TV Recap: Masters of Sex, “Phallic Victories” (1.11)



December 8, 2013, 10PM (EST), SHO

A pyrrhic victory is one with such a devastating cost it amounts to a defeat. Though the phrase never appears in the episode, that is what the title “Phallic Victories” is truly getting at I think. Masters is preparing to present his study, which should be a huge coup for him, but all he feels is the massive loss of Virginia. Lillian has made strides in her fight to make pap smears routine, but she will give her life before her work is complete. And, as the episode closes, Virginia comes closer and closer to being “a team” with Ethan. It looks, at first glance, like a victory. But we see the look on her face as the elevator doors close and know, deep down, that it is nearly synonymous with defeat.

In a lot of ways, “Phallic Victories” is kind of conventional. Bill keeps slipping and calling Jane “Virginia” (or, more accurately, “Vir-Jane”), and is constantly envisioning her as she guides him toward being the great man she saw in him and he cannot bring himself to be. Virginia defends Bill to Lillian, even as her assessment isn’t exactly wrong, and her bitterness is well earned. These two are circling each other even as they try to repel one another and it’s because they know each other. Over the course of this season, we have seen them grow to understand each other intimately, and in a way their current partners just cannot. When Virginia sings “You Don’t Know Me,” (a personal favorite) as the episode closes, she’s singing it to Ethan, though he misses the subtext. He is too caught up in his idea of romance to see what she is trying to tell him, and the man who does know her is further away than ever before. When Libby tries to reassure Bill about his sexual competence (about which, more in a moment), she doesn’t understand she can’t possibly give him what he wants because she isn’t who he needs reassurance from.

The episode never comes right out and says it, but Bill Masters learns something tonight, and contrary to Libby’s belief, it isn’t about his penis, at least not really. Bill learns that all of his penis anxiety, in fact, all of men’s anxiety, comes down to a fear about being able to satisfy the women in their lives. Of course, Bill learns this when Virginia literally spells it out for him in a vision, explaining that if he can empirically prove size doesn’t matter (with a sample size that is, humorously, far too small to get the job done), he won’t solve the problem that keeps men up at night, because size isn’t really about size. It’s about a much deeper fear of the sort no empirical study is going to be able to solve. The lesson there is fairly obvious, but the big revelation Bill comes to, the one that actually keeps him up at night when Libby worries he’s concerned about her satisfaction is that the fear comes from the fact that there’s another person in the equation. When Bill tried to pay Virginia off, he was trying to reduce her to a data point, trying to make her into a case file, trying to keep her from being a living, breathing human he was about to crush. What he learns tonight is that he cannot do that, and that is enough to make him lose sleep.

EPISODE 111Virginia is more prominent tonight than she has been in weeks, yet the show doesn’t really solve its Virginia problem, even as it comes closer. We usually see her through the eyes of the men who are obsessed with her, but tonight, we mostly see her through the eyes of Lillian, who increasingly understands that she provides something vital to their operation. This works, insofar as it does, because Lillian sees Virginia through less clouded eyes. Yet ultimately, she too sees Virginia as the means to an end. All of the men in her life treat Virginia as a balm to their wounds, the woman who will come along and make it all better, but even when she is freed from any of them, she is still a bit of an object to Lillian, who sees her as more of a human, to be sure, but also ultimately wants her to continue the work once Lillian dies.

The episode’s ending, though, makes me think the show knows what its doing, has known what its doing with Virginia all along. Because all of that sweeping romance I alluded to above exists between Bill and Virginia. The tragedy that is keeping them apart is that even he, who she opens up to more than anyone else, doesn’t truly know her. What makes the ending of the episode so beautiful and tragic is that Virginia isn’t just singing to Ethan, nor is she singing about Bill. She’s singing about every person in her life. She’s singing to a world full of people that see only what they want in her and miss the brilliant, stubborn, complicated person right in front of their eyes. At the end of “Fallout,” Virginia dropped the bombshell that she now understood she and Bill were having an affair, but that was really a misdirect. Virginia knew they were having an affair long before she found out about Libby’s pregnancy. She quit when she realized Bill didn’t understand her the way she thought he did, didn’t respect her like she had hoped he might. She quit because even after she had opened up to him in every way she knew how, he still didn’t really see her.

So Virginia stands behind glass, in a booth closed off from everyone around her. They can see her, though their view is likely somewhat distorted. And she tells them the truth, even as they are too caught up in what they want to hear to actually understand what she’s saying. Her voice is like magic, and her audience is enraptured. Her tragedy, though, is that no one manages to hear the words she’s saying. They’re too busy listening for the answers they hope to hear.

The Roundup

  • “How does a man save a woman from drowning?” “What?” “He takes his foot off her head. That’s the only joke I know.”
  • “Angela has children.” “Angela has cocker spaniels.” “Where they’re alive, aren’t they? She obviously knows how to take care of them.”
  • “And another thing Vir…Jane!” “That’s what he calls me these days.”
  • “I never did just answer phones, did I Bill?”
  • “When do you stop feeling like you’ve got something to prove?” “There’s always something to prove.”
  • “The…interior footage? The…looking down the mine shaft footage?”
  • “You can’t offer a conclusive finding with a sample size of twelve. You know that. It’s not big enough.”
  • “Twenty-Three times. They must have fallen in love. Did they…fall in love?” “I don’t know. That question lay outside our area of inquiry.”
  • “Can’t seem to get away from vibrators, now, can I?”
  • “You will never be those kids’ father.” “You wanna keep the title, George? You got it. All I want is the job.”
  • “I’m gonna tell them what they want to hear, so they’ll hear what I want to tell them.”
  • “They’re going to realize that if size doesn’t matter, something else does. And they’re going to realize maybe they don’t have it. And maybe Ethan does. That’s the fear, isn’t it? Not that maybe you aren’t big enough. That maybe you aren’t good enough.”
  • “You’re a bigger man than that, aren’t you?” “No. I don’t think I am.”
  • “You’ll never know the girl she was back then. And that’s my consolation prize.”

[notification type=“star”]89/100 ~ GREAT. What makes the ending of the episode so beautiful and tragic is that Virginia isn’t just singing to Ethan, nor is she singing about Bill. She’s singing about every person in her life.[/notification]


About Author

Jordan Ferguson is a lifelong pop culture fan, and would probably never leave his couch if he could get away with it. When he isn’t wasting time “practicing law" in Los Angeles, he writes about film, television, and music. In addition to serving as TV Editor and Senior Staff Film Critic for Next Projection, Jordan is a contributor to various outlets, including his own personal site, Review To Be Named (where he still writes sometimes, promise). Check out more of his work at, follow him on twitter @bobchanning, or just yell really loudly on the street. Don’t worry, he’ll hear.