lastly, I hope Virginia stays with Lillian long enough to see them form a true friendship, so I can
truly mourn Lillian when she dies.