“I have seen more of you down there than anybody and I think your vaginal walls are beautiful.”
1950s pick-up lines, folks. Take note.
And so we’ve arrived at the season one finale of “Masters of Sex” with “Manhigh.” After months of work, Dr. William Masters is ready to give his presentation on his study. We get a glimpse into the life Ethan Haas would like to have, provided Virginia Johnson is at his side, and the Scully couple come to terms with what everyone besides Margaret knew all this time.
The episode begins at House Johnson with Ethan telling Virginia and the kids that he’s considering job options in Los Angeles, where he plans to travel. That means he gets to visit Disneyland, where Pinocchio lives. At least, that’s how the kids see it.
Next morning, Virginia awakens to find Ethan already long gone, but she does manage to find Henry engrossed in the adventures of Major David Simons, who is taking part in Project Manheim, which will send him into space. Henry watches with intense fascination, which makes sense. It was established early on that Henry was fascinated with comics, exploration and using things like zap guns, so real life space travel would capture his attention.
At the hospital, Jane and Libby go over seat arrangements for Bill’s presentation. In the hospital auditorium, Bill goes over his speech while Lester works on the camera. He manages to get Lester’s attention when he talks about males finding a link between excessive masturbation and mental illness, which says even more about Lester than we’ve learned before. When Jane and Libby come on with questions, Bill requests that copies of his study be handed out after the presentation and that martinis as opposed to punch be served. Maybe to make the participants a little tipsy and, as a result, more receptive, but as long as it works.
Meanwhile, Barton gets into a nice suit for the presentation when Margaret comes in with a newspaper- something she hasn’t done since the attack on Pearl Harbor. She read about a court case involving an office clerk in Vernon. The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously sentenced him to life imprisonment due to his ‘detestable and abominable perversions with a male teenager.’ Relevance? Well, Margaret just wonders if that could have been her husband. When Margaret brings up Dale, Barton just won’t talk about it, but he doesn’t have a choice now. No, Barton concedes, he and Dale did not sleep together that night. He just paid him is all.
Margaret asks if Barton ever had feelings for Dale. Barton admits his shame that he never stopped. He’s unable to give a total number, but they weren’t always for hire. The only one he ever loved was James Davenport, back during the summer before he went to college. It never changed how he felt about Margaret, but Margaret disagrees. After all, she was only 10 when he was 18. All those years she’s spent with him when she could have been with someone else are now gone. No problem, though. Barton’s been seeing a Dr. Ellenburg, who will help him solve the problem for good.
Dr. DePaul thanks Virginia for her outreach efforts in Tennessee, but Virginia’s looking further down the line. The two of them could start a forum on women’s health with the female employees. DePaul doesn’t see the need since maternity already agreed to institute pap smears. However, Virginia has stumbled upon another breakthrough: a doctor in Houston has a film about breast cancer. This ‘breakthrough,’ as DePaul already knows, is the work of Robert Egan. Egan did manage to locate cancer, but only after a mastectomy, not when the breast was still attached to a woman. Virginia presses on the Doctor to pursue it, but DePaul has her sights set on the Chancellor.
Bill meets up with Barton, who informs him that the Provost of Webster University will be attending the presentation. Good news, as outside interest will help the cause. Bill wants both Barton and Margaret to join him tomorrow night for dinner. Barton, given how Bill blackmailed him into continuing the study at the hospital, is hesitant, but Bill just wants to present a united front, so he needs Barton’s support. They will both be credited with the results of the study, so all the more reason for Barton to show up.
Elsewhere, Margaret meets up with Dr. Ellenburg, played by Robert Joy, to learn more about Barton’s plans. After being in the dark for so long, she wants to know about this so-called cure for Barton’s homosexuality. Dr. Ellenburg explains that Barton will undergo electroshock therapy, which Margaret is already familiar with. Though it could be painful, Barton could still receive anesthesia. The potential consequence is temporary or even permanent memory loss, but luckily, only four out of 100,000 have died.
To ease Margaret’s apparent tension, Ellenburg mentions other advances like shock aversion to the genitals, psychotropic drugs and, best of all, chemical castration! What fun, indeed. It’s all about what works best.
As Bill goes over his notes, in comes Jane to let him know that neither of them invited Virginia. Bill reminds Jane that Virginia quit, so whether she comes is not their concern, but Jane doesn’t accept that. Though Bill resents the implication, Jane is forceful and tells Bill that she put in a lot of work and probably won’t come unless he asks her. Despite Bill pushing back, Jane remains firm and just hands it off as a suggestion.
Bill, now distracted, leaves his office and runs into Virginia. An awkward moment ensues until Libby shows up and insists that Virginia come to the presentation. Virginia just gives them both her congratulations and walks off.
Dr. DePaul meets with Chancellor Fitzhugh and demands that she be given the same deal as Bill- she wants to be paid directly. Fitzhugh tells her that Masters has worked at the hospital for years and contributed much to the institution. Additionally, he’s seen the weekly reports that show the number of patients each doctor has, and DePaul only has 16. The Doctor responds with the claim that she’s last on a referral list for an OB-GYN, but Fitzhugh corrects her: she’s 12th on the list. Why? She’s not sellable to women. Fitzhugh brought in Dr. DePaul for her credentials and he assumed obstetrics would be receptive to the idea of female physicians. Quite the opposite, since women just don’t want another women looking up her skirt, save for DePaul’s patients. Fitzhugh has no doubt that DePaul provides her patients with the best care, but numbers don’t lie. If she wants more recognition, she should come up with something to grab attention.
Presentation time arrives and we get a brief run-in with Austin and Jane, who reflect on the fact that they were the first to take part in the study. They also ponder whether the two of them can continue once this is all done, but more on that later.
Bill scans the crowd from behind the curtain. Nervousness is etched all over his face as he watches people file in, but it’s time.
Today, Bill tells the crowd, is the culmination of a study 20 years in the making. And this will answer the questions of the curious folk who have had their stethoscopes pressed against the wall of exam room five. It’s time to share the groundbreaking discovery, but the audience doesn’t have to take Bill’s word for it.
186 volunteers, 458 acts of sex, all for the purpose of studying human sexuality. Sex has a pattern when stimulated. Bill walks the crowd through the four stages and disproves some myths: uncircumcised men do not have more control over their ejaculation and circumcision has no effect on an orgasm. It also doesn’t affect physical strength, so feel free to have a stroke before having a stroke on the green tomorrow. As for women, they can accommodate for smaller penises.
And for the most part, the crowd seems receptive to Bill’s presentation-
-until he presents the internal footage of Jane’s vagina. Now, no one knows it’s Jane, but this is the point where the audience begins to get uncomfortable. People shift in their seats, faces contort and it’s as if the oxygen is being sucked out of the room.
Bill said he planned to throw in everything, and he follows up on this promise with the external footage of another woman that Virginia, but not Jane, can identify. Bill focuses on the hand and feet contractions, the skin flush, erect nipples…
Yeah, that’s quite enough of that. Chancellor Fitzhugh shuts off the film and reprimands Bill for showing such smut to the hospital. After all, women are present! Slowly, the now repulsed attendants begin to empty and Bill is left with his work.
As Bill leaves, Barton tells him to give the people time to cool off, but Bill is too into his feelings. He lashes out at everyone, saying their negative reaction is a result of their resentment on his stature and position. Showing the footage didn’t exactly help Bill’s case, but Bill plans to just publish his study in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Journal. Better to pursue the work through established channels. Barton counters that the channels were inside during the presentation, causing Bill to lash out at him. He says once trouble is afoot, Barton is out the door.
But Barton doesn’t take that and he reminds Bill that, despite his doubts, he backed Bill because he believes the work is good.
Libby, meanwhile, is flooded with phone calls from folks who have choice words about the presentation. The mystery of the day is who filmed the naked woman, since it couldn’t have been Lester. It’s not his style, he says. He’s also concerned about his job, but Jane promises to back him for the good of science and the work they’ve all put into the study. Bill comes in and lets everyone know that he needs to make some phone calls. Libby lets Bill know that there’s been a cancellation for the dinner, but Bill is not concerned. After all, he says, no one wanted to hear about the theory of natural selection, either. Darwin was attacked by the church and science, but he persevered. So did Elvis, according to Lester, since he was accused of obscenity and now women can see his pelvis on Jailhouse Rock. So there’s that. Anyway, Bill needs some privacy, so he gives Jane and Libby the rest of the day off.
That evening, no one has shown up for the dinner. Libby tries to calm Bill and wishes that she had seen the film first. She would have advised against it since, let’s face it, the sight of a naked woman masturbating will shock people. Doctors see naked people all the time, yes, but they don’t see them having sex.
Libby then asks about the identity of the naked woman, since two doctors next to her thought it was Virginia. Bill laughs. Those doctors were probably just like the naughty schoolboys trying to catch a peek at the naked neighbor lady. Out of all the women Bill had for his study, Bill would choose Virginia? Makes no sense.
Libby agrees, since that would be a huge compromise of Virginia’s character. So while Libby may have answered her own question, Bill still hasn’t answered hers. His response is that she knows he can’t reveal such confidential information.
Of course, he could have just said that from the start.
Margaret and Barton discuss Dr. Ellenburg’s methods. Margaret found them primitive, but Barton is no fool: he won’t go for the chemical castration. He’s convinced that this is the right thing to do. But Margaret is concerned: what if he forgets things like how he never beat her in tennis or what Vivian’s singing voice? Even though Margaret has lost years by marrying a homosexual, those were still years spent with someone she loves. She doesn’t want him to go through with the procedure.
At the hospital, a petition is being circled to remove Bill from his position. As Jane and Virginia grab some food, a man next to them notes that yesterday’s film was more of Virginia than he needed to see. Jane, of course, lashes at the man for being so wrong, and Virginia is the same. He only wishes it was her.
Virginia then meets with Dr. DePaul. Virginia has been unable to sleep, so she read in Gynecology Journal about a man who worked on a pill for irregular menstrual cycles. Dr. DePaul is again two steps ahead of Virginia and confirms that it is the work of Gregory Pincus, who received funding by Margaret Sanger. In essence, it works as birth control, but the FDA only uses it for severe menstrual cycles. Many women claim they have such severe issues in order to get it despite the severe side effects.
But Virginia is just drawn to the idea of a contraceptive pill. It sounds revolutionary, but Dr. DePaul isn’t following. Virginia brings up the women’s forum again, but DePaul is focused on the now. After all, she’s operating on a clock and can’t concern herself with the future because she won’t be around for very long. What she does may be slow, but it’s honest work. She’s not interested in being a pioneer or doing something thrilling, which is something Virginia can’t entirely understand.
As rain falls, Barton informs Bill about the petition, which has signatures from board members, administrators and even people who didn’t see the presentation. They all want the study shut down. Bill has no intention of moving his study a second time, but Barton explains: the Chancellor and everyone there felt blindsided, humiliated and scared of all things. People just aren’t ready for naked bodies, especially the board. Heads must roll, so Fitzhugh is willing to dump Barton and Bill in order to save his own hide, regardless of how much money Bill has brought the hospital.
Meanwhile, Ethan has arrived in California and calls Virginia. He got an offer from UCLA, which changes everything. With optimism on his side, he decides to stop waiting: he declares his love for Virginia since day one and wants both her and the kids for good. When he drops the question, Virginia doesn’t have an answer.
Barton and Bill get grilled by Chancellor Fitzhugh, who rakes the study over the coals by calling it smut. He berates Bill for violating hospital standards for over a year, but Bill isn’t just sitting down and taking this. He points out that Fitzhugh was perfectly fine with the study when Bill helped bring in revenue and bolstered Fitzhugh’s position with the board. Not to mention Bill did give the hospital its obstetrics department, so he’s not just going to keep quiet. Fitzhugh concedes that he was wrong about Bill all this time. After all, Bill has been given too much rope to hang himself with due to Barton, who was too weak to stop him.
But then Bill shifts gears and tells Barton that if he had supported him from the start, none of this would have happened. Bill came to Barton years ago with a plan to crack human sexuality, but Barton said no. He just couldn’t see in the future and the accolades they would have received, so Bill went behind his back and used exam rooms and money not for fertility research, but sex.
Fitzhugh seems to buy it and believes that Barton has been hoodwinked, swindled, bamboozled and so on. So he leaves the decision in Barton’s hand, and that decision is to fire Bill.
At House Masters, Libby gives a woman some food that she’s donating to the Urban League, but when the woman starts to leave, Libby goes into labor. Libby immediately decides to call Bill’s office…
…oh, come on, Jane! The phone rings just as Jane leaves the office, so the woman decides to take Jane to the Negro hospital.
Barton and Bill drink their sorrows at a bar. At least Barton gets to keep his job, which Bill says was the only thing to do so they both wouldn’t be thrown to the wolves.
Back at the hospital, Jane ponders her future and tells Lester how embarrassed she feels for showing herself. She then wonders if that was the reason for the negative response to the study. Lester now comes to her defense, stating that he loved the inside of her body. Everything about her is just perfect.
So yeah, they share a quick kiss just before Virginia enters. And Lester insists he has to leave. Virginia and Jane discuss Bill’s firing, Virginia noting that there are many things Bill can live without, but the study is not one of them. Before Virginia leaves, Jane gives her a copy of the study.
Continuing with the bar misadventures of Barton and Bill, Barton lets Bill know that he still plans to go through with the electroshock therapy and is hiding that from Margaret. He’s convinced he did two things right: Bill and his family. Bill, like Margaret, warns Barton about the apparent risks, but Barton knows the reward can make him a new man. He’s admitting himself tomorrow and will exit as a man ready to seek his future with his loving wife. He tells Bill to go home.
But before Bill can do so, he makes a quick stop back to his office, only to find the locks have already been changed. A nearby security guard, played by Blake Robbins, tells Bill that he doesn’t want to have him escorted out, so Bill exits in his own way: smashing one of the windows with a fire extinguisher.
Elsewhere, Libby has given birth and produced a child, but she holds off on calling Bill.
Back at House Johnson, Virginia sits down to read the study. And, in a move that everyone should have seen coming, Virginia sees that Bill did indeed put her name on the study. A knock on the door gets her attention and she opens it to find Bill.
He tells her point blank that she earned her name on the study. He then says that aside from Barton, no one believes in the work. Virginia admits that she does, but wonders if Bill does.
Bill, however, looks resigned to the fact that the study is over. He has nothing to offer Virginia except the truth. There’s one thing he can’t live without, and it’s Virginia Johnson.
Well, that was a season.
Like “Fallout,” “Manhigh” is about consequences. As Ms. Frizzle says on The Magic School Bus, it was about taking chances, making mistakes and getting messy. In fact, the last few episodes have dealt with consequences, but this had the task of leaving enough room open for those issues to be resolved by the second season, but keep viewers wanting more.
Much of what happens this week is a result of characters taking a leap of faith and hoping they’ll land on their feet. Whether it’s Dr. DePaul trying to assert herself and work to the Chancellor, Barton going through with the therapy behind Margaret’s back, or Bill, having reached his highest point so far, crashing down to Earth in light of his presentation, this episode dealt with people, and society in general, not being ready for radical changes.
Some people are comfortable and complacent moving at a steady pace. They don’t like things to change so suddenly because, to them, change isn’t always a good thing. But William Masters and Virginia Johnson are anomalies in a sea of normalcy. “Brave New World” touched on the fact that they were never fine with being in one place, but wanted to push the envelope. That idea clashes with the complacency that so many folks here exhibit, but I’ll touch upon that later.
Let’s start with Ethan, who certainly got a fast response on employment, given how he was still in-between jobs last week. This week he seems to exist for the purpose of setup for next season when the door is left open in regards to his relationship with Virginia.
I’ll say this about Ethan: he appears to be more comfortable expressing his feelings for Virginia than he was with Vivian, with whom he seemed to stumble his way around that short lived relationship. When he proposes, it’s on his own terms instead of it being dragged out.
I know I won’t shut up about Vivian, but I really feel like that entire arc, and her character, was wasted since Ethan’s reasons for breaking up with her, so he could consider his faith and have something of his own, have never been addressed. It makes me wonder what the point of the religious angle even was if it’s not even going to be brought up. It felt like just a forced way to get Ethan back on Virginia’s radar and I don’t like that because all Vivian wanted was to be happy, and she was willing to do whatever it took. You could say she was being a people pleaser, but her feelings for Ethan felt genuine.
All right, whatever, so we’re to accept that Ethan has loved Virginia since day one. Apparent contradictions and declaring just the opposite aside, I find it funny how Ethan has flip-flopped when it comes to relationships. At first, he was with Virginia, but then that ended. Then when he was with Vivian, he said he and Virginia were done as far as their friendship goes. Now they’re back together and it’s as if the fallout from their brief relationship never existed. You’d think Ethan had always been there to help out Virginia with the kids.
So naturally, Ethan would want Virginia and the kids to accompany him. After all, like he told Langham, a wife stays with a man despite his shortcomings. A wife, which Virginia is not. She’s a free spirit and does what she wants. Despite the hardship of having two kids, a job and taking classes, she’s managed to weather her situation and come out on top. It’s been challenging, but she never succumbed to pressure. She can handle herself, but Ethan told Virginia that whatever life she wanted to have was hers. Like Bill and Virginia, Ethan is looking to the future, but his seems to be hinged on what Virginia will do.
It’s like Ethan paid no attention to what George told him about Virginia. Virginia is ambitions. If she wants something, she’ll go after it, regardless of what some man wants. She’s not shackled down by anything or anyone- she knows that she can get what she wants to attain. But Ethan seems to be of the mindset that she needs his help. Hey, at least he’s more assertive than he was with Vivian. Like last week, I do like Ethan’s relationship with Henry and Tessa. Even though it’s clear that they both do still care for George, they’ve grown fond of Ethan and treat him as a member of the family. Not too shabby when you consider Tessa at first didn’t like Ethan since he was a doctor that could give shots.
Let’s move to Lester and Jane now, who I put together for a particular reason that I’ll get into in a moment. Lester has slowly become one of my favorite characters for the simple reason that he’s not here as the prerequisite techie. He doesn’t exist solely to talk about technology, but given a personality. Between his constant talk of the auteur theory, Elvis and masturbation, Lester is quirky and awkward, but charming. Also, his knowledge of film and camerawork has made him an integral part of the study because he’s helping bring the visual world of human sexual response to the public.
And I like that he shows concern for both Bill and the study that he now has a hand in. It shows that this is now more than just extracurricular filming for him. He seems to respect Bill not just for his work, but for wanting to explore the mysterious and interesting.
Side-note, given how quickly he admitted to Mama Masters that he masturbated, how he insisted that he had to leave the office after kissing Jane and the concern plastered on his face when Bill mentions a link between excessive masturbation and mental illness, you have to wonder just how much Lester likes to pound one out. Not judging, though.
Maybe Jane rubbed off on him in more ways than one. Jane, whose had just as much of a personal experience in this study as Virginia has, came far from the woman who was at first hesitant about the study. I’m impressed by how quickly she’s settled into the secretary role in Virginia’s absence. Her banter with Libby makes it feel as if they’ve been working together for the entire year. More than that, she’s more willing to challenge Bill when it comes to Virginia. Despite Bill resenting the implication that he needs to invite Virginia to his presentation, Jane stands firm and doesn’t falter. Like Virginia, she’s not just a ‘Yes’ person and won’t roll over just to end a conversation.
Jane has a stake in this study due to her own involvement. Her body has been on display for the entire hospital to see. The revelation in “Brave New World” that she could climax when someone touched her breast kicked off even more discoveries for not just her, but Bill and Virginia. She knows what type of sex she wants to have and why. I could see Jane staying on in the secretarial position for awhile not just because Bill needs a secretary, but she has a lot of experience to offer. And the fact that she’s willing to defend the study to anyone who questions it shows she doesn’t see it as smut.
Now as far as Jane and Lester together goes, I suppose this sort of makes sense. Lester isn’t kidding when he says he’s seen more of Jane below the waist than most people in the hospital. Because of Lester, Beav St. Marie got to meet the camera for its close-up. That, the kiss they shared on “Fallout” shows the slow development of an office romance. Lester is like the lab geek who would never in his life get laid, while Jane is the blonde that every man wants. Sounds stereotypical because it sort of is, but my issue is that this bond is only a result of the study, not any sort of outside forces. We haven’t seen them interact outside of the hospital or during work.
With something like Austin and Margaret, we witnessed their initial connection and followed them through several moments where they bonded and grew closer. Here, you get the impression that Lester is smitten with Jane, but Jane seems to like Lester for his honesty and because he’s nice. But then, how often do nice guys get the girl? I don’t have a major issue with this, if it does develop, but it looks like a way to keep Lester involved.
Briefly on Austin Langham, who isn’t given much to do this week. With Jane and Lester supposedly a thing, it doesn’t look like there’s a chance that Austin will rekindle his fling with Jane. During “Fallout,” it looked like Austin and Margaret would give their fling a second chance, but it’s not brought up at all this week. So now we’re left wondering what Austin will do, if at all, come Season 2.
Dr. DePaul seems to think a lot of the world is against her, but as we learn this week, that is just not the case. First off, I appreciate that how knowledgeable DePaul is of the medical world around her. For each time Virginia brings up some new medical revelation, Dr. DePaul already knows the procedure, who’s responsible and the effects the revelations have had on women. This is a woman who worked hard to climb the medical ladder and it shows that once she made it, she didn’t stop learning.
However, Dr. DePaul did slow down as far as her work goes, and she’s perfectly fine with that, but not Virginia. DePaul can’t understand why Virginia is so eager to push the envelope or discover something new. As DePaul reminds us, her life is on a clock. She won’t be around to see the fruits of her labor, so it’s understandable why she would want to focus on one thing and do that to the best of her ability. Even if it means missing the chance to pioneer a revolution in the oncoming sexual revolution, Dr. DePaul chooses to stick to honest, methodical work because that’s where her passion lies.
Dr. DePaul is looking at this from a technical standpoint, not practical. Like Bill, she prefers to work by the book. If she knows she won’t be alive for a long time, better to master one objective instead of devoting her time to several. When she speaks to the Chancellor about wanting Bill’s deal, it still feels as if the Doctor has a chip on her shoulders toward men. She claims that she’s last on a referral list for an OB-GYN, but she’s not. She wants the deal Bill has without putting the years into the hospital that he has. And she thinks that outside forces are the reason for women not coming to her, when she is the very reason women won’t take her. It’s not sexism, but results: women don’t want other women looking up their skirts.
Dr. DePaul sort of boxes herself in. Her serious tone turns people off and makes her unmarketable. You have to consider the mindset of women in the 1950s: they’re not going to a doctor to have another woman examine them- they want a man to do it. But hey, at least Dr. DePaul is persistent in her efforts. Chancellor Fitzhugh may regret his words when he told DePaul he needed something exciting to gain people’s attention.
Like Jane, I do like how assertive Dr. DePaul was this week. Rather than just accept the Chancellor’s words about her, she challenges him, though she learns the uncomfortable truth that women just aren’t into her.
And on that note of not being into women, let’s move to the Scullys. Beau Bridges and Allison Janney are, again, excellent in their portrayal of a couple wracked with secrets and letdowns. The shock on Margaret’s face when Dr. Ellenburg describes the procedures show that while she’s not a fan of Barton’s homosexuality, she does care for his life. After all, she may have lost 30 years being married to a queer, as she puts it, but Barton still cares for Margaret. She is willing to accept who he is if it means he keeps his life and memories intact. The pain of loss is apparent in her voice when she’s incensed about the time she could have spent with a man who wanted to make love to her. Again, Margaret is assertive not just through her decision to visit Dr. Ellenburg on her own, but when she presses Barton to discuss his homosexuality when he does not want to.
I think back to what Margaret told Dale in “Love and Marriage:” you can and will feel like a failure when the person you thought you loved begins to lose interest. You don’t feel whole anymore, like going through surgery. And now here we are with Barton contemplating surgery that has the potential of killing him.
Another brief aside, what happened to the idea of divorce? I mean, Margaret seemed confident when she told Barton they had to divorce. Maybe the small talk Margaret had with her girlfriends during “Fallout” changed her mind? I dunno. Something that was bugging me.
Oh, and Vivian is relegated to a simple mention in the episode. What a shock. At least Margaret acknowledged her.
I like to think that Barton’s journey to this point is the culmination of the life he spoke of to Bill during the flashbacks in “Standard Deviation.” Back then, he told Bill that to be a successful doctor, he needs a perfect family image, but to lead an unconventional life, you have to hide in plain sight.
Many years later, Barton’s homosexuality is now in plain sight, yet he still believes the two best things he did in his life are Bill and his family. I like the mentor-student bond between Barton and Bill. The look on Barton’s face when Bill falls on the sword for him is telling, that Bill would do anything to protect his mentor. After all, when Barton was attacked in “All Together Now,” Bill stitched him up and warned him about continuing his unconventional life when it could harm both him and his family.
Throughout the season, Barton has taken many risks. Of course we know he risked his life through being a gay man in the 1950s, he risked his reputation when he allowed Bill to conduct the study at the hospital, and he risked being outed earlier than expected when Bill threatened to blackmail him if the study was not allowed to continue. Here he’s taking his life into his own hands, pretty much saying “Screw the consequences.” I get the feeling that Barton really does want to be a loving, devoted husband. Barton told Dale point blank that their relationship was nothing more than a business transaction and it’s clear that he isn’t proud of who he is, but instead of giving the finger to society, he’s giving the finger to safety. We can only hope he’s careful about this.
Barton is great here as support for Bill when the presentation backfires. He fights back when Bill accuses him of backing down at the first sign of trouble. He also knocks Bill down a peg when Bill accuses his colleagues of being jealous of his reputation. Normally, Virginia would be the one to bring Bill down to Earth, but from the start, we’ve seen Barton as a mentor to Bill, so it makes sense that he would be there to help Bill up when he’s fallen.
And that brings us to Bill and Virginia. You know, let’s start with Bill, and by extension, Libby.
First off, Michael Sheen still commands this role and is excellent as a doctor who, at times, has his head in the clouds. There’s plenty to dislike about William Masters, but I admire his tenacity. The presentation is the result of a year’s work filled with ups and downs, having the study moved to a brothel, Libby’s miscarriage, Virginia quitting, Flora becoming pregnant through Austin, and now being fired.
Think back to the end of “Catherine.” Virginia told Bill that he’s fallible and cannot foresee everything. Here, he’s taken all of the precautions necessary to see that the presentation goes smoothly. He overestimates his audience and thinks that they’re as forward thinking as he and Virginia are. He may be able to predict how his subjects will react, but not people who a naked masturbating woman as smut instead of science. Not sure why the audience was fine talking about penis size, but not talking about girls. I don’t know. Maybe if Bill had shown a man masturbating on film, the presentation would have ended sooner, but let me get back on topic. The people just aren’t ready to handle breasts! Bill wanted a hook to grab the public’s attention and he certainly got it.
And to go back to Sheen’s performance, he goes from making Bill looking completely unlikable to very sympathetic when he’s hit a low point. Bill doesn’t intend to offend, he wants to educate. He wants to push the envelope. He and Virginia were so enthralled about the footage of the inside of Jane’s vagina since they were the first to see it, but they’re doctors. Naked bodies, even the interior, aren’t shocking to them in particular, but then, the entire study has been about sex. The rest of the world doesn’t share Bill’s enthusiasm and he, at first, blames everyone else for being jealous of his stature. He’s living in his own world and can’t see things the way they are.
Those ego issues from earlier in the season are still prevalent when he can’t accept people not being ready to take sex head on. Heck, even his own wife saw that. Bill told Libby that there’s always something to prove, but there’s also always something to lose, too. And Bill has lost the study and credibility among his colleagues. The brand new world he sought is now weighing down upon him.
Even more so, his home life isn’t exactly shaping up for the best. It really is odd how Bill wouldn’t just tell Libby from the start that he can’t reveal the identity of the masturbating woman. Instead, he dances around the question and tries to turn it back on Libby, all without actually answering the question.
Again, Bill’s intelligence doesn’t make up for his naïveté and he’s slowly distancing Libby away from him. It all began when she stayed in Miami and imagined a life without him and now we have her giving birth to a child and holding off on giving Bill the good news.
Now that Bill is without his study, he’s broken and takes solace in the one woman who seems to know and understand his feelings more than everyone else. Bill does need Virginia, but in order for it to come from his own mouth instead of Essie or Virginia, he had to be brought to his knees on his lowest moment so far. There’s no separating emotion and sex, Bill now knows, so no point in trying to pretend. He’s lost the study and there’s nothing he can offer Virginia, so he may as well be honest with her.
Then, of course, we have Virginia.
You know, let’s start with Project Manheim since Virginia and Henry were so engrossed with it. Virginia tells Henry that, like the people who helped David Simmons into space, helpers are needed for great things. No longer just a woman trying to complete her education, Virginia has earned the right to have her name printed on the study alongside Bill’s. So many times she compromised her position for the good of science or the study. She shares Bill’s ambition for pushing the envelope, which is something she won’t get if she continues working under Dr. DePaul, and has established both a professional and personal relationship with him that other men just cannot reach.
For example, early on in the episode, after Virginia and Ethan have sex, they just go straight to bed. With Bill, however, we’ve seen the two of them engage in playful banter or make observations about their performance. Ethan may be a decent stand-in for George Johnson, but he doesn’t have the passion or flair that Bill does. That passion is like gravity, give it a little push and things will start to happen. And whether it was Bill’s initial proposal that he and Virginia take part in the study with each other, much has happened over the course of the season. Virginia has an awakened sense of adventure and pioneering, which is evident through her enthusiasm about the possibility of a birth control pill. It’s a novel concept she wants to follow and I’d argue that characters like Bill and Jane helped steer her in that direction. Virginia has slowly become Bill’s echo more than his own wife and baby have.
Also, considering how Virginia began as just a secretary and worked her way up to research assistant, it’s a huge deal to have her name printed on something that has the potential to be groundbreaking. The move helps reestablish the trust that Bill shattered by giving Virginia money for her participation, but it also shows her importance to the work. It may also wash away any anger Virginia had toward Bill for showing the film of her that they shot at the end of “Involuntary.” After Dr. DePaul constantly saying that Virginia managed to get by on other assets, her name on the study validates her intellect and puts her and Bill on equal footing. Also, given the fallout Bill suffered during the presentation, it may have helped that Bill didn’t mention Virginia unless he wanted to drag her down with him.
What Virginia will do next is uncertain. While life with Ethan may provide stability, it doesn’t offer the adventure or discovery that comes through Bill and his work. Or she could take her time and take Dr. DePaul’s slow, but methodical approach that will benefit many. Whatever she chooses, she’ll tough it out with the same determination that’s brought her from a single mom trying to raise two kids to a research assistant with her name attached to a study about human sexual response.
In my opinion, “Manhigh” was a strong end to the season. It showed William Masters at his lowest moment, but events like Ethan’s new job, Libby’s baby, Lester and Jane’s kiss or Henry’s excitement about space travel showed the positive side on an episode that brought Bill to the stratosphere and plummeting down to Earth like a fireball. Writing-wise, the blend of drama and humor was well executed with memorable lines such as Bill being able to spot a statistically average masturbator from a mile away. In a season that had some missteps, contrivances and plot points that went nowhere- Libby and Lester’s tango sessions, Vivian’s subplot- the main storylines were well developed and helped bring this study of sexual response from behind the walls of exam room five and into a world that better prepare itself as William Masters and Virginia Johnson no doubt plan to continue making their mark.