Let’s just get right to it.
The episode begins with Bill capping Pauline. Though husbands typically don’t show up for their wife’s capping, Frank would have been more than welcome. Pauline just wants the two to mend the broken fences, but Bill doesn’t believe any mending is necessary. Plus, Francis has made peace with his past and wants a family, but that means more than a child. Suddenly, the lights go out.
Betty calms a now worried Bill that the power will be back on after the electric company finds their late payment. And why is the payment late? Betty had to wait for the checks to clear from eight patients, they owe the specimen lab and still had to wait for Cal-o-Metric to turn in its rent. The best hope would be to sublet the rest of the floor, Betty suggests, but Bill isn’t about to share the space with what he sees as second rate businesses.
To no one’s surprise, Dr. Madden knew that Virginia had pretended to be someone else. Did it help, though? Virginia responds that it didn’t do Barbara any good, but admits that she herself didn’t know how therapy works. In the meantime, she hopes to stay in touch, but the Doctor isn’t done yet. After all, Virginia took the time to meet him in person when she could have just called to admit that she was a fake. Madden asks if anything resonated with Virginia on a personal level during their talks. Not all that much. She’s still taking part in an affair, but she doesn’t see it as a traditional affair, which she believes is primarily sexual. Her affair with Bill is more complicated with that.
We then flash back to Bill and Virginia discussing the two years they were apart. Bill was still able to perform, even when Libby was capped after she had Jenny (the other baby finally has a name!). But Bill is experiencing secondary impotence: he can perform well enough on his own, but not with a partner. And Bill hasn’t brought this up to Libby. He just wants to be cured. Virginia suggests exploring causes or triggers, similar to what they tried with Lester. But then Virginia wonders if it was her relationship with Shelley that caused Bill’s limp. He denies that any jealously or insecurity led to this issue. But less talking, more working. Bill admits what Virginia already pointed out: they had strayed away from the work. But through this, she can help fix him.
In the present, Dr. Madden asks Virginia if she believes her relationship with Bill has a higher purpose. More than that, is she even qualified to develop a treatment? He then asks if this could be harming Bill’s own marriage, but Virginia doesn’t believe Bill’s marriage is at risk. You keep thinking that, Virginia. But then, it’s not impossible that Libby would feel the loss of sexual companionship. Hell, maybe she can perform well enough on her own, too. Madden asks one final question: if Virginia has already admitted to lying to both him and Libby, who else has she lied to?
Essie puts Jenny to sleep. Libby is not home. Her work at the civil rights office keeps her out late, but Essie can prepare dinner. She remarks on how well lullabies worked on Jenny. They did nothing for Bill, but did for Francis. Essie finds Francis has grown much more serious with his self-preservation. Though they see the past differently, Essie says that everyone has their own version of everything that ever happened. Essie also isn’t a fan of Francis criticizing her drinking, while Bill believes she should be able to do whatever she wants. She blames Alcoholics Anonymous for doing this to her son, turning him into what she and Bill believe is an amateur psychologist who is a member of a secret club. And who benefits from Francis making amends, anyway? Spinning the past won’t help anyone. Essie feels that Francis’ forgiveness comes off like an accusation dressed up as an apology. Luckily, Bill doesn’t find his mother’s criticism of Francis all that harsh. Yay, mother and son bonding.
At the C.O.R.E. office, Robert splits everyone into four groups for apartment canvassing: they plan to speak with dirt poor Coloreds and hopefully convince them to stop paying rent on the most decent apartment some of they have ever owned. He doesn’t want Libby there, though. She would just be another White person trying to tell Coloreds how to live their lives. Besides, the buildings have lice. Libby is not a fan of lice. With that said, Robert sends her on another lunch run.
Virginia reads from the latest issue of American Urology Review about Joseph Kaufman’s study on the human body and sexual response…and how Masters and Johnson are only reduced to a mere footnote. The two are understandably miffed, but for now, it’s just one study in a respected journal, right? Wrong. The people who make history are the ones who got there first, Bill says.
Over at Cal-O-Metric, Flo and Austin work with potential product model Cindy, played by Karissa Staples. When rehearsal ends and Cindy pops to the little girls’ room, Flo gives Austin a scheduled list of speaking appearances. One of them is an apartment- Flo’s apartment, to be specific. And Austin is to be there on time.
At Chancery Park Plaza Hotel, Virginia notes that all of the marriage manuals she’s read have suggestions for impotence, plus everything she and Bill know from Betty, but Bill has tried all of the methods, even on Lester. But like Lester said, it could help if the subjects knew each other. So Virginia will use her hands and mouth, while Bill just stops thinking. It doesn’t go well, just to be brief.
Lester spots a dizzy Barbara making her way down the stairs. Recognizing Lester, Barbara asks if Dr. Masters’ methods work, and Lester says that Bill can cure mostly anything. But Barbara doesn’t believe you can operate on the soul. Lester himself doesn’t believe in God, but Barbara points out that people need to find meaning in something. Lester does, though: the second law of thermodynamics. An insulted Barbara walks off when she gets the implication that Lester finds life meaningless and that pain is random chaos. Smooth move, Lester.
Elsewhere, Libby needs Virginia’s help. Even though the Coloreds aren’t a fan of her, she plans to go with them tonight during their recruitment, anyway. Bill already doesn’t like her working there, so she needs a good alibi: Virginia will say that her sitter canceled, so Libby offered to watch Henry and Tessa. Unless lying to Bill is too uncomfortable for Virginia. Luckily, that won’t be a problem at all.
Following this, Bill introduces Virginia to Shep Tally, played by Adam Arkin. Tally is a partner at Williams & Kulick Public Relations. He once helped one of Bill’s colleagues, John Rock, who developed the birth control pill. Now the time has come to help Bill and Virginia.
While Lester shows Tally some footage, Virginia tells Bill in private that she doesn’t want to have to pay Tally. Bill just asks her to put her join him in putting their best foot forward.
Betty then brings in divorce lawyer Herb Spleeb, played by Jack Laufer. Spleeb is here to talk about renting an office. But no time for that. Virginia shows Tally the exam room. Tally is interested in Bill and Virginia’s most recent work. They bring up their study on dysfunctions, but differ on how approach it. Tally appreciates their banter, like they’re a married couple. This gives him an idea: CBS is looking for documentary subjects and the study would be perfect. After all, Lester already has tons of footage and the two of them can teach America how to have sex.
When Tally leaves, Bill suddenly apologizes for overreacting about the article. Virginia, however, is on board with the television idea. Sure, the medium hasn’t fully taken off yet, but they can still reach an audience. Bill is hesitant. If a group of doctors didn’t react positively to the study, then families probably won’t have a better reaction. Virginia reminds Bill that this was his idea in the first place. Bill wants attention. Hell, he’d like a Nobel Prize, and he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself if he did nothing.
So Robert and the C.O.R.E. members begin scouting the various apartments to convince the Coloreds to stop paying rent. One woman, Delilah, played by Kamirah Westbrook, doesn’t give Robert the time of day, but Libby has managed to convince one to start striking.
At Flo’s, Austin is nervous. He respects Flo as his boss, but doesn’t think this is possible. When he was married, he pretended to be interested in everything Elise said. With some women, he can’t fake it. And at times, his hardware won’t work. Unfortunately for him, his hardware is working just fine tonight.
For our other two doctors, Virginia plans to do all of the worrying. Bill will just relax. She asks Bill what he’s ever thought of doing to her, anything unusual. She’s thought of making him powerless and at her mercy, even though she’s already done that. She wants Bill to beg for it, but Bill doesn’t beg. Ever.
So when Virginia ties Bill’s hands behind his back and we get another appearance of Lizzy Caplan’s breasts, she tells him to say how much he wants her. It gets Bill’s heart thumping, but he wants her to keep talking. When Virginia goes in, Bill tells her to stop. The thrill is gone.
Post-coitus, two times, mind you, Flo smokes while Austin gets dressed. His pants somehow ended up draped around a light. Don’t ask me how that actually happened. He’s just glad this is done and over with. He wants to resume a professional relationship without any awkwardness, but Flo isn’t done yet. This isn’t a one-time deal. Sure, Austin is good at talking to women and making them feel good, but Flo wants him to do that for her. You know, make her feel young, desirable and beautiful again.
After a brief, congratulatory exchange between Libby and Robert, we cut to Lester finding Barbara at the diner. He apologizes for unintentionally offending her. It’s not his first time, either. He was jealous of people that could believe in a greater power, dating all the way back to grade school when one of his classmates stated that they could just go to confession and be absolved of their sins. It’s not that easy, but there’s something comforting in telling the truth. The two agree that the greatest sin is despair. Lester himself may have given up and tells Barbara about how inability to perform. Despite all of Bill’s help, Lester gave up because he found it too humiliating. Barbara confesses that she believes her condition is due to God punishing her, but the two of them don’t have to despair.
Betty inquires about Virginia’s night with Bill, and it went as well as you’d expect. This sort of problem can get under your skin, Betty says. She once had a guy that came in every Thursday night and brought her flowers, but trying to get him up was like trying to raise the dead. That is a great analogy. Soon, she just kept pretending it would work and even had girls at the brothel give her an alibi when she happened to not show up for work. The man sometimes looked at her in agony, but she couldn’t fix him.
Bill gets a phone call and we cut to Francis stitching up Essie’s face. She was in a car accident. Yes, she’d been drinking, but Essie and the police officer believe the other driver is at fault. When Francis is hard on Essie, Bill advises him to ease off. Soon enough, Bill has Francis leave so he can stitch up his mother himself. As Francis leaves, Essie pleads Bill to not fight with his brother.
While Libby takes Essie home, Bill and Francis face off. Francis came to Bill with good intentions. After the hell he’s been through, Francis now has clarity in his life. He figures Bill for an alcoholic and says he even has the signs, such as mood swings, aggression and lying. He’s lying to himself. The Masters’ are a family with a shared disease, Francis says. If they address it, then they can mend what’s broken and find peace.
Bill then directs his anger at their father, as he’s the one who beat them. But, Francis argues, their father hit them because he suffered from the same disease. Bill thinks Francis is lying because he’s needy, but Francis, again, forgives Bill for leaving him. Again, Bill finds it strange that anyone would forgive such an action as walking out on your brother, leaving him to your abusive father’s wrath.
The difference is that Bill never begged his father to stop hitting him or avoid the beatings. Francis, however, pulled tricks. And why? Bill figures Francis for a coward- that’s his affliction. If anything, Francis should forgive Bill for not respecting him and seeing him as a weak boy who grew up to be a gutless man. They are both bound by their father forever. This causes Francis to punch Bill several times before he leaves.
Later on, Bill arrives at the hotel as a bloody mess. He won’t allow Virginia to clean him up and he can’t face Libby like this. He gives Virginia the option to leave, but she doesn’t. She stays by his side on the bed as he admits to abandoning his brother to that monster of a father, and now he’s punishing him for it. And then Bill’s libido wakes up!
What a dick. “Below the Belt” hits our characters where it hurts. Most of time, that’s in the loins, but it goes deeper than that. The episode hit a couple of major areas this week: finding meaning in our lives, dealing with despair, altering history to fit our own warped view, working alone against having a partner around, to name a few.
At several points, the characters talk of giving up when they’ve hit a major snag. They haven’t hit rock bottom, but they’re definitely at a low point. This doesn’t mean they have to wallow around in their sorrows, as Barbara and Lester realize. Instead, they make something out of it and go forward. Or, in Bill’s case, you turn that snag into potency.
I liked the commentary and discussion on the idea that television isn’t a medium worthy of reaching your target audience. Sure, at this point in history, television has been around for awhile, but it’s still seen as relatively new compared to newspapers and radio. Bill balking at the idea of being on television makes sense, given how TV hasn’t really taken off yet, the way it eventually will during the nonstop coverage of Kennedy’s assassination and funeral.
Like previous episodes this season, characters took control of their own lives and made decisions for themselves as opposed to having others dictate their choices. We see this play out with Libby who, despite what the C.O.R.E. members think of her, wants to prove she’s a valuable asset to them. And, as we see, she is, when Robert tells her that they received a much better reception to the rent strike than expected.
Oh, Austin, you’ve found a woman who wants to have sex with you and you’re not interested? Normally, I’d see that as a sign of growth, if not for the fact that Austin has crossed the boundary between personal and professional before. Despite getting cold feet, he’s still able to perform. Every woman we’ve seen Austin land has been someone on his level, like how Jane worked in the same place as him, but didn’t have dominion over him. Flo, however, is Austin’s boss and pays him. Engaging in such a relationship is dangerous, and Austin lectured Bill about this very topic earlier in the season. Now he’s in the same situation, but obviously with less consequence since Elise broke things off with him. As funny as I find Flo and Austin’s scenes, these still feel like a way to keep Austin around and give him something to do, even though his plot has no real bearing on the overall storyline. And if Flo did want to take advantage of Austin, from a narrative point of view, this feels a bit too soon.
Barbara and Lester complement each other well with their awkwardness because they have similar issues. We learned more about Lester this week through his views on religion, so his character was fleshed out a bit more in that regard, but it also served the purpose of having him address how he gave up believing. And luckily, Barbara and Lester don’t devolve into a debate over religion and science. I think this episode also speaks to Lester’s respect for Bill when he quickly tells Barbara that he can fix anything.
Throughout the season, we’ve seen Bill and Virginia’s relationship grow more combative, which was thoroughly played out during “Fight,” but here, we see that their ability to play off of each other has just as much of an impact for them as it does everyone around them, like Shep Tally believing their chemistry is a working formula for television.
Like in “Giants,” Virginia assumes control of a situation, but with less success this time around because she tries too hard to fix a problem that she may not be able to fix. As Betty noted with her scenario, no matter how much she’d like to help the guy, she can’t do everything. She gets very close by being creative, though. One thing we’ve known about Virginia from the start is that she thinks outside the box, and that benefits when working with someone like Bill, who likes to stay by the book. Her domination over him did help, but when she kept going, she killed the mood. Not on purpose, but because she believed she needed to awaken his wilder side in order to get him going.
And just like how Essie pointed out that we have our own versions of what happened, Virginia creates her own by believing that what she and Bill have is more complicated than an affair. It is, to be sure, but it’s still an affair and she even pointed out that it had become more about sex and less about the work. More than that, she doesn’t believe she’s done anything wrong. Virginia couldn’t really be that naïve when it comes to Bill and Libby’s marriage. So it seems like she’s trying to save face, and good on Dr. Madden for calling her out on that.
Then we have Bill, who is becoming exactly like the man he and Francis loathe so much. Sheen continues to give masterful performances, but they don’t mask the fact that Bill is just an overall dick. He shuts down anything that doesn’t conform with his point of view, he makes Lester the guinea pig for his impotence issue and now he takes his brother’s recovery and throws it right back in his face. Such behavior is deplorable and while it adds to Bill’s complex character, it also paints him in a negative light again. The way he took Francis’ punches, Bill invited that beating because he so wanted to be right and take Francis down a peg. He baited Francis into attacking him because he has a way of getting under people’s skin through his clinical demeanor. Once again, his ego gets the best of him and he hits Francis over and over in an attempt to break him. Francis maintains his composure, yes, but he’s clearly rattled. The cycle of abuse just keeps on rolling.
That’s not to say Bill was completely a jerk this week. For all of the tension between him and his mother, it was nice to see the two actually come to agreement on something. You just wish it wasn’t their mutual dislike of Francis. Bill probably came off the warmest he’s ever been toward Essie, such as when he tells Francis to not be so hard on her after her accident. Bill’s warm moments are few and far in between, but at least he and his mother had a nice, tense-free moment.
And I like how committed he is to making sure he and Virginia are recognized for their work on the study, but he won’t just do anything. As Bill learned in “Manhigh,” the scientific world was not ready for his study. The general public certainly wouldn’t be receptive, either, so I’m glad he’s willing to learn from his mistakes and won’t just go all out for the sake of shock value.
Overall, “Below the Belt” was a solid episode. It had some great moments of growth and character development, but also showed them that there’s more to life than despair and holding onto the past. Here’s to next week.