Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 3, “Fight”
July 27, 2014, 10:00 p.m. (EST), Showtime
Masters of Sex has never been about subtlety. It is a show that is happy to beat viewers over the head with its subtext (like the show it most closely and intentionally resembles, Mad Men), and never fears being a bit too obvious. It is a show that figured having a boy born with ambiguous genetalia in an episode where Bill Masters reflects on what it means to be a man was not quite enough, and so weaves the landmark fight between Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle through a long, tense evening between Bill and Virginia, where the two feel each other out, and most of the conversation goes unsaid. No, Masters of Sex isn’t much interested in subtlety, because it’s got something much better: complexity.
“Fight” is perhaps the finest episode this show has done so far, and one of the best things I have seen on television all year. It spends nearly all of its running time in a hotel room, as Bill and Virginia work and play without ever knowing exactly which they are doing at any given time. These two are roleplaying, sure, but they are also being more honest with each other in the process than we’ve ever seen before. There is a lot to this episode on both sides, but its smartest conceit is one it is happy to explain to us: these two are engaged in a fight of their own, feeling out the opponent, looking for vulnerabilities, but not yet sure what to do with them. It’s no mistake that Virginia stares at Moore and Durelle clutching each other and remarks that it looks like love. It’s not the literal boxing between Bill and Virginia that makes this episode stunning (though that was pretty adorable in and of itself), it’s all of the rest of it. It is the way they are learning each other in roundabout ways, feinting to avoid being hurt, while slowly revealing the scars that lead them to build up their respective walls.
By reducing “Fight” to what happens in that room over that evening, the episode manages to give us a deeper look at who Bill and Virginia really are than anything we’ve seen previously. It is shockingly like the one-act play that I joked a few weeks back this show could easily become: with Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan bouncing off each other, Masters of Sex needs little else to be among television’s best shows. And that’s just what we get here, as Bill talks about keeping his fists down as a way of showing his opponent he can take the punch, and Virginia points out that the battle between those two fighters is just as much a battle of those two against the crowd. In the wake of their study’s publication, Masters and Johnson have been left alone in that ring, sniping at each other from time to time, but mostly just trying to hold the world at bay while they do their jobs. They’re each in their own corner, struggling to understand each other while simultaneously trying to shield what they have from the outside world. No one understands what Bill and Virginia have. No one else could. They’re alone in that ring, clutching each other in the middle of a battle and realizing it looks a lot like love.
In the roles of Francis and Lydia Holden, Bill and Virginia finally begin to open up, and what is both fascinating and unsurprising is the first stories that come out when they do so. Both relay stories from their actual pasts, and both wind up telling the story of how it is that they managed to become so closed off. They tell of the events that made them build up walls to keep out the world; they tell the stories of why they can’t now admit they are in love. This is what it means for Bill and Virginia to be intimate, really. They let each other in by explaining just why it is they can’t let each other in. It’s beautiful and sad. It’s calculated and messy. It’s their lives, slowly coming together even as they are being kept at a distance.
Virginia tells the story of how she fell in love with an Army captain, who mentioned a fiancé once and then stayed with her for a year before abandoning her to get married. Bill tells the story of how his father shipped him off to boarding school and told him never to come home. She cycles around to the lesson she learned, that sex was a biological function and that anything beyond that was dangerous. He cycles back to his deepest pain: the abuse he underwent as a child, and the lesson it taught him: be able to take the punch and stay standing. Both Sheen and Caplan no exactly how to moderate their performances, how to keep their guards up even as they are beginning to lower them. Sheen has mastered letting that slow quiver into Bill’s voice as he comes close to breaking but just can’t let himself. Caplan let’s a broken glance, a quick downturn of her eyes say more than a whole monologue might about just when the spell between Virginia and Bill is broken for her. Like great boxers, these two communicate physically far more than they do verbally. The sparring is occurring on several levels, and sometimes the words and the actions work at cross purposes. It can be hard to suss out just who means what and when, especially when neither of them is entirely sure themselves.
Much of “Fight” is also trading again in the complexity of gender roles, and while Masters of Sex has always seemed more comfortable wading into the morass of masculinity, there is also a runner here about Virginia and Tessa’s conversation about princesses, what it means to be a princess, and what role a princess is supposed to play in a story. Virginia tries to instill in her daughter that the princess can save the prince, and that there are other roles for a woman to play (the Tooth Fairy, for example? Not a princess, just a fairy). Meanwhile, Bill deals with a child born with ambiguous genetalia. The blood work says the child is a boy, but the boy’s father looks at him and refuses to call him a son. He decides the child will never be a real man, and chooses to “cut it off.” Inevitably, the “it’s easier to build a hole than a pole” determination is thrown out, and a little boy becomes “Sarah,” his destiny forever altered by a short-sighted view of masculinity and a surgery that happens to be the path of least resistance. What begins as a story of Bill confronting the specter of his father and his own ideas about masculinity shifts, when Bill returns to the hospital. In the hotel, Bill tells Virginia that he could have made his father’s abuse stop if he had just begged, but he wouldn’t, not ever. When Bill goes back to that hospital, though, he is willing to beg. He is willing to put aside his pride in an attempt to save the child from a lifetime of pain and confusion.
Ultimately, “Fight is about the battle for a binary in a world that is very rarely that simple. Boy or girl? Winner or loser? Lover or coworker? Everywhere in this episode, and all around us in daily life, people fight to reduce complexity to a binary, to boil things down until they lose any distinguishing characteristics and can be easily categorized. We are shoved in boxes from day one, and told it is our fault if we don’t quite fit. We are given options, then told which one of them is the right one to choose. We even try to label ourselves, to better contend with all of our contradictions, to solve ourselves so we can solve the world around us. We’re all of us grappling with ourselves, even as we struggle with each other. We’re trying to stay standing because we’ve been taught not to fall. We’re performing for ourselves as much as for everyone around us. But the fight isn’t just about who gets knocked down and who stays standing. It’s about the conversation that happens before, about the way two people interact and what they find in each other to respect. It may not be very subtle; throwing punches rarely is. But don’t let that convince you it’s simple. In reality, there’s nothing more complicated.
- “There’s a very wide spectrum of normal as far as genetalia is concerned.”
- “You know, ‘Hello. How was your day?’ is also a good opener.”
- “Isn’t that what every man wants? A son?”
- “I’ve never seen you so much as glance at the sports page.” “Well we don’t have breakfast together, do we?”
- “Francis.” “And I’m?” “You…do not have a name…”
- “You’re making fun of me.” “Aren’t you making fun of us?”
- “If you stand atop a hill and look into a valley and say ‘I want a house with a view like this,’ and he says ‘It’s the second thing I want to see every morning, after you,’ aren’t you imagining the same future?”
- “Oh darling, don’t you know I would never marry a man I didn’t both love and desire?”
- “When you invite a punch, you’re saying you can take it. So what looks like weakness is actually it’s opposite.”
- “We both got left.” “Well, he didn’t break my heart.” “No?” “Just my nose. Once. A left hook. He did me a favor. Made me the man I am today. A Kansas City radiologist.”
- “You can’t control the punishment, but you can control your response. And that, in itself, gives you a kind of power. That you can take it, and not run.”
- “When he’s hurt, I don’t want him to act like he’s not. That is not a lesson he needs to learn. And I don’t think that is what’s going to make him a man.”
- “He does other things for me. He takes me seriously. Listens to me.”
- “This is where a married couple would kiss.” “Don’t forget your watch. It’s there. By your wedding band.”
- “I’m begging you. Let him be what he is. A boy.”
- “Are you a fight fan?” “Not really.” “Then what brings you here?” “I want to see how it ends.
“Fight” is perhaps the finest episode this show has done so far, and one of the best things I have seen on television all year.