Whether for better or worse, “Blackbird” had characters making decisions for themselves, no matter how unpopular or painful. The episode continued the more serious themes of self-destruction and tragedy that Masters of Sex has brought since the second season premiered. At the end of the day, very few people came out as winners.
The episode begins during a session between Bill and Virginia. And unlike Libby, Bill at least looks Virginia in the eye.
Lillian meets with a radiologist, Gibb, played by Doug Tompos, and tells him all about her troubles: the radiation burns, she’s encountered nausea, has reduced cognitive functions and is losing weight, just to name a few. Gibb, however, pays her no mind and focuses on the work.
In the waiting room, Virginia speaks with Priscilla, played by Jessica Randle, about moving a conflicting afternoon appointment, as it’s easier for Virginia to bring Lillian in the morning. Priscilla refuses to budge, but out comes Mariel, who is down two sizes since Virginia last saw her. Even though most times are all booked, Mariel may be able to work something out.
At Buell Green, Virginia shows a Negro orderly named Althea the Q&A that she and Bill used with their White patients. Althea is interested in whether different positions will help her and her husband be more intimate. Even though Althea would like to join, however, Virginia learns that Dr. Hendricks has forbidden staff from taking part in the study. Is that so?
So Bill and Virginia confront Hendricks not just about his promise, but also for taking down their fliers. Hendricks assumed that Masters and Johnson would be bringing their own White subjects only. Bill is against this and follows Hendricks into the men’s room to vent.
Hendricks holds firm and tells Bill about the history of medical research in the Negro community. Negroes have been forced to undergo risky experimental surgeries where they’ve been dosed with radiation or cut open to find brain abnormalities that would explain their propensity to violence. You know, completely standard and acceptable procedures. Some Blacks even thought they required a near lethal dose of X-Rays to penetrate their skins. Watching them copulate is pushing it. Bill counters that his subjects know beforehand what’s expected of them. Bill, however, has never seen a lynching. Hendricks has. Negroes were routinely castrated before being strung up, partially due to fear based on stereotypes. This study will help dispel that.
Bill already has enough of a headache without trying to change history on two fronts. There’s a journalist from a local Negro newspaper coming to verify a rumor about the hospital exploring Negro sexuality, even though that’s still moving history forward. Hendricks is all for moving history forward, just not by having his hospital burned to the ground. Hey, the riots broken out yet, pal!
Betty speaks to Chef Philippe, played by Matt Crabtree, about scrumptious servings before speaking with Gene, who thinks Betty is killing herself over this stuff. But Betty has good reason to be anxious: Gene’s pretzels are going to every food fair in the country. That’s a pretty big deal. Gene, however, has been thinking: Betty not being able to have kids was hard on him, and he tried to get used to the adoption idea, but he can’t. He wanted their children to be a part of Betty, and Betty in them. Even if Betty frustrates the hell out of Gene, he’s happy with just her.
While folding laundry, Libby watches Robert and Coral like they’re about to commit a crime. She asks Bill about his talk with Hendricks regarding Negro participants. Bill still believes that Hendricks is wrong. Taboos only feel dangerous until they’re broken. He plans to find the journalist and convince them of the value of the work. Libby, not paying Bill any mind, wonders aloud of Robert and Coral just put on an act when she’s present. Bill isn’t fond of Libby watching the two like a voyeur, but she just doesn’t feel safe with Robert present. Bill tells her to put a stop to it or he will.
Back at Buell Green, Virginia meets Morgan Hogue, played by Renee Elise Goldsberry, who writes for the St. Louis Chronicle.
Oh, and Sarah Silverman has just gone down on Betty. When Helen comes up for air, she gets ready for work. Betty wants some more play time, but a Mrs. Mendel is coming by, and she’s none too happy now that her husband, Harry, has started stepping out on her with someone else. Betty suggests getting an apartment for Helen so the two can see each other more often. Helen figures correctly that she’d just be Betty’s mistress, a piece on the side. Betty acknowledges that the two were never going to have the white picket fence life, so the best they can do is have a good unconventional life. Helen continues to get ready.
Bill and Virginia talk to Morgan about Hendricks’ decision about Negroes participating in the study. Bill admits that Negroes should have been admitted from the start and the new direction could dispel stereotypes on Negro Sexuality, but he’s committed. He and Virginia aren’t doing this to forward an agenda, however. They just go where the research takes them. This means that they aren’t, as Morgan would have hoped, trying to eliminate the stereotypes of the Mandingo and Jezebel- oversexed Negro men and women. For Bill, the facts will speak for themselves.
Lillian asks Gibb what will happen to her, and she wants him to be straight, since he would talk to her like a general physician and wouldn’t think of her as a person. In short, the radiation will slow the cancer, but not eliminate it. He lists some of the symptoms Lillian will suffer, including increased difficulty in expressing thoughts, loss of her functions and deeper sleep. The pain will vary. She could take morphine, but it’s not readily available. Eventually, Lillian will slip into unconsciousness, but her loved ones will see that she’s comfortable.
With that, Lillian leaves without a word, Virginia hot on her tail. Outside, Lillian tells Virginia that she’s done with the treatment. She’s just not a fan of the radiation. Virginia says she understands how Lillian feels, even though she can’t, but says that Lillian shouldn’t give up, even if the odds are 100 to 1. A new trial could be right around the corner. Lillian’s tired of fighting a battle she knows that she’ll lose and is ready to give up hope altogether. She can’t win. She leaves Virginia to her thoughts while she takes a taxi home.
Helen and Al make an unexpected drop on Betty and Gene, much to Betty’s annoyance. And much to everyone’s surprise, she wants to elope. This is groundbreaking stuff. Since when have you ever heard of a woman proposing to a man? All goes relatively well until Helen and Al kiss, which sets Betty off in a rage.
Bill comforts Virginia while she talks about how pigheaded and rigid Lillian is. For the longest time, Virginia has been able to keep a wall up around herself, but, as Bill says, Lillian snuck in and did so because she’s a woman. Virginia thinks the world of Lillian and continues to admire her ferocity, but she must admit that Lillian DePaul does not have many friends. Bill knows Virginia, though, and without any sex attached, the two share a deep and thoughtful kiss.
And because we got a very warm scene, it must now be followed up by an awkward scene. Libby talks with Coral about Robert. She had a friend from high up in the police department look into Robert’s background. Not only does he have a record, he’s been arrested three times, even though in one instance, police officers assaulted him first. Libby, ever the loving protector, feels that Robert has intoxicated Coral’s mind. And in the name of protecting her family, Libby can’t have anyone around her house that has a criminal record, so someone else will have to pick her up. She asks Coral if whatever she has with Robert is worth all this tumult. Coral eventually relents and says that her aunt will pick her up from now on.
For this scene to work, it essentially had to turn Libby into more of a villain that she’s already becoming, and I don’t like that because she’s doing further damage to the bond she’s been trying to forge with Coral. And I’m not done with this scene yet.
Gene tells Betty about when he and Al were boys and went out on double dates. Al always scored in the back seat, while Gene’s lady friend would just sit awkwardly. He thinks that Betty may now have a thing for Al, but to Betty, but no. Betty was just disgusted by the vulgar display of Helen and Al kissing her. Says it sickened her and she’s only put up with Al because he’s friends with Gene. She doesn’t want to see him, but she especially doesn’t want to see Helen, either.
Morgan returns to check a few facts on Bill’s story, specifically points related to the sickness that hospitalized him as a child: the rare blood infection known as septicemia. She wonders how someone like Bill wound up in medicine, to which Bill replies that he was focused. Bill doesn’t see where this is all going, but Morgan believes that Bill’s story is one of overcoming adverse circumstances. He’s doing work for the greater good, even if that means burning bridges along the way, as he did with Doug Greathouse. Bill reminds Morgan that the focus is on the positive effect of the study and to let the facts speak for themselves, but he certainly isn’t ostracized from the White community. A few out of context comments make their way into Morgan’s notes. Whoops.
Gene speaks with Al about what Betty said. Al, for the life of him, can’t understand why Betty wouldn’t like Helen, especially after how tight they’ve been, and how they locked lips at the restaurant. Color Gene surprised. Al’s seen people kiss, but Helen and Betty were like Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief. Let the record show that this is the second time Masters of Sex has referenced To Catch a Thief.
Virginia shows up at Lillian’s and offers to run some errands, but Lillian just wants Virginia to hand-deliver some envelopes to her family. There’s a family plot in Weymouth where the DePauls go back to the 1800s. Her parents will most likely want her buried there, but Lillian wants her body to go to science. Maybe, someday, her body will be used to find a cure for ovarian cancer.
Coral leaves for the night, but for some reason, feels it necessary to wake Libby up and let her know that she’s on her way out and that her aunt is outside. You know where this is going.
Of course Coral is lying to Libby. When Robert and Coral walk off, Libby follows them.
Bill speaks with Wilson of the St. Louis Chronicle about Morgan’s article. Wilson has read the rough draft and thinks it makes for good copy, but Bill is worried about his scientific findings that gave him pause. Now that he’s had Negro participants, he found a difference in Black and Whites, such as penis size, sexual appetite and higher testosterone. Wilson thinks that Bill is lying to cover the fact that he doesn’t want a story published if it portrays him as unstable or ostracized. Wilson doesn’t back down and will publish the article. Bill counters that he’ll publish his findings, even though they aren’t real, so he plays another card: his 25 years of accolades and sterling reputation. Not to mention, you know, he’s a White man while Wilson is a Negro. Who will the public listen to?
Gene and Betty get ready to head out, but Gene is up front with Betty: he knows that other mean meant nothing to Betty. But he also knows that he meant nothing to Betty, too, because she’s always loved Helen. Gene feels he’s owed the truth, but he doesn’t even know who Betty is right now. He does know that he’s been fed every lie and half-truth imaginable. Betty can do as she pleases, but Gene won’t sell himself.
Virginia and Lillian listen to music that Lillian once learned to dance to when she was young. At 13 years old, she was already taller than the tallest boy in the class, earning her the nickname “Giraffe.” Not all too clever, really. Lillian admits that she’s had relations, but no one ever loved her. No one ever lingered and she’s missed out on closeness, the kind of closeness that Bill has with Virginia.
So Virginia tucks Lillian in for the night while telling her the tale of Lilantha the Warrior Princess, a warrior who was so beautiful that she struck men dumb. But the brave warrior knew who she was, and that’s why she burns so brightly.
Libby follows Robert and Coral into a Negro neighborhood. Oh, and she brought the baby with her! She enters an apartment and flips through mail until she’s surprised by Robert, who reminds her that it’s a federal offense to tamper with another person’s mail. Libby tells Robert that she’s looking for Coral, but Robert sets the record straight: he is Coral’s brother, not boyfriend, as Libby believed. They just had different fathers. Libby, devastated, gives Coral’s severance pay to Robert and heads back to her car.
Virginia somehow forgot the very important envelope that Lillian told her about, but convenient for her, as she hears labored breathing and finds Lillian in her bed. At her bedside are an empty glass and empty bottle that once held sleeping pills.
A nervous Bill sits in his office when Charles enters. Bill admits that he’s never misrepresented his work before. He’s not proud of it, but Charles understands that there’s nothing more dangerous than a desperate man. He’s been there. It took him 16 years at Good Samaritan before he realized what he was meant to do. Bill is resigned to the fact that he won’t be able to work in a hospital anymore or be beholden to others’ rules. While this may be Bill’s death, Charles tells Bill that it’s time for him to be reborn. He’s to have his office cleared by morning.
Bill heads to Virginia’s, but to his surprise, Barry Watson’s Shelley answers the door with Tessa at his side. Shelley tells Bill that he’s Virginia’s beau and that he met her at the Chancery Park Plaza Hotel. He’s been waiting for her all night, but so far, she’s been a no-show. Bill, calling himself one of Ms. Johnson’s colleagues, leaves without giving a message. Oh, and Tessa doesn’t remember Bill. How rude.
Bill returns home and takes Libby’s hand as the episode comes to a close.
I’m continually impressed with the amount of content Masters of Sex is able to fit into an episode without feeling overstuffed. The episode dealt with how quickly life passes us by, but also how we adjust to that, should we choose to. For some, like Lillian, we know that we can’t account for lost time, so we don’t even try. We can’t all progress at the same speed or be as forward thinking as people like Virginia or Charles. Instead, we work at our own pace and don’t try to be someone that we’re not.
Conventionalism and stereotypes were big themes this week, whether through examining race or relationships. Bill said over and over that the facts would speak for themselves. The problem is that not everyone sees everything through his vision, such as those who have issues with Negroes during this period. They see what they want to see instead of acknowledging what’s in front of them. This narrow point of view secludes us off from an ever changing world. We’re so used to things being one way that any sort of change should automatically be challenged.
And that’s what Morgan brought up when talking about how Bill overcame adverse circumstances. Change is always going to be met with resistance because we become conformed to what we know. Once the established way of life is shaken, it’s only a matter of time before the walls of tradition begin to crumble. What seems like simple acceptance to some is seen as a greater threat to others. Side-note, I do like Morgan, if only because she’s a journalist who will go to every length to get her story.
And, like previous episodes, “Blackbird” addressed how friendships, relationships and many types of bonds are built upon trust. We expect the same level of honesty that we give others, but when we lie or withhold information after building up so much trust, the betrayal feels even greater, whether from those who always trusted, or those who never trusted at all. If we’re not met halfway with the same trust, we feel wronged even though we’re putting our expectations on someone else. We think we know how people will react, and we don’t expect them to keep secrets.
As far as direction and production go, this episode felt similar to “Fight” for me. While there, Bill and Virginia were always locked in battle through their dialogue, here, the dialogue and conversations feel more like the characters are dancing. They’re constantly trying to be careful of what they say and how to say it, because a single misstep can throw off the entire routine. The partners must complement each other without making it seem like a battle.
For Lillian DePaul, however, the battle is already lost. Her scenes felt almost as emotionally draining as she was when she realizes that there’s no point in fighting a fight she can’t win. What began as an uphill battle over adversity has slowly ended in tragedy as Lillian succumbs to forces she can’t control. Her hope has faded away altogether. Julianne Nicholson turned in what might be her best performance yet through the range of emotions she shows, but even in what she doesn’t show. When Gibb tells her that the worsening symptoms include longer sleeps, loss of bladder and bowel control, aphasia worsening and eventually slipping into unconsciousness, Lillian doesn’t even flinch. It’s as if she’s already accepted her fate. Most would probably freak out, but she doesn’t react in the slightest. Like Bill, Lillian is used to straight talk.
It’s unfortunate, but she’s accepted that this is a battle she will lose. I appreciate that she’s making this decision herself instead of just going along with what Virginia wants. More than that, it’s smart that she’d want to give her body to science. In effect, her work never ceases and hopefully someone will succeed where she ultimately failed. In death, she can become something useful in the long run and this feels like something Lillian would do.
Her bond with Virginia deepens to her last breath and this really shows how far Lillian has come from just sending Virginia away to get her coffee. Now we’re at the point where Virginia is tucking her into bed. Lillian’s missed out on closeness, but at least she got to spend her final moments with someone who genuinely cares about her and will listen to her talk about her past.
Virginia said she understood how Lillian felt and, of course, she really didn’t and couldn’t. She calls Lillian pigheaded, not seeing the irony in how narrow-minded she’s been when discussing her affair with Bill. Both Virginia and Lillian are fighters, but whereas Lillian as more realistic, Virginia is the optimist. She kept holding out hope that Lillian could beat the cancer, but only because she cared for someone who had become one of her mentors. Virginia’s bond had grown strong enough to the point that she would lay next to Lillian as she slowly expired, which was a great, sad scene, by the way.
Though Virginia and Lillian have struggled to move up in the world, Virginia has always had support, whether from her kids, Ethan, Jane, Libby and so on. Virginia had friendships and connections, while Lillian did not.
I did like how she admitted to Bill that she put barriers around herself. As much as Virginia wanted to rail against Lillian in that moment, she was still willing to accept her own flaws. Despite the arguments the two have had, they remained friends until the very end.
My only issue with Virginia’s final scene with Lillian, strong as it was, came through how it happened. Virginia forgetting the envelope? Come on, Virginia! Lillian just told you how important it was that you fulfill her final requests. That’s not something you just forget and it seemed like a way for the writers to put Virginia back in Lillian’s home so she could hear her ragged breathing.
Betty’s world is falling apart around her as a result of her lies. She’s not entirely unsympathetic, but she’s built this life up around deceit. She wants a conventional life with the unconventional parts still there. She wants Gene despite having feelings for Gene. Betty’s going through a case of mistaken identity where she can’t choose what life she wants. She wanted kids, but until recently, she never told Gene why she couldn’t. Building lie upon lie just worsened the relationship and Betty’s emotional outburst over Helen and Al’s kiss just made her look worse. Even when she wants to be fully honest, she can’t.
And I really feel bad for Gene, who has endured so much of Betty’s deceit just to have a happy life, but his surprise upon learning that Betty had kissed Helen just completely changed his impression of the woman he thought loved him.
Libby. Dear God, Libby, what is wrong with you? Her paranoia and suspicion are more annoying than anything else. She claims that she wants to help Coral, but it comes off as a hindrance because it doesn’t come from the heart. She’s trying to convince herself and Coral that she’s being kind and wants a connection, but this doesn’t work because she has so many reservations about Coral’s personal life- something she really has no business trying to change.
She barely knows Robert and she already thinks she has him figured out. I do not understand why she fears this Colored man that never brought her harm. Libby choosing to handle this without Bill’s help makes sense since home is her only domain, but also because she thinks she’s fully responsible for Coral’s well-being. Whatever. And following them to their house with Baby John in tow was so over the top that it was laughable. Why would she even take the risk of going into a Black neighborhood just to prove a point? Like when she apologized to Robert as opposed to Coral, Libby giving Coral’s severance pay to Robert shows that she can’t directly confront her problems. And, to be fair, Coral never specifically said that Robert was her boyfriend- just that they lived together. Sure, it’s implied that they have a bond due to how she described how Robert makes her feel in bed, but I would hope these two siblings don’t take their bond that far.
Oh, and how did Libby even manage to acquire Robert’s criminal record? Did I miss something? Robert’s never given her his last name and Libby just found out that Robert and Coral had different fathers, so how in the world could she possibly get someone else to dig into his background without knowing much about him? And if Libby has friends in the police department, why couldn’t she get them to watch the baby while she played detective?
Bill just had the worst week ever. He once again finds himself without a job due to his ego. His attempts at maintaining integrity do more harm than good. I sort of see some parallels between Bill here and Libby during “Giants.” There, Libby made a big deal about Bill working in the Negro hospital. Here, Bill tries to use his name recognition as means to stop the publishing of an article that makes him look bad. Neither situation works out for the best.
Sure, Bill always saw the sex study as groundbreaking, but now he’s breaking ground in terms of racial relations by helping eliminate stereotypes on Negroes and their sexual prowess. He’s up for changing the world, but not if it puts his life out in the open.
It’s very unlike Bill to lie about his research and it was clear during his talk with Charles that he felt dirty by what he’d said about having findings. Once again, after such promise, he’s out of another job, but at least now, he’s willing to freelance. This may be better since this means he and Virginia can operate on their own terms. This would also mean some outside source would have to be willing to open their doors to them, but this is what happened with the brothel.
The reveal of Shelley was surprising, as I did not think we’d get any sort of follow-up to Virginia’s run-in with the man. I’m looking forward to seeing how this all plays out, given how Shelley says that he’s Virginia’s beau and Bill now feels that his heart has been ripped out.
This was a very drama filled episode. We said goodbye to a character who, like Bill and Virginia, worked for the greater good. The fruits of Lillian DePaul’s labor will blossom long after she’s gone and she no longer has to be in pain. With the fallout between Libby and Coral, Bill and Buell Green Hospital, Gene and Betty, the episode showed that these characters have plenty of obstacles and adversity to overcome. From here, it’s looking like an uphill battle.
Any questions, comments, concerns, issues or complaints, would love to hear them.