Masters of Sex is good at drawing parallels between its couples. And in "Giants," which aired last night, it makes the case that Virginia's relationship with Lillian DePaul is as potent as her relationship with Bill Masters. Julianne Nicholson's performance as Lillian has always been an underrated highlight of this show, and "Giants" feels like something of a culmination for her.
"Giants" expands the world of Masters of Sex as Bill Masters begins working at Buell Green, the black hospital, and Betty Moretti's lover Helen (played excellently by Sarah Silverman in a dramatic role) returns to her life. But the episode's two strongest scenes come when Virginia negotiates her partnerships with Lillian and Bill.
Bill tells Virginia that Lillian is wise to their affair/extracurricular work on the sex study, prompting Virginia to confront Lillian about her perceptions. Virginia postures to protect herself, arguing that their affair is simply part of the work—the somewhat false stance she and Bill always take—while Lillian reveals just how deeply she feels Virginia has betrayed her. Not only will Virginia likely leave Lillian when she can get a job with Bill, but also, in sleeping with Bill, Virginia has undermined the work Lillian has done for other women in the medical field. "Don't you understand what you've done makes it harder for every woman who comes after you?" she tells Virginia. "Easier for every man that has designs on that same woman?" The show does not make Lillian out to be entirely in the right, though her outrage is always justified. Virginia points out the financial burdens she has, and how her work, or whatever you will call it, with Bill has no impact on what she has done for Lillian.
But Lillian gets into Virginia's head, and when she reports to Bill at Buell Green, Virginia asks Bill if they can stop their participation in the study. He tells her no, and she appears imprisoned their affair. When they get to their hotel room, however, she turns the tables on him, asking him to masturbate in front of her. It's a moment that echoes the great episode "The Fight" earlier in the season when Bill commands Virginia to ask him to touch her, and she declares that she can make herself feel good without him. She watches, coldly, as he touches himself, but when he reveals that he is thinking of her, she comes to him, putting down her stopwatch and clipboard. Although he takes her face in his hands, they don't kiss, but there's a moment in which they seem to accept that this is more than just the work.
But if Virginia is bound to Bill in a romantic way, she is also bound to Lillian as a colleague, friend, and support system. Lillian calls Virginia after she is found collapsed on a bathroom floor, and proceeds tells her that her cancer has made it impossible for her to continue at the hospital. Virginia tells Lillian how articulate she was when chastising Virginia's behavior. "Did I apologize?" Lillian asks Virginia in regards to their fight earlier in the episode. Virginia shakes her head. "Good," Lillian says, and smiles a bit. "I am scared though, for what's ahead, which means I can't really afford to be upset with you now, can I?" Virginia takes her hand. Virginia is as emotionally linked to Lillian as she is to Bill.
Lillian's tenure on the show has always seemed limited, thanks to her diagnosis, but Nicholson has not only turned in one of Master's best performances, but her character has allowed us to both question and embrace the show's heroine. Through Lillian's eyes we can both criticize and praise Virginia.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.