Time to meet the parents. That and see what it’s like when a grown man goes toe-to-toe with a kid bully. “Matters of Gravity” is a very good episode that moves at a good pace and puts Bill and Virginia back at the university where they first started their journey. And on that, remember how we got those sort of awkward, but sort of funny sexual demonstrations in the first season? Time to return to those.
The episode begins with Bill and Virginia taking a moment to enjoy the peace and quiet. The baby isn’t crying, the phone isn’t ringing, no neighbors are coming by to borrow things- it’s a great time to be alive right now. Let’s throw a wrench into this tranquility.
Upon hearing a very familiar laugh, Virginia heads downstairs. She has received a surprise visit in the form of her parents: Edna Eshelman, played by Frances Fisher, and Harry Eshelman, played by Michael O’Keefe. Tessa said that Tuesdays are best, after all, since that’s when she’s with George and Mom is just alone with the baby.
At Tessa’s insistence, Virginia makes some tea for her parents. Their talk is cut short when they hear a noise outside- as Bill opted to take the window in order to leave. Harry wants to check it out, as does Tessa, but Virginia says that can be taken care of in the morning.
Because Jo has been having nightmares due to some book she read by Truman Capote, she’s currently in the bed on Margaret’s night. Margaret and Graham have an upcoming appointment. Jo wants to come with them, but Margaret is against that. They shouldn’t do counseling together because they aren’t in bed at the same time, but Jo is quick to point out that they’re currently in bed together. She’s not wrong, but shut up.
Truth be told, Margaret isn’t ready to tell Bill about her three-way. The world isn’t ready for that, but Graham reminds her that Bill and Virginia are experts on this sort of stuff. In his mind, Bill and Virginia would have to know that monogamy is an exception, not the rule.
Over at House Johnson, Edna fills her daughter in on how things have been in her area. A boy named Lance, who has trouble with his throwing arm, just finished high school. And a woman named Marjorie wants Edna to introduce Lance to Tessa, but good luck with that. Edna doesn’t find Tessa’s living situation good for a growing teenager since she’s constantly bouncing from one household to the other. What if she had some secrets?
Like not knowing about an unexpected visit? Virginia isn’t a fan of being left out of the loop when it comes to Tessa, and this trend has been going on since Tessa was young, as Edna spoiled her. That’s what grandmothers are supposed to do. But Edna fights back. All Virginia has done is get married in name only while going off to do sex work. Virginia counters that she’s co-authored a work on human sexuality and getting along well enough to support herself. So how about now? Edna switches the subject to marmalade. Don’t you hate when people just change the topic like that?
Bill arrives at the office, still regretting his decision to jump out of a window. It also doesn’t help that he’s received a number of notes from Ronald Sturgis and his pals. But Betty, recalling an experience with Helen, pulls Bill across her back and straightens him out just as Chancellor Fitzhugh enters.
The two talk. It’s been ten years since there was bad blood between them and Fitzhugh thinks that it’s time to bury the hatchet. Interesting, considering that Fitzhugh insulted and demeaned Bill just two weeks ago. Bill wonders if there’s any sort of ulterior motive, and there is. Fitzhugh’s son, Ronnie, is an architect and just married a lovely girl named Leelah. They haven’t had much luck producing a baby.
And then Fitzhugh received a letter from the draft board. He’s concerned because unlike his other two, older sons, Ronnie wouldn’t last. What he needs is a deferral. A pregnant wife would lead to a III-A. Bill isn’t about to welcome Fitzhugh with open arms after being thrown out 15 years ago, and Fitzhugh can’t take that back, but he just wants to make things right.
Graham receives a surprise visit from Barton, who wants to talk about Graham’s mentor: Rich Huffman, who spoke highly of Graham’s knowledge of bacteria. To be specific, Graham focuses on cholera when teaching at St. John’s.
Oh, hi there, Jo.
Margaret enters just as Graham goes to look for her earrings. Barton, who had been thinking about Margaret’s words, is too focused on the kiss Jo and Graham shared. Yes, Margaret confirms, Jo and Graham are in a romantic relationship. And this isn’t new. See, Jo works at a travel agency and booked a lot of Graham’s trips abroad. It was love at first dial, Margaret says. Eventually, the two met in person and then moved in together six months ago.
It was a joint decision. Barton calls it a commune, like those crazy people in Berkeley. Barton came here to tell Margaret that she could be honest with Graham about their marriage, but now he sees that Margaret can’t even be honest with herself. Margaret disagrees- she’s living in the truth, which is much more than Barton can say.
Back at the office, while Bill searches for dolls, Virginia isn’t sure how her parents will be staying. Edna, Virginia says, is quite good at inserting herself into other people’s business. Bill shares that he’s received an invitation to speak at a faculty consortium tomorrow night at Washington University, as the keynote speaker dropped out and Fitzhugh was desperate for a replacement. Virginia isn’t keen on returning to a place where dildos were placed on her desk, but Bill intends to return so he can tell the folks at Washington University that the battle is over and they have lost.
We then see Bill and Virginia explaining, with aforementioned dolls, the ins and outs of a different way to have sex. Just the tip to start. Graham, they say, needs to do as little as possible and just let Margaret insert him into her. Graham is used to taking charge and Margaret acknowledges that when she’s in control, it doesn’t go well. If they want to cure their issue, they need to be open to different sexual dynamics, though Graham isn’t sure how to keep an erection if he’s not active.
Graham’s problem, Bill says, is that he’s anticipating finishing before he starts. He needs to focus on what it feels like to be inside of Margaret. I think a lot of men would love to imagine what it feels like to be inside of Allison Janney, but I digress. If Graham feels like he’s going to ejaculate, he needs to withdraw and Margaret should apply the squeeze technique.
This riveting sex session is interrupted by some Bible-thumpers. Bill has Betty call the police.
So Bill arrives at home early and finds a miffed Libby waiting for him. She’s been calling the office nonstop because of some bad news: Johnny got into a fight at school, presumably with a bully.
Bill stitches Johnny together in the bathroom and learns what happened: Johnny started the whole thing during a football game at recess. Some kid tried to take the ball and Johnny made him stop. But don’t worry. The other kid looks worse. Bill advises his son to not get into fights. Focus on your studies instead.
Dan Logan tests out a scent on Lester and Betty. It reminds Betty of her grandma, as she used to keep licorice in her purse and would bribe her with it if she acted up. Betty’s heart rate, though, doesn’t increase. For Lester, the scent reminds him of a woman named Wanda Petrowski, who would list the reasons why she wouldn’t kiss him. Lester asks if failure is an emotion, since that’s his emotional response, which may be one of my favorite lines of the episode.
This isn’t going the way Dan hoped. He’s looking for more unspoken explanations, which he thinks are better than what people feel. For example, he tells Virginia about a girl he knew that liked gin and orchids. Dan, as fate would have it, hated both of those things. Even still, whenever he traveled to Pittsburgh, he would call her anyway and she would respond. Why? Dan wants to explore that theory right now, while Betty and Lester want out. Can’t say I blame them.
At House Johnson, Tessa prepares a batch of clothes- including a bow tie- that she passes onto Edna. Consider: for this plan to work, Tessa had to buy a bow-tie.
In fact, Edna is so busy with laundry that night that she’s unable to join Virginia and Harry for dessert. Harry tells Virginia that her mother just worries about her. Virginia disagrees, saying that her mother wants her to shine, which is why she put her in beauty pageants. But Harry reminds Virginia that she wanted to go and begged her mother to take her. Mom just didn’t want Virginia to be disappointed.
Elsewhere in the house, Edna finds a bow-tie. The plot, or the bow-tie, I should say, does she thicken.
Margaret and Graham go through the instructions on how to have sex a different way while having sex. I’m sorry, I just can’t get enough of Allison Janney’s body. Graham wants to move, but Margaret reminds him stay still. Think of it like your body adjusting to the temperature of a warm bath. I suppose that’s one way to look at it. Margaret also doesn’t want Graham to close his eyes. They begin to moan in synch. In true television fashion, I expected Jo to burst in and ruin this moment.
But no. She’s just listening in the hallway. I’ve gotta say, this may be the first show where I’ve seen people read about how to have sex while still having sex.
As Bill prepares for his speech, Libby gives him the details of a note she found in Johnny’s backpack: it’s an apology note from Dennis Daughtry. Johnny, it turns out, made up the part about starting the fight. Dennis has been picking on Johnny for some time. He and four others even beat Johnny on the football field until Johnny admitted that he was a sissy. The teacher who broke up the fight made Dennis apologize. Bill promises to handle this himself.
He does. We then cut to him confronting Dennis, played by Blake Morgan Ferris. You see, Bill is a doctor, and he knows things. Guessing that Dennis is about 13, he assumes that the boy has been held back a number of times. Why? Because he’s stupid and likes to lash out at smarter boys. But when a doctor threatens you, no one can protect you. Not even Dennis’ dad with his plumbing business. Dennis is alone and needs to take care of his hands if he’s going to be handling people’s shit in his future.
That and he needs to change his pants.
Confrontation time. Jo wants to know about Graham and Margaret’s lessons, but Margaret insists that the two need time alone together before passing on what they know. Jo heard it all, yes, but she was jealous and scared. She thinks that Margaret wants Graham cured so he can love her more. And Margaret affirms this.
After all, Margaret knows what it’s like, listening on the other side of a door and wondering about the future of your marriage. She endured that for 30 years and her life imploded. She’s been scraping her life together since then and didn’t have any problems with Graham until Jo came onto the scene. And Margaret didn’t agree on this arrangement. Jo is young and pretty, Margaret says. Why is she there?
Graham feels for her and he won’t lie about how he feels. He’s just going act on his feelings.
Harry and Edna arrive at the office and meet Bill for the first time. Edna, paying particular attention to Bill’s tie, asks about his wife and kids. Bill says that they’re well and then extends an invitation to the parents to the Washington University consortium.
While Betty shows the parents around, Bill shows Virginia the guest list, which is actually the petition with the names of people who wanted Bill fired. Pretty weird looking guest list.
At House Masters, Bill is again preparing for his presentation. He’s interrupted by a furious Libby, who received a call from Dennis Daughtry’s mother. Whoops. Bill says it was just a simple conversation, but Libby is smarter than that. Okay, fine. Bill tells her that someone needed to teach the kid a lesson. What kind of lesson, Libby asks. The lesson that you can’t let a bully get away with something. There are consequences for bullies, whether they’re 13 year old boys or university chancellors.
All of Bill’s data was taken from him at Washington University. He only regrets giving them the satisfaction. Libby turns the conversation back to their son, but Bill will talk about this…tomorrow.
We then cut to Washington University, where Bill takes the stage after an introduction by Fitzhugh. After going over the architecture of the St. Louis arch, he speaks of it as a monument to those pioneers who went west to make the unknown known. Now, Bill and Virginia are those pioneers as they explore the fabric of human sexuality.
Margaret arrives at the office, hoping to find Bill, but meets Barton instead. Barton is glad that she made a fresh start, but Margaret doesn’t even know if that’s possible. Now that she’s not with Graham, she realizes that she was the problem all along. And Graham was so different from Barton in that he had nothing to hide. Margaret was ready to fix what was broken, only to learn that it was her all along.
With no possessions to her name or home, Margaret now feels more alone than ever and hasn’t changed. But Barton disagrees- she changed in that she left Margaret instead of waiting around, like she did with Barton. And Barton knows that Margaret deserves better, or she wouldn’t have tried again.
Barton promises to help her, and this starts with the two making a phone call to Vivian to let her know why her parents’ marriage really ended. Oh? A tease to Rose McIver’s possible return?
Back at Washington University, Bill ends his address on an optimistic note by hoping that future generations look back now and wonder what all the fuss was about. There’s time for questions.
One comes from Leslie Farber, played by Peter Mackenzie, who says that we can’t know how the future will receive this book. He’s concerned about the hidden risks of this work. Science has taken relationships and reduced them to statistics, graphs, and an overall mechanical process without any reference to the human psyche. Nowhere is the term ‘love’ mentioned in the book.
Bill begins by referring to Newton’s first discovery of gravity. This theory left a problem for scientists of the day: where was the gravity? After all, you couldn’t touch, see, or feel it. Some 230 years later, a German patent clerk named in Switzerland saw that scientists asked the wrong questions. You can never find an object called gravity. This clerk, named Albert Einstein, found that an apple falls due to it following the lines and grooves that gravity forms in space.
With sex, there’s no mention of love since it can’t be rendered into columns and graphs. It’s not exerted by one body on top of another, but the fabric of those bodies, their curves, grooves, and the curvature of desire. The audience applauds.
Afterward, while Harry goes to bring around the car, Edna admits that she underestimated Virginia. She thought that her daughter made a mess of her life, but she’s proud that Virginia has done well for herself. Now she just needs to get Bill to leave his wife and marry her. Strike while the iron is hit and don’t give him a chance to get tired of her.
Dan Logan arrives- he snuck in- and notes to Virginia that Bill really knows how to work a crowd. He notices that Virginia looks upset, but he’s not given much time to find out what’s wrong before Virginia asks if he wants to take her out to dinner. She asked him if he wants to take her out to dinner.
On the car ride back, Libby notes how quite Bill is. After all, he receives validation from the very people that scorned him. He should be happy. But no. If Bill didn’t respect their opinion before, he certainly doesn’t right now. So what was the point of scaring the hell out of a kid? Bill doesn’t know. As he listened to the applause, he thought of the one time he purchased his father aftershave for his birthday.
As Bill counted the change, the woman asked if he needed a bandage for his split lip: a gift from his father that morning. Making his father happy would be great, but like walking the horizon, Bill knew he would never get there.
At home, Libby checks on the girls while Bill talks with Johnny, who is sitting on the couch and reading The Red Badge of Courage. It’s a book that Bill remembers from his youth, but he also remembers going to the attic to read it so his father wouldn’t know where he was. Why? He didn’t want to get chores. Bill talks about a part in the book where Henry faces a charge and fires his gun, but Johnny leaves to read the book in his room. Bill is left on the couch alone as the episode comes to a close.
There’s a lot going on in “Matters of Gravity.” It’s a strong episode in its own right, but I also appreciate the callbacks to previous episodes. It built upon the issues with the Johnsons, Masters, and Scully families and had the advantage of having Tessa do as little as possible. Plus, with Virginia’s parents having been mentioned a few times in previous episodes, we got the payoff of finally meeting them.
And though Harry seems like a pretty good father, Edna comes with certain expectations of her daughter and takes control when she deems it necessary. She spoils Tessa and knows that Virginia’s marriage to George in name only means nothing.
Like Virginia tells Bill, Edna has a certain habit of inserting herself into other people’s business, which is a constant of this show and episode in particular. When it seems like Virginia has finally won her mother’s validation for her hard work, it’s only because she’s wise to Virginia’s philandering with Bill. And yet, rather than be disapproved, she approves because of Bill’s well-known reputation and realizes how much the two care for one another.
For Edna, this is an opportunity that Virginia can’t afford to lose, so instead of telling her daughter to go with what the heart wants, she says to get the man to leave his wife and be with her. While Virginia might not have expected her mother to admit that she underestimated her, she certainly didn’t expect to be encouraged to get a married man to walk away from his marriage.
And really, a lot of this episode dealt with living up to and expecting certain expectations, both of ourselves and what others make of us. We set high expectations on ourselves because we want to have something to shoot for if the sky is the limit, but if we’re constantly letting ourselves and others down, we’ll never truly be happy. I’d add that if we spend so much time doing things based on what others thought, we won’t be happy because we’re living according to someone else’s rules- not our own.
Plus, it’s hard to satisfy everyone all the time. And we can’t satisfy anyone, we feel like losers because it’s like we’ve let down ourselves and the others around us. It’s hard to account for how others will react or how situations will play out, so we act on a whim.
This came across in Bill’s speech about the pioneers who went west into unchartered territory. They didn’t know what awaited them during their travels, and the same applies to people like Bill and Virginia, the Scullys, and even folks like Jo and Graham. When you don’t know what lies ahead, you can proceed with caution, sure, or you can go in head first and take a risk, damn the consequences, in your never-ending search to make the unknown known.
Both Bill and Dan are looking to find what can’t be quantified or just explained through science- it has to come through a feeling. Dan isn’t interested in what Lester or Betty think they feel, so much as something unspoken. That’s hard to do because, like the scientists of Newton’s time, people want to be able to see what’s been discovered. If you can’t touch or see it, how do you know that it exists? Like Bill said, you can’t find things like gravity or love, but you’ll realize when you yourself have come across it. And when you do, it’s a satisfying feeling.
That’s the opposite of what’s going on with Margaret and Graham. She had that satisfying feeling when she and Graham joined as one, but at the end of the day, Graham didn’t have the passion for her that he had for Jo. It’s like when Virginia told George that sometimes the body takes over during sex and you can have intercourse without any sort of feeling or emotional attachment.
Sure, Graham managed to let Margaret take over, but when it’s all said and done, he sided with Jo and wouldn’t deny his true feelings.
Again, it’s unfortunate because, as Barton tells her, Margaret deserves to be happy. It’s unfortunate to watch her beat herself up because for over 30 years she’s been denied true happiness and is now struggling to make a fresh start. With two failed relationships, what other option is there but blaming herself? She tried someone radically different from Barton, but only had temporary satisfaction. She wanted to prove that she could move on and be a better person, but now has to start over again. If failure was an emotion, as Lester asked, it would perfectly represent Margaret.
As much as Libby is a tragic character, Margaret is right up there with her with what she’s had to endure. At the very least, it looks like she and Barton have been able to reconcile for the sake of their futures. And it’s a big step forward that Barton is deciding to be honest with who he is, starting with his daughter. Whether this brings Vivian back into the fold somehow remains to be seen.
By the way, the scene of Bill and Virginia demonstrating coitus to Margaret and Graham using the dolls may have been one of the funniest moments of this season to me. It hearkened back to the explanations at Washington University during the first season when the demonstrations could make you giggle, but you also learned at the same time.
Bill has come a long way since his days at Washington University. He was ridiculed and demeaned for his work, but now Fitzhugh has managed to worm his way into Bill’s new life because he needs help. Of course, neither of them expected this to be easy, and how would they? Bill lost his research and credibility, so he won’t just walk back into that institution.
However, Bill has had much success since then and his reputation is well-known for the right reasons. And while he has an opportunity to gloat, he doesn’t take it because, in the end, it’s not satisfying. He’s learned this lesson from trying to please his father, knowing that he would never do it.
Even though he has validation from the peers that once scorned him, Bill believes that they’ll never truly be on his side. Even though Bill is an outright dick, I do like these moments where he becomes contemplative, and Sheen is great at balancing that against Bill’s more outrageous moments.
Like when he scared the shit out of a little kid. Like in the premiere, Bill became his father, again building off of the man he spoke of in “Fight.” Sure, Bill avoided being direct and confronting the people at Washington University, but he didn’t need to try and outmuscle them. He let his work speak for itself.
But with Dennis, Bill decided to teach him a lesson: there are consequences for being a bully. Bill’s issue is that he became the bully just by threatening the kid. I think this cut more to Dennis’ core because instead of beating him up, Bill got into his head and made him feel worthless. And not until the torment ended did Bill realize what he’d done. While this was a powerful moment for him, it’s a step backwards because he didn’t learn from how he lashed out at Johnny.
Part of me thinks that Bill did this not just to prove a point about bullies, but also in response to what Fitzhugh asked him: would he do anything for his son? I think Bill does care for Johnny, as seen when he stitches him up and tries to talk about the book he’s reading. He doesn’t want his son to grow up as a coward and just take punches. I do wonder why Bill decided to take this route, though. We’ve seen him teach Virginia how to box, so I think it would have been a good moment for him and Johnny to bond if Bill had just taught him how to be a better fighter. And yes, I am saying that violence does solve the problem sometimes.
I also wish that Libby could be given a more active role with Johnny here. As is, Libby, just like Margaret or Jo, is an outlier. She’d like to have more of an impact, and I’m glad that she railed against Bill for his extreme actions. If Libby knows that she’s being replaced by Virginia, at least she’s still useful for calling Bill out on his shit.
Virginia has been an ambitious person for as long as we’ve known her, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume she might have picked up some of that spirit from her parents. But then we learn here that Virginia’s high expectations and standards have always been what she projects on herself- less so what others expect of her.
She’s in a prominent position, but still feels that her mother treats her like a child. Instead of having a fresh start, she’s being left out of conversations between Edna and Tessa. And unlike Bill, she had no intention of looking back at Washington University to gloat about her success because of how she had been treated. But Virginia had a legitimate question, though: what kind of parent puts an eight-year-old in a beauty pageant?
So now another person is onto her and she finds herself in an awkward position. She has feelings for Bill, is married to George in name only, and now Dan Logan is making advances on her- all men who desire Virginia because of how intriguing she is. Well, if the situation with Margaret is any indication, this won’t end well.
“Masters of Gravity” was a great episode, all things considered. It continued the conflicting storylines with Margaret and Barton, put Bill in a tense situation as he became the very man he hated, and put Virginia on alert as her mother is now aware to her fooling around with a married man. Bill returned to his stomping grounds in order to make his case and received the recognition he and Virginia were denied two seasons back. The fight is over, Bill says, and he’s won. But for how long?