Last week’s episode of Masters of Sex didn’t get a great reaction from everyone who reviews the Showtime series, but for me it was one of the most captivating episodes of any television in recent memory. If not the whole episode, the scene that occurred in the third act between Bill Masters and his estranged brother Frank.
To explain for those who haven’t watched the show, Bill and Frank’s father used to beat them as children. Bill had been in denial of the beatings his brother received after he had left home, having always saw Frank as the golden child of the family. At one point, Bill mentions how his father’s own name was skipped from him at birth to be given to his little brother Francis. Frank, a recovering alcoholic, speaks of the stories that happened to him in front of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting that he tricks Bill to attending in an earlier episode. To Bill, that’s his life story and not Frank’s. In “Below the Belt”, Bill finally recognizes that Frank isn’t lying. But that doesn’t mean Bill is happy with Frank’s conclusions.
“I forgive you… for leaving me. And I forgive our dad.”
At one point you could see that Bill is feeling remorse for never believing his brother, but his expression changes when he hears that Frank forgives his father for what he did.
“What kind of man forgives that?”
The idea of forgiving those that wronged you isn’t merely built into tenants of Alcoholics Anonymous but also in religions like Christianity. The idea to turn the other cheek and forgive those that wronged you. Frank pushes this concept in his recovery, finding solace in the feeling of letting that anger go. Or at least, he thinks he’s letting it go.
It’s at this point that Bill decides to confront this concept of forgiveness. He begins to tear down the walls that Frank has formed through counselling and meetings. This was all spurned because Frank accused their mother of drinking too much, before accusing Bill of the same. To Frank, the problems of his father, his family and himself were all due to the bottle. It was the addiction of alcohol that led him to the conclusions of the monsters in his life. For Bill, that was dubious, and he confronts Frank head on in the most vicious, visceral way he could.
“You want to forgive me? Forgive me for not respecting you. Forgive me for seeing you for what you really are. A weak little boy who became an idiotic clown. Who grew up to become a gutless, pathetic man.”
Frank can’t take the insults anymore and punches Bill. Bill responds with a few slaps and calls him a little girl before Frank punches again. This time Bill calls him a weak fuck and Frank unloads multiple right’s on Bill that drives him to cackling with blood dripping on his white shirt.
“You’ve been drinking Frank? Huh? See, this is what binds us. Him, living inside us. Not a bottle in sight.”
It’s an intense scene. One which Gwen Inhat of AVClub couldn’t accept as anything other than Bill being a fucking asshole. For her, Frank was healed and forgiving, maybe slightly delusional but had moved on with his life. I disagree with that viewpoint. Frank hadn’t moved on so much as moved towards accusing everyone around him of being an alcoholic monster, instead of merely being an alcoholic that just so happens to also be a monster. Which is, of course, the point of Bill’s confrontation.
Remember, I said this came to fruition because their mother slipped and fell, injuring herself and needing stitches. During the stitch up, Frank decided to accuse their mother of being an alcoholic. Bill hasn’t been particularly forgiving to his mother or nice for that matter throughout Masters of Sex, but he wasn’t going to just accept Frank accusing his mother of something she’s not. Frank hasn’t moved on with his life. He has masked it with the lie of sober sainthood.
While Bill’s response was extreme (Michael Sheen plays him with brilliance of floating in and out of subtle, hush tones and extreme emotional intensity), to goad his brother into violence, the purpose was to show Frank that he was making excuses for human behaviour. Frank wasn’t ready to move on with his life. There was a dead body in his living room and he wanted to throw a Persian rug over it in hopes that people appreciate the rug instead of the rotting corpse. More importantly, Frank entered Bill’s life to specifically try to get Bill to do the same. To blame it all on the bottle.
The confrontation was strong for me because I too have people in my life that some would say I would be better off forgiving and moving on. But there’s something about just forgiving a person who did horrible things to you in order to feel better that I feel is completely selfish and self-aggrandizing. You’re not really doing it because you feel the person has earned your forgiveness or because you’re ready to let go of what they did and move on. You’re doing it to empower yourself, to stand at a higher level and to assume you’re the better person. True forgiveness comes when two parties can admit the wrongdoing and make a spirited effort to become better people. To prove you really feel you did something wrong. In these situations, this is all one person deciding that they are letting go of what another person did because, “that’s what you are supposed to do”. You don’t forgive a hot kettle for burning you. That’s basically what this is.
As much as we are of a society that tries to appreciate the good and bad of the world, to embrace the anti-heroes and mistrust those who seem to do nothing but good, we are also a society that categorizes forgiveness as a virtue instead of paying attention to why we forgive one another. It’s no different than someone using charity as a retort to speaking of the atrocities of another. “Hey, this person doesn’t hate women, they donated to a charity for women!” It’s completely possible to do good for the wrong reasons. To help others out of the pure selfishness of yourself. We all know people who try to push themselves into your life so they can try to fix you. That isn’t a good person. That’s a person who doesn’t reflect on their own actions and only focuses on what it makes them feel. That’s also Frank Masters Jr.
Bill responded in a way that might make you feel he’s a fucking asshole, but he had to be a fucking asshole to magnify what an asshole Frank truly was. And how wrong Frank was to just forgive his father because he wanted to blame his monstrosities on liquor. There is hate in their heart, and if it had any other name than hate? One would call it a virtue. Bill might not have handled his inner demons the way he should, but he’s certainly not hiding from them. Frank is, and Frank will never become a better person by blaming a drink instead of a human. Frank needs to be honest with himself. He wasn’t, so Bill was honest for him.
Is it better to live in a lie than pierce the heart with the truth? Maybe. Is it better to lie to yourself and force that lie on others than allow one to live with their truth? Not a chance. That’s why forgiveness should be earned, and that’s why this episode was so spectacular to me.