“Better a tomboy than a sissy.”
The topic of masculinity has become increasingly popular in recent years, as series like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards all keenly put it under the microscope. And it’s not without good reason. People have become fascinated with the elastic idea of what a man is these days, or what they’re expected to be, especially in these hyper-masculine roles that they are often inhabiting. One of Masters of Sex’s most effective moments in its first season is when Bill finally breaks down and cries. It’s a harsh, ugly display that is the furthest thing from being “masculine” but it speaks volumes for his character and what he’s been through in a way that dialogue never could.
“Fight” is an episode wholly interested and deeply concerned with “what is a man?” and by proxy, what is masculinity, whether it’s explored biologically with “Sarah,” the child born with genital ambiguity; physically with the boxing match that serves as the backdrop to Masters and Johnson’s hotel tryst; or even psychologically with what Masters endured as he grew up and what he went through with his father. Everything in this episode feeds into this question and is concerned about providing evidence and getting answers, and because of this laser focus and almost black hole of thematic resonance in play here, it pulls everything together into what is without a doubt one of the strongest installments that the series has ever done, and hopefully a structure that they return to often.
As Bill and Virginia debate sexuality and their profession as they play house and watch a momentous fight play out in the background, this near-bottle episode highlights everything that Masters of Sex does so well. The last two episodes have been so much about keeping Bill and Virginia apart that this one rewards us by giving us an entry that is more or less only them.
This episode is a beautiful distillation of why their relationship is such a powerful part of this show. This episode is their “Fly” from Breaking Bad. It’s their “The Suitcase” from Mad Men. It proudly sits atop the same echelon. And while some people have taken exception to the start of this season so far, almost in a Breaking Bad sense that when these two aren’t working on their study or “cooking,” the audience begins to lose interest. I disagree though and think that what this has actually been doing is showing that this season is more about how their study is important in society, helping the “Sarahs” and Bartons and Bettys out there. People need this help.
The episode sees Bill and Virginia turn a fierce debate on gender into an actual fight and power play as matters escalate. This is an entry that is constantly moving back and forth with Masters and Johnson both playing the roles of educator and storyteller, weaving back and forth, just like the fighters in a boxing match. And that in spite of whoever is right or wrong here, what’s important is that ultimately Bill takes Virginia seriously. He sees her as his equal, as was established at the end of last season, and regardless of who wins in a boxing match, there’s still a fair deal of respect being had outside of the ring too.
As the majority of this episode takes place watching over Bill and Virginia amidst this boxing match, it makes sense to begin there. Moments like Masters teaching Virginia how to box and fight are wonderful mini set pieces that are just as exhilarating as watching the raw sex they have earlier in the episode, or any of their deep discussions about their work. Having this whole episode be based around a boxing match borders on falling apart so easily, with a lot of what happens here coming out of nowhere; the connections to boxing being a throughline through Masters’ troubled childhood, the fight on TV, and Masters and Johnson’s stances on the newborn. It’s heavy, and ambitious, but it works.
Much of this episode, particularly in the boxing match, is concerned with the idea that a man should be made out of aggression and testosterone. However it’s quite telling that Virginia, the only female perspective that’s presented, says that this isn’t what she wants in a man; it’s skewed. “When he’s hurt, I don’t want him to act like he’s not. There’s no lesson he has to learn, and I don’t think that’s what’s going to make him a man,” she says, as Masters breaks down after realizing that his own value system is completely contrary to hers.
It’s also interesting, as Bill and Virginia spar themselves, in a scene that’s about fighting and masculinity, that it’s a woman’s jewelry that breaks up the fight and ends it all. Again, in spite of all of this testosterone, femininity and going against expectations is what is most effective. It’s also worth mentioning that Masters still considers himself to have won their “fight,” regardless of what happened with Virginia’s jewelry. Masters played by the rules, and jewelry getting caught and ending the fight is cheating and bending the rules, which he can’t stand.
While Bill and Virginia throw themselves into this hotel room all episode, Virginia still mothers from the room, whereas Masters is gone completely with no need to check in at home or his job. They utilize roleplay during their stay, and it feels like Masters is lost in it entirely, whereas Virginia is still within reality, even though she may be slipping on a wedding ring while she does it.
The brief time spent in Virginia’s home with her children, presents us with her daughter preoccupied with fairy tales; many stories telling her daughter that there is only one kind of prince, and often one who has undergone some sort of mutation. Virginia’s daughter also admits to loving fairy tales because she wants to know how things are going to end. Something that Virginia also admits to, as this world is full of such uncertainty whether it be boxing matches or the future in general, it’s a nice totem to hang onto.
As all of this is going on Masters and Johnson have freedom in this huge suite that they’re in. They’re both hiding behind the testosterone of the fight on the TV, yet this child that has been born with the anomaly doesn’t have any, as Masters tries to assert his masculinity and sexuality. The framing throughout all of this also reflects the same idea. Bill and Virginia are seen divided in separate mirrors and pulled part. Their relationship being rendered ambiguous much like baby “Sarah’s” genitalia, as they shift between relationship and work talk.
While a whole panel discusses whether or not to do surgery on this baby that is born a boy but with ambiguous genitals, and whether they should keep it as is, or cut them off entirely, this again feeds into the idea of needing something else to be a man. Whether it be shots here, or in the case of the fairy tales that consume Virginia’s household, a mutated prince isn’t considered a man until their face is fixed. Virginia even talks about a former suitor of hers who disappeared years ago only to learn that he was married the whole time, only having mentioned his engagement once before. Again, there’s the idea of mutation here, with this Jekyll/Hyde sort of dynamic. Yes, this man is married, but what sort of manliness includes cheating on your wife and stringing along a woman? That in spite of everything, whether it be going to boarding school, getting beat up, or winning a boxing match, it’s all irrelevant in the end when your masculinity can still just be stolen away from you. Masters echoes the idea of “Let him be what he is. A boy,” but such a simple idea may not be as easy it seems anymore.
This whole situation is one of the better “patients of the week” that the show has ventured into, and while it’s pretty obvious to see the parallels between doctors trying to define what this baby’s gender is as Bill and Virginia try to define what their relationship is as they begin to do roleplay, but it meshes well.
It’s also long time to finally learn about Bill’s troubled childhood, and the results are as satisfying as you’d hope they’d be, and perfectly pulled out of him with the boxing framework. We learn that Masters had to learn to fight in boarding school due to his father beating him up all the time, in a vicious cycle that hopefully doesn’t also result in Masters in time beating his own son, Johnny. A thought that seems to be on Masters’ mind much more than he let’s on. Sheen does some terrific work through this episode, but Bill’s crushed smile as he talks about the frequency at which his father beat him is incredibly effective. It’s deeply moving when we find out the reason that Bill’s father broke his nose is perhaps the saddest reason of them all, that he can’t even remember why it happened. When Masters reveals the only positive father/son moment he can think of, it’s one that’s drenched in fake masculinity and faux testosterone with nothing behind it. A fourteen-year old is getting nothing from a professional shave. It’s an empty gesture hiding in gender.
As this goes on in the well-lit hotel room and Virginia reiterates that a ball of violence is not what a man should be, Bill is often hiding himself in shadows with his hands. The two of them are also dressed in the simplest of black and white attires as they discuss this gender issue that is anything but. It’s touches like these that continue to prove that director Michael Apted is just killing it this season. Virginia’s heightened orgasm breaths being overlayed on the bobbing and weaving of the boxing match is a stylistic highlight of the week.
It may be a little transparent that Virginia appears to be at her most vulnerable and naked after Masters reveals his past to her. Both of them then retreat into the safety of roleplay to distance themselves and be free. The two carry on all night, much like the boxers in the ring, or the doctors mulling over the situation of what to do with “Sarah.” But if the outcome of the fight is any indication, looking tired doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re tired. You can take it if you push yourself hard enough, and vulnerability is actually strength. So while Masters struggles with any of the decisions that he’s making, he’s at least using this vulnerability as strength. He might be down at the moment, or even next round, but he’ll keep bobbing and weaving. He might feel like a man sometimes. He might not at others. But he’ll keep bobbing and weaving. Virginia and her daughter might be interested with knowing what happens at the end, but Bill is just concerned with being in control of it.