Finally, an episode with stories that reflect back on past seasons and incorporate the science that helped make Bill Masters and Gini Johnson interesting enough people in real life to fuel a historical drama about their lives.
In fact, most of Bill Masters’ actions in this episode only make sense when you consider his past. Chancellor Fitzhugh once led the charge to have Masters dismissed from Washington University, and publicly insulted him when Masters tried to get a human sexuality course added to the medical school curriculum. But now he needs needs Masters’ fertility expertise: if Masters can help his daughter-in-law get pregnant fast, the draft board will defer his son instead of sending him to Vietnam. Like a pulp-era master-villain, Masters sees this as a great opportunity to Show Them All. What better way than to demand an slot in the faculty colloquium, forcing the chancellor to introduce him as a pioneering scientist in front of the very people who once tossed him out on his ear? It’s revenge, academia-style.
But Johnson is not about to get up on stage in front of that particular audience — after all, she was the one who had to put up with all the crude sexual harassment after that first disaster of a public talk. No problem, says Masters, I’ll do it myself.
But with a high-pressure public presentation looming, Masters really isn’t equipped to handle the curve balls that life starts tossing at him. Although he deals with the prospect of his son starting a fight at school with remarkable calm (and while stitching the kid up!), he goes a bit round the bend when he learns that Johnny was actually beaten and kicked by four boys on the playground. Again, the past intrudes — not just his dreadful and abusive relationship with his father, but the feeling of helplessness from when his Wash U colleagues changed the locks on his office and kept him away from his data. He doesn’t want his son to feel that way, so he tracks down his son’s bully and threatens him.
As with his work, Masters doesn’t know when to stop. And what probably should have stopped at a stern ‘I’m watching you kid’ turns into a cruel tirade that’s hard to watch. (Though really, four attackers, kid needs stitches, and Johnny’s teacher makes the ringleader write him an apology? I’d go apeshit, too, but at the adults involved.) That victory rings as hollow as all the accolades Masters gets after the talk, and it doesn’t improve his relationship with his son one bit.
In the meantime, Virginia’s parents have arrived for a surprise visit, and a smirking Tessa is doing her best to make them aware of Gini’s affair with Masters. Tessa’s behaviour toward her mother has been dreadful through all of this season, but this time it’s thoroughly underhanded: inviting her grandparents to arrive on the day when she’s sure Bill is spending the night, and going so far as to buy a bowtie and stick it in the laundry where her grandmother will find it.
I imagine Tessa expected her grandmother to be horrified about the affair. Far from it, we learn. It’s been hinted at in past episodes, but we get to see what a piece of work Gini’s mother is: passive-aggressive, and incapable of feeling pride in her daughter’s scientific achievements. To her, the only worthwhile thing Gini has done is to steal the affections of an important man, and she should move to seal the deal.
Johnson has other challenges to navigate: convincing Graham to let Margaret use the “nondemanding intromission” technique to help treat his premature ejaculation, and running scent trials to little initial success with Dan Logan breathing down her neck for immediate results. Someone needs to break it to the ‘flavours and fragrances’ guy that it doesn’t matter if you’re paying for the Cadillac of sex research: science doesn’t work like that. There are going to be false starts and dead ends. (And forty years later, we still don’t fully understand smell).
Finally, we have some resolution with Margaret and Barton’s story, as Margaret realises that the only person who’s benefitting from that three-way relationship is Graham, and walks away — something, Barton points out, that she never did in their marriage. She’s changed, and so has he. Enough to call their daughter to tell her the truth about his homosexuality, and hopefully repair the relationship between mother and daughter. At least someone has learned from the past.