What are you doing? You should be substituting this blog recap for an actual good one. Welcome, folks, to “Surrogates.”
The episode begins with Virginia’s greatest performance to date: convincing Bill that she’s too under the weather to come into work, even though the two are needed to review the surrogate material. She’s sent the girls to stay with George, which I’m guessing also means the writers didn’t have anything for Tessa to do this week. Anyway, Bill tells Virginia to take time off to recuperate.
Virginia’s performance over, Dan notes how good Virginia is at spinning a tale. But she had to make it seem like it was Bill’s idea for her to take the day off. The two plan to go on a trip. This is new territory for Virginia, as she’s never dropped everything she’s doing to get on a plane. It’s a big deal for Dan, though, as he’s going to take a scent idea to some casino owners. And while Virginia wants to jump Dan’s bones, he tells her that he’ll be back at 2 pm.
Since Virginia didn’t bring any work to do, Dan has provided a full schedule of activities designed for her to…unwind. And they’re already paid for in full. Once Dan heads off, Virginia calls to cancel her appointments.
Over at the office, Bill and Betty go over information regarding the potential surrogacy program participants. 40 women participated in the sex study at least three times with different partners. These are the overachievers. Betty explained the program, but it’s hard to get some of the women on board. Nonetheless, Bill wants Betty to set interviews for this afternoon to start the program and meet demand for this new field of inquiry.
Betty objects to this, pointing out that Virginia wasn’t fully on board. Bill pushes forward ahead anyway. They can’t debate hypothetical situations- they’re just putting pieces in place. In addition, the applicants must be volunteers. They cannot be paid.
And then in enters Bill’s first fertility patients: Austin and Hele-I mean, Celeste. We learn what Austin has been up to since last season. After Cal-o-Metric, he parlayed his salary into a leadership position with Della’s Diets, which had a huge success in 1963. He’s also made some investments in real estate. As for how long he’s been married to Celeste? Three good years with regular intercourse.
But then we flash back to the stripper joint, with Austin informing Betty and Helen about what really happened. Della’s Diets endured six lawsuits, three audits, and one criminal investigation by the state of Missouri. And buying this stripper joint was one of Austin’s worst decisions. Two weeks after signing papers, they lost their liquor license since the owner forgot to pay his bribes on time. Helen, though, is curious about whether the women have surgical scars on purpose. It’s a valid question.
Austin wonders why Betty even wants his help. He hasn’t seen her in five years and the two weren’t really what you’d call close friends. That’s true, but Austin is Betty and Helen’s only option for a sperm donor. Austin is willing to consider the offer, but he’ll need something in return.
Across the office, Barton speaks with Dr. Jonathan Laurents, played by Rob Benedict, about an upcoming appointment with a Mrs. Wilson, who is 34 weeks pregnant and whose fetus is in breech presentation. So what did this new character do before joining our established cast? He worked in an emergency room for six years. As for why he left, he wasn’t a fan of the long hours because he ended up missing the little things, like classical music.
Then, sex with Libby and Paul.
Afterward, we learn through Paul asking that Libby is short for Elizabeth. Or Betty. They called her that, at times, too. Paul is doing more talking than Libby, but he’s also in the mood for a cigarette. He doesn’t smoke, but he sees people do it in movies all the time after sex. He’s also not a fan of this cycle the two are on of sex, followed by small talk. Libby gives Paul 10 words and her last cigarette. At least she shared.
At the office, Jane checks in interested surrogate participants…one of whom happens to be Lester. Jane is naturally miffed, but Lester’s defense is that single men aren’t the only one with dysfunctions. And he was Bill’s first patient in regards to this matter, so by the transitive property of Lester, if not for him, this program would not exist.
Bill addresses the participants, He differentiates between this program and the previous study by letting the people know that they’re being asked to commit to regular sessions over an indefinite period of time with the same partner. Partners with dysfunctions. Due to legal limitations, though, those interested cannot be paid, so Bill is just looking for volunteers. As such, a few women leave.
Back at the casino, Virginia attempts to relax. Heavy emphasis on attempt. As she hits the slots, her neighbor, Cookie, played by Whitney Anderson, finds that Virginia is close to a jackpot and guesses that she’s there because her husband is working. Cookie makes a point to always travel when her husband, who supposedly works in commercial business, goes on trips. Truth be told, though, she tunes him out when he talks about his work. She just smiles, plays her part, as women apparently should do, and gets to live the live most women desire. Virginia heads off just as Cookie hits the jackpot.
Not the next scene, but just so I don’t have to go back and forth, let’s stick with the casino for a bit. Virginia meets up with Dan later and fills him in about the reactions she’s noticed all around her. The physiological responses to winning money are identical to the body’s response to sex. This is an entirely new area of research. Remember that Virginia was supposed to relax. But she’s had a better day than Dan, since no one was interested in his idea.
So the two speak to a Mr. Avery, played by Sam McMurray, who needs numbers before he can jump on board with the idea. A scent in the area to generate money, he says, is just theoretical. Virginia disagrees. She almost left the casino due to the odor. Alcohol dulls the senses and going to a casino is like going to bed with someone- both are done to escape the mundane.
And then Virginia adds more of her work by referring to the phases: placing a bet is the excitement level, spinning the wheel is plateauing, the ball landing on your number is the climax stage, and when the adrenaline subsides- resolution. People losing their bets creates a mood-killing scent. When Avery asks who this woman is, Dan identifies Virginia as his partner and trained psychologist. She knows the intimate link between senses and the human psyche.
Avery, now a bit more interested, tells the two that he needs to talk to his associates. He gives them some chips to help them get over the smell. Not freshener, but chips.
Bill has at least gotten better at interviewing people on his own, but the interested folks aren’t the best fit. Melanie Ungar, played by Charlotte Bayne, seems to have experience, but is interested in being paid extra if she can separate love from sex.
Emily Hopkins, played by Lauran September, second guesses many of her answers.
The only one of the three who seems to qualify is Lester, whose first sexual experience came when he was 11. Not with a partner, mind you.
But there’s one more interested person: Nora Everett, played by Beth Greene and the Bug-Eyed Bandit herself, Emily Kinney. She didn’t fill out an application form because she was too young to participate the first time. You see, Nora is a blast from the past and has known Bill since she was young. Her parents are Kirk and Sally Everett from 224 Pine Grove.
Turns out that Nora has been calling to ask about available volunteer opportunities, as she’s not squeamish about sex, regardless of her parents being stuffy Episcopalians. Her folks sent her to the grandparents’ farm in Clarksville when she was 12. There, she helped breed horses by keeping the stallions calm to the point where they could mate with the mares. Since that experience, it’s been hard for young Nora here to understand why people make such a big fuss about sex.
Sex is a part of life, she says, after reading Bill’s book, she sees that it’s also complicated, but not in a bad way. She compares sex to a watch: simple on the outside, but when you see the gears and springs on the inside, it’s quite remarkable. Bill appears impressed and thanks Nora for her time, telling her that training begins at nine in the morning.
Back at the casino, Dan and Virginia’s trip is interrupted when a disgruntled employee, Martin O’Reilly, played by Grant Harvey, attempts to rob them. Dan manages to knock him out and then goes through his wallet, finding out that the young man is a Private 1st Class in the U.S. Army. Kid’s only 19-years-old, too. Dan wants to call the police, but Virginia hesitates to do so.
At House Masters, Bill tells Libby about Nora Everett volunteering for the surrogacy program. Libby is surprised that Bill didn’t turn her away since she’ll be having sex with strange men, but Bill doesn’t see it that way. She’s helping to relieve men of their suffering through touch. Human beings, he says, cannot survive without being touched. And not everyone can find an adequate partner, so Bill is providing a temporary substitute. Is that enough, Libby asks. Just some stand-in? To Bill, that’s all some people have.
Martin awakens not in a cell, but still in the hotel room. Virginia inquires about Martin’s time as a soldier, since her son is also serving. Martin, the bearer of bad news, tells Virginia that her son won’t be the same when he returns. This war in Vietnam isn’t like the war Dan fought in, even if he did return fine.
Life went south for Martin when he returned. He was kicked out of his parent’s place a few weeks ago, but that’s not the worst part. He stole his mother’s jewelry and pawned her grandmother’s engagement ring for $20. After that, he took a bus and got a job working in the hotel kitchen. This is the first time he’s tried robbing someone. He’s off to a great start.
Virginia wants Martin to call his mother, but he doesn’t believe she cares about how he’s doing. After stealing her jewelry, that wouldn’t be surprising. But Virginia thinks that any mother would want to her from her son. Martin can’t afford to be put in a program to get any sort of help, but Dan does. He’ll help- reluctantly, I figure- but only if Martin calls his mother.
At the office, Bill, with Jane’s assistance, goes over dysfunctions- male dysfunctions. Nora, star of the class, is ready to listen: primary and secondary impotence, premature ejaculation, incompetence, and male dyspareunia. Secondary, for example, involves a man or woman observing themselves during sex. If they’re self-conscious, their sexual drive goes down.
Lester butts in, demanding that Bill talk about female sexual dysfunctions. That, Bill says, may require its own separate course. A remedial course, is what Jane, with a hint of snark, calls it. But Lester counters that she sang a different tune last night. That’s enough for Bill to call for a 15-minute break.
But Nora continues to read. Bill notes Nora’s gift, but again, Nora just finds this all so interesting. And with little schooling. Her last science course was biology in high school. She started, but never finished college, though she’d like to return someday.
Nora sees that Bill has changed. She used to be afraid of him when she was young. She once fell off her bike right in front of the Masters’ home when she was 10. Libby patched her up, but Bill didn’t say a word when he later took Nora home. It’s like she didn’t even exist.
Back at the casino, Dan informs Virginia that Mr. Avery has turned down the proposal. Virginia, feeling a bit remorseful, admits to Dan that she canceled all of her appointments, as he figured she would. They discuss Martin for a bit, with Virginia saying that, based on what Dan did, he would make a good father.
Bill prepares to operate on Celeste, who talks about palm reading and knitting circles. She’s careful not to say anything too informative, as she still has to go along with this ruse.
However, we soon cut to Bill speaking to Celeste and Austin, telling them that conception without intervention is impossible. Since Celeste has never had sex, it would take a literal act of God to make a child. Why? Because her hymen is intact. Conception for these two would have meant heavy petting.
Celeste admits that the two aren’t married. When Bill asks what Austin gets out of this arrangement, we learn that Elise is trying to take what little custody he has left of his children. He found a lawyer who has a $1,000 retainer. Celeste offered to spot the money. But Austin doesn’t want Helen to be punished because she’ll make a great mother. Wait. Helen?
Bill soon confronts Betty about the deception: lying about a patient’s identity, falsifying records, and an utter breach of professionalism. Personal affairs should be kept out of the office, Bill says. But this is Betty, and we know she’s not one to take Bill’s shit. She calls out of his double talk since he’s not in the position to talk about separating the personal from the professional. She’s a lesbian, not a moron.
Seven years at this job has turned Betty into an expert at looking the other way. Maybe it’s time that Bill does the same for her. With that, she goes back to work.
Another sex session done, Paul asks Libby how she responds when he asks about her day. He doesn’t, so she doesn’t have to. Paul thinks it can’t be easy for Libby to pretend these session don’t happen. After all, she turns off the lights and draws back the blinds. She also doesn’t talk and keeps her eyes shut during sex. Libby insists that this isn’t about Bill. But if it isn’t, then who?
His name, Libby begins, was Robert. Remember him? After Season Two ended, Robert apparently went down to register voters in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of ’64. To my surprise, despite his three arrests and broken nose, he returned to St. Louis alive. I’m guessing he remembered not to go out at night. But two weeks after he returned, he was crossing Delmar Blvd when he was struck by a car driven by someone asleep at the wheel.
For so long, Libby thought of how the two would say their goodbyes, but she still can’t believe that Robert is gone. She can’t give herself to Paul since she already gave it her all.
One more trip to the casino. While Dan is in the shower, Avery speaks with Virginia. He’s there to get Dan to change his mind. Yeah, Dan read the fine print and decided that he wasn’t interested in a $60,000 contract. He was unwilling to relocate to Vegas since he seems to have some ties to St. Louis.
At Austin’s joint, Austin serves drinks to a depressed Betty and Helen. At the very least, they may just be losing one kid to Austin’s three- the only things he did right. Betty still plans to give him the money, though he doesn’t feel right about taking it without giving something in return.
Like Helen and Austin making love while Betty observes.
Jonathan thanks Barton for a great first week. Barton asks how Jonathan knew about him…and his love of classical music. He tries to be so careful and not give himself away. Jonathan sees what other people don’t. That’s his job, after all.
Bill is preparing to close up shop at the office for the night, but before he can leave, he sees a light on in one of the rooms.
Inside, he finds Nora still working. She offers to lock up when she’s done, but Bill asks if she’s sleeping at the office. She is. She has her reasons: she was late on her last rent check. When she came home, she saw her stuff outside and people going through it. Sure, you can’t be thrown out for just one bad check, but it was more than that.
Nora packs up her stuff, thinking that she’s kicked out of the program, but Bill isn’t removing his best student. He insists on giving her some money to get her through the week.
Following this, he stops by Virginia’s home to drop off some chicken noodle soup. Virginia appreciates the nice gesture, but when Bill leaves, Virginia tells Dan that it was just Betty at the door.
Is the fake world we want to live in better than the real world? And if it’s not, maybe we just do it to escape our ordinary lives. A change of pace is nice, but at the end of the day, you can’t swap out your real life for a substitution just because you’ve grown tired of it.
“Surrogates” takes the very concept of a surrogate and applies it throughout, with characters trying to pass off something or someone as something different altogether. What appears simplistic on the surface ends up being more complex when you examine it underneath.
That’s what I felt Nora got at when she compared sex to a watch, which is one of my favorite exchanges of the episode. On the surface, there are hands going around a bunch of numbers. Go deeper, and you find something more layered and meaningful. And Masters of Sex has always strived to have Bill and Virginia uncover the mysteries of human sexuality. When characters go through that magical experience, like Margaret, for example, their lives change.
It’s like swapping out one life for a new one. It can be fulfilling, but at some point, as Libby wonders, you ask yourself if that’s enough. Is it worth substituting out your normal life because you need a form of escape?
This is what Libby goes through this episode when she shuts out Paul at almost every chance she gets. Though I’d argue that this started last year during her affair with Robert, the show continues to explore this other side of Libby.
But I want to address the Black elephant in the room that is Robert’s apparent death. Remember, we met this guy first during “Blackbird” last season. He and Libby were at odds, but soon became embroiled in a sexual adventure that Libby hadn’t experienced for years from Bill. Robert wasn’t exactly an integral character to the series and I still don’t think Libby’s love for him absolves her of the shitty way she treated Coral, but two things came out of the affair that I noticed: her desire for another man and we learned through this affair that she knew all along that Bill had been having an affair for years.
She had formed a deep bond with Robert. At first, she didn’t like him, but then they changed and grew closer together, like real people. And despite all of that, not only was Season Two’s finale the last time we saw him, not only do we have to wait eight episodes into Season Three to get any sort of mention, not only does he not get a proper sendoff, but he doesn’t even get the courtesy of an on-screen death.
Libby’s admission feels like this is the first time she’s said this to anyone, which I find strange, given her connection with Joy, before and after her accident. She makes her bond with Robert sound stronger than it is, neglecting to mention that she initially found him to be a threat. I’d have bought this confession a lot more if Libby did something like accidentally refer to Paul as Robert, but the way she delivers this admission makes it seem like she’s been rehearsing this moment.
She initially didn’t have a problem substituting her unhappy home life for a fictional one as Paul’s pretend wife, and she’s perfectly capable of separating emotions from sex, unlike most of Bill’s applicants, but something still doesn’t feel right and there’s clear evidence on Libby’s face that she isn’t proud of what she’s doing. Even though she knows that Bill has been lying to her face for so long about his extramarital affairs, Libby finds no pleasure in coming down to his level. I don’t buy her telling Paul that she can’t give herself to him, given how she’s been chewing him out for so long.
The substitutions continue in the casino as well. But Virginia resists the temptation to substitute her busy life for the flashy, but unfulfilling one that a woman like Cookie lives. Cookie says that “We do our part” and Virginia looks physically uncomfortable. Cookie represents everything about women that Virginia doesn’t want to be: she’s not ambitious, she keeps her mouth shut and prefers to be a trophy, and wants to just tag along with her man so she live and spend without a care in the world.
But Virginia can’t let that happen. She has no problem lying to Bill because she’s smitten with Dan, but she can’t bring herself to separate the professional from the personal, just as Dan figured.
In this instance, I like that Virginia is committed to her work and never stopping to continue her research. There will always be new avenues to explore and she found a way to tie the four stages into her discussion about scents. Unlike Cookie, Virginia actually paid attention to what Bill talked about, but she also learned and applied the knowledge she gained through her work.
As I said, though, surrogates still existed in this storyline, coming in the form of the returned soldier. Not a long appearance, but Martin is meant to be a stand-in for Henry. It’s a glimpse of the horror that Virginia feels may have befallen to her own son. At the very least, I’m glad that Martin and Henry didn’t serve in the same unit, as it would just be one cosmic coincidence if the one soldier trying to rob Virginia just happened to also know her son.
Plus, Virginia swaps out Bill for Dan, and she seems much eager to get in the sack with him than she has been with Bill this season- or, at least, since Dan Logan first appeared. And it’s easy to see why. Bill is cold and sterile, but Dan is charming and the life of the party. Even though Virginia admires Dan’s willingness to help Martin, even going as far as saying he’d be a good father, it’s worth remembering that he’s also a married man. So that makes two married men that Virginia has under her.
Before getting to Bill, Betty, and Nora, I want to get some smaller storylines out of the way that didn’t work as well for me. Barton seems to exist in his own world. He still works at the office, but we don’t see him interact with anyone else at all outside of this newcomer, Jonathan, who looks to also be a homosexual. Or, at least, I got that vibe. Whether Barton knows that remains to be seen since he looks like he’s stuck on the classical music option. Barton gets all of two scenes this episode and they really could have been combined into one. It’s just a reminder that he’s here.
Lester and Jane’s bickering this week felt like a sudden shift from the warmer conversation they had in the previous episode. Sure, Lester probably still wasn’t satisfied with Jane choosing to help Keith, but she seemed to be doing it from the goodness of her heart and not just an excuse to be nude with him. Hell, she even talked with Lester about it.
He’s not fine with it, but his decision to be a surrogate is just to get back at Jane. He comes off as petty here and I don’t like that because Lester generally has been able to keep his emotions in check when it comes to work. He can’t separate emotions from sex because he’s so focused on getting back at Jane.
But let’s get to Betty. Her reason for a surrogate is desperation. She and Helen want a baby so bad that they’re willing to do whatever it takes, even if it means lying to Bill. I wonder two things, though: if it was as simple as getting Austin to have sex with Helen, why not just go with that from the start? That would have saved the trouble of Bill discovering that Helen’s hymen is intact.
And I must question why she wasn’t upfront with Bill from the start. Again, Betty knows Bill very well and is more willing to go toe-to-toe with him than Virginia. She knows what’s going on in the office and isn’t afraid to call out his bullshit, which I like. For my money, Betty may be the most outspoken female character on Masters of Sex, and that makes her a great challenge for Bill, who always puts professionalism above everything else.
But Betty is much smarter than that and doesn’t let Bill get on his high horse. Yeah, she’s still in the wrong for lying and falsifying information, but she didn’t know how Bill would react. I blame the writing on this. Betty is not ashamed of who she is and Bill already knows that she’s a lesbian. Just come forward and admit that you need his help, Betty. The worst Bill could have done is say no. And Betty had a real point- she’s looked the other way so many times, so it’s not like Bill couldn’t have helped her.
Side-note, I did find the scene of Bill operating on Helen a bit humorous and maybe even a bit meta, if only because Michael Sheen and Sarah Silverman are a couple in real life.
But onto Bill, who can’t see the irony in telling his increasingly distant wife that humans cannot survive without touch. Bill tells Libby that not everyone can find an adequate partner, so a temporary substitute is provided in the meantime. Virginia became a substitute for Libby, but now Nora has become a substitute for Virginia. It’s clear that Bill sees great potential in Nora. There’s the same drive and passion to learn and think outside the box in Nora that Bill saw when he first met Virginia.
While I’ve found Bill trying to be nice just a bit awkward at times, I found his compliments towards Nora to be genuine, especially when he learns that she was afraid of him at one time. He doesn’t help her because of their past association or her desperation, but because he wants what’s best for her. He’s willing to let her stay at the office so she can get on her feet. You wouldn’t find Bill giving that luxury to most participants.
And Nora’s interest in sex also comes off as genuine and not just a desperate attempt to show off. She has history with Bill, but she’s not using that to curry favor. She even thought that getting caught staying at the office would get her thrown out, but Bill wouldn’t have that. I am curious about her living situation if she’s so far behind on rent that she’s been set out of her home. Where does she work? If she didn’t finish college, what does she do during the day besides study? Maybe we’ll find out in a future episode.
Briefly on the performance behind the character. Emily Kinney brings a real innocence to Nora, but at the same time, she’s seasoned and ready to learn more about the mysteries of sex. It’s nice to see her in this sort of role and I’ve enjoyed Kinney’s past work on The Following, The Flash, and, of course, The Walking Dead. Well, her character, Beth, took some time to grow on me, but I’m getting off track here.
“Surrogates” is mixed for me. There’s a lot of interesting ideas to explore and I really liked the episode going deep into character substitution, but some characters aren’t used effectively and Robert’s off-screen death is disappointing, especially this is the first we’ve heard about him since the end of last season. But on the positive side, Bill and Betty’s confrontation was a highlight that showed just how she won’t stand for his duplicity. Emily Kinney’s character is a welcome one and I’m interested to see what’s next for Nora and Bill.