A review of tonight's “Masters of Sex” coming up just as soon as the chef walks the cow through a warm room…
“And I never did. Not once. I took it. Like a man.” -Bill
The people who work in television don't have a lot of time to actually watch television, which means that sometimes what seems to be an homage to – or rip-off of – another show is actually a complete coincidence. “Masters” showrunner Michelle Ashford isn't a “Mad Men” viewer, and when I ran into her at a press tour event last week and began describing the plot of “The Suitcase” to her – specifically the part about it also taking place on the night of a boxing title fight – she began to look mortified. Her plan with “Fight” wasn't to do the “Masters of Sex” equivalent of “The Suitcase,” even if that's somehow what happened.
But what's great about “Fight” is that despite all the obvious (if unintentional) parallels to that classic “Mad Men” episode, it really does feel like its own thing. Yes, it's our two central characters spending a night hashing out their personal histories and relationship with each other, while a boxing match happens in the background(*), but it's so specific to the Bill/Virginia relationship – and to the difficult parts of their past that brought them to each other – that it ultimately stands on its own as a marvelous two-character piece.
(*) My biggest complaint about the episode, actually, is the way that the Moore/Durelle bout (which happened in October of '59) seems to last for several hours at a minimum, based on what Bill and Virginia do while watching it, plus Bill's ability to make the half-hour drive from Alton back to St. Louis before the fight ends.
That long two-person interlude at the hotel is primed first by an unusual case for Bill at the new hospital, where he delivers a baby that is genetically male, but with ambiguous genitals. The new father's desire to castrate the baby – “Better a tomboy than a sissy” – is horrifying through the lens of any era, but Amy Lippman's script wisely doesn't try to make Bill too far ahead of his time on this issue. For Bill, this is a matter of science – the blood tests show that this is a boy, and surgical options exist that will allow him to mostly look and function like one – but also a matter of personal investment. Having been raised by a father very much like this horrible bully, Bill knows exactly what it's like to have one's manhood found wanting, and he plans to fight for this boy, not realizing just how quickly the dad will move to get his way in Bill's absence.
We follow the baby's ordeal throughout Bill and Virginia's night together – and I still wince thinking about the sequence where he's held in the glass enclosure to be x-rayed – so the story stays fresh for the climax, and so we are also constantly aware of the parallels between this victimized child and Bill(**). Bill can't punch out the baby's father, so he instead turns to the Moore/Durelle fight, and recalls the prep school boxing lessons he took in the hope of one day being able to defend himself from his own abusive dad.
(**) Like “Mad Men,” “Masters” has a tendency to overplay its symbolism – see also Bill and Virginia's discussion about how it's hard to tell who's winning the fight in any given moment (just as their own relationship constantly goes back and forth between who has the upper hand) but the show as a whole is so great that I don't mind.
Among the fascinating aspects of Bill and Virginia's night together is the way that they keep sliding in and out of the Dr. and Mrs. Holden role-play. It's important to both of them that they hide behind these false identities so the whole thing will feel like less of an affair, and we also see how much Virginia enjoys the mechanics of their game and the chance to dream up a new and different version of herself. But we also see through the night just how badly these two want to connect with each other for real, how much they need to share a part of their true selves with each other. Bill doesn't like talking about his father – to the point where he let Libby think he might be capable of being a good father himself – but it helps him to open up about that abusive relationship, just as it helps Virginia to tell the story of the soldier who helped shape her into the sex-positive but romance-averse figure we met at the start of the series. And you will note that as the evening goes along, she begins referring to him as Bill, rather than by the Holden alias.
So they talk, and they have sex, and the play various power games (sometimes as part of having sex), and they eat and watch the fight, and we build to the moment where he tries to teach her how to box. It feels for certain like we are five seconds away from Bill accidentally giving Virginia a black eye (or vice versa), but instead their shadow-boxing ends not with a landed punch, but with Bill's hair caught awkwardly in Virginia's bracelet. And soon they are fighting not with their fists, but with their sexuality, as Bill – trying to avoid Virginia's pity – undoes her robe and gets her to pleasure herself rather than doing it for her. (We know already that Virginia is more than capable of flying solo, but in this particular moment, it's her demonstrating her self-reliance in the same way Bill had to when his father abandoned him.)
Bill suggests that the ultimate insult one fighter can give another is to drop his guard, suggesting that his opponent's best shot isn't good enough to bother defending against. But these two repeatedly drop their guard with each other during “Fight,” including that fascinating and uncomfortable moment when Virginia has to stand naked for Bill to study and order around, and neither seems put off by it. Every now and then, it even seems like the evening might bring them closer, but it's not to be. They don't kiss, and as they say their goodbyes, Virginia is once again describing all their activities that evening in the most dry and clinical of terms. There seems an opportunity for a gender-reversed version of the fairy tales that her daughter enjoys so much – one in which the princess saves the prince (or, at least, in which the two save each other equally) – but this isn't a fairy tale. It's the story of two damaged individuals who fill certain needs for each other, but never all of them, and never at the same time. They go round and round the ring in circles, sometimes trading blows, sometimes hanging onto each other for dear life, but there's no victor at this point, and there may never be one.
What a great, great episode, and what a fabulous showcase for Sheen and Caplan. This remains one of the very best shows on television, and “Fight” was perhaps the best example yet of why Showtime should keep “Masters of Sex” around for as long as Ashford and company want to keep making it. I'm eager to see the later phases of the Masters and Johnson partnership, but if the late '50s material can continually be this much of a knockout, I don't ever need to jump forward in time.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
NOTE: I'm taking next week off, which means there won't be a review of episode 4.