The Paul McCartney-penned song Blackbird, with a name that inspired this week’s Masters of Sex episode, is both a song of triumph and mourning. McCartney has revealed that he wrote the tune with the civil rights movement in mind, of a people taking their broken wings and showing their resilience by flying “into the light of a dark black night.” Over the years, while the song’s proximity to racial subject matter has not faded, it has become a song to represent death and moving on. Alas, it is an apt title for an episode focused on racial struggle and confronting death at one’s darkest hour.
“Blackbird” is not a flawless hour of television, but it is probably the finest hour of Masters of Sex’s second season so far. Michelle Ashford and the show’s writers keep bouncing around between the various subplots without too much attaching of the story strands to become one greater whole. However, even as the show’s creative team has some difficulty bridging these gaps, “Blackbird” reveals some striking similarities between all of the characters and their situations.
Here, episode scribe Eileen Myers, aided by director Keith Gordon, find the ways to shroud the characters in shadow to reveal just how in the dark everyone is. In one connection near the episode’s end, both Lillian and Libby look at out their window, solemn and slightly defeated, as they comes to grips with something – a disease, a desire – they have little control over.
The first shots of the episode are two women in silhouette; of Virginia lying in bed and Bill mounting her, and DePaul lying rigid on a board as a doctor prepares to do a test. The two women draped in black in these opening moments are all hiding things that come to light in the next hour: DePaul is not defiantly trying to conquer death as Virginia thinks, but wants to succumb to it as quickly and painlessly as she can. (In later scenes, the black surrounding DePaul’s bed is a haunting visual cue for how she is slipping further into darkness.) Virginia’s first line to Bill is an order not to kiss her, but she does have deep feelings for him and cannot resist the urge later on. Meanwhile, she has a beau waiting at home with her children – the one she met at the hotel lounge at the end of “Fight,” played by Barry Watson.
So much of “Blackbird” is thrust under dim lighting and heavy shadow. The creative choice suits the themes of the episode to such an extent that it does not feel like an overbearing stylistic move on the director’s part. Bill is under the microscope as well this week, as he tries to reassure Dr. Hendricks that the study has a place at Buell Green. He hires a journalist to come in and write a piece about his efforts to reinstate the study and explore sexuality with a wide range of African-Americans. He wants his study to quell the poor stereotypes that Black men are virile like animals and their women more sexually hungry and available.
However, when he comes under the microscope for some of his past misdemeanors and poor behavior, Bill threatens to publish those stigmas in the study if the article sees the light of day. He may want to dispel stereotypes, yet he has trouble realizing his own biases and preferences. Of course, since this is an episode that pulls apart Bill, disarming his superiority as his hubris gets him fired from yet another hospital, Sheen is shattering once again.