Masters of Sex: Fight

 Posted by on July 28, 2014 at 12:22 am  Masters of Sex
Jul 282014

masters-of-sex-season-the-fight-hotel-room Masters of Sex Episode 2.03, Fight, gives us close to a single-set episode, a venerable form for shows that want to do something different; something singular. Confining two characters together, you reveal those two characters in new and important ways. It’s not an easy form to sustain, though, and there are plenty of potential pitfalls. Most importantly, it has to be interesting, and it has to be organic.

It’s a strange decision for a prestige television show like Masters of Sex to structure a singular episode around a boxing match, when the premiere prestige television show—Mad Men—has already structured what is widely regarded as its greatest episode around a boxing match, and that, too, was a two-character piece. UPDATE: Alan Sepinwall reports that MOS showrunner Michelle Ashford isn’t a Mad Men viewer (the shame!) and had never seen The Suitcase.

Early on in the episode, Professor Spouse turned to me and said that Fight would be about pissing contests; about how much a man has hanging. In part, she was right, but I enjoyed this very well-written episode mostly for its complexity. It is about pissing contests, yes, but about so much more. It’s about combat itself, about feints and parries. It’s about gender perception, and gender roles, but also about fantasy, about surety and the inevitable. It’s about desire, as all Masters of Sex episodes must be, but also about intimacy and respect.

In fact, it’s an episode that reveals itself less in the analysis than the experience. In thinking about how to write about it, turning it over in my mind, finding key moments and significant juxtapositions, I almost found myself quoting the entire episode. And what good is that?

Bill Masters reveals himself piece by piece, and more to Virginia than to his own wife. He stood up to his father simply by refusing to bow down. He is proud of his stubbornness, proud of his refusal to be broken. He does not admit to being wounded, yet he reveals it. Virginia, by contrast, knows she’s wounded, but is no more able to recover from that wound than Bill.

“Let him be who he is,” Bill pleads on behalf of the newborn boy with ambiguous genitalia. He cannot plead this for himself. He may be drawn to Ginny because she insists on being herself.

Yes, it’s a pissing contest. A lot of it is about masculinity–sissies versus “real men,” hiding your feelings versus feeling them, Ginny’s unseen (this week) Henry, accepted for who he is, versus “Sarah,” who will never be accepted for who he is. And a lot of the episode that isn’t about masculinity in particular is about gender roles in general; the predictability of them, the known outcome, the handsome prince rescuing the princess.

And beyond that, it’s about anyone choosing to be who they are. This is revealed most beautifully in the elaborate fantasy surrounding the lives of of Dr. and Mrs. Holden.

I love the ambiguity and tension throughout, the way that Ginny and Bill have their own contest and combat. The scene in which he wants her to beg, and she refuses and instead masturbates, is as startling and powerful and erotic as anything this show has ever offered. It was revealing and yet still full of mystery.

I don’t think this episode was perfect. It was not The Suitcase, however it might have longed to achieve and be exactly that. There were times I was far too aware of its structure; times it seemed to be working too hard. Still, it was pretty damn brilliant, and I applaud the writing and directing. Each episode is better than the one before.

A word about director Michael Apted. He has directed all three episodes of Season 2 so far, and directed the best episode of Season 1: Catherine. Apted is unremarkable as a feature film director, and famous for his amazing documentary “Up” series. I’ve mentioned before that his work on Masters of Sex has been special. He’s also doing Ray Donovan and some other television, so maybe he’s found a home in dramatic TV. An interesting thought. I think the consistency of directing, and Apted’s skill, is really bringing this show home.

By the way, Basketcases may recognize Mad Men‘s own Alexa Alemanni—Allison—as the mother of newborn “Sarah.”

I leave you with a clip from another (nearly) single-set, two-character episode of television that allowed our main character to reminisce about his father.


  18 Responses to “Masters of Sex: Fight”

  1. Looking at today’s recaps/reviews I guess I’m in the minority, because I didn’t like this episode.

    I found it constricted and strained, with way too much sledgehammer symbolism. Unlike The Suitcase, we don’t have four years of pent-up waiting for Bill and Ginny to have a two-hander showcase, and I found myself missing the other characters and plots. MoS is not the most subtle show, but the fight symbolism was unnecessarily labored, and the entire hermaphrodite baby plot was handled too stridently. I mean, they could have just tatooed MACHO MONSTER on the father’s forehead.

    I’m not criticizing the writing, acting, and direction, which were as sharp and classy as usual, but for me personally, the episode came off as draggy and overdone.

    And Deb, I have to take issue with you regarding the “unremarkable” Michael Apted. He’s directed some very good films over the years besides the Up documentaries (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist, Amazing Grace), and it’s worth noting that he started out directing TV, so it’s not exactly a big late-career change for him to be doing MoS. If anything, he’s shown himself to be an extremely versatile talent throughout the decades, directing everying from Bond flicks to comedies and kiddie films.

    • Fair enough about starting out as a TV director, and good call on Gorillas in the Mist. I didn’t see Amazing Grace, but reviews were lukewarm. I just find many of his films very iffy: The World is Not Enough is a mediocre Bond film (and I know my Bond films). Then there’s Chasing Mavericks, Enough, Enigma, and Agatha. Mostly well-behaved and dry.

      • Hey, I didn’t say it was a GOOD Bond film!

        Agreed that he’s had a checkered career, with more meh films than masterpieces to show for it. But I’ve always appreciated his willingness to do all different kinds of projects. So many filmmakers specialize in a particular style or genre: action, or drama, or comedy, or documentaries… but he’s done them all.

        Anyway, he’s always seemed a consummate pro, and I am excited to see him attached to MoS – even if this episode didn’t quite work for me.

  2. Breaking Bad’s two-character single-set “The Fly” is simultaneously one of the most loved and hated of the 60 plus episodes.

    A Breaking Bad podcast referred to such episodes as “bottle episodes” because they are like two characters trapped in a bottle. Vince Gilligan readily admitted that such episodes are often created out of desperation to solve a budget crisis. Necessity is the mother of invention!

  3. (I know, picky, picky, picky) “The Suitcase” wasn’t a two-character, single set episode. It had lots of other characters, including Roger and “the boys” and Peggy’s whole family and boyfriend. Scenes included the bar where Peggy and Don watched the fight, the Greek restaurant with the Acropolis painting, and the fancy restaurant where Peggy’s family was ready to celebrate her birthday.

    • Yes, I did use caveats when I said things like “close to” a single-set episode. Fight wasn’t a true single-set episode either, including as it did the birth of the hermaphroditic baby and his subsequent surgery, as well as Ginny’s scene at home with her daughter.

    • I think the point that needs to be made here is that rather than calling these episodes ‘single set’, they are essentially lead protagonist v lead antagonist character studies

  4. It just occurred to me watching this episode that Bill and Ginny never kiss on the mouth. Just me?

    • Not just you. They even remark on it. It’s part of their pretense that this is just work, and not an affair.

      • Shucks,..I knew there was an episode from last season that I missed. I can not pinpoint which one, though. Arrrgghhh! I, too. find myself comparing to Mad Men. I have to say while Mad Men reigns, I do love MOS. This particular episode must have been very hard for the actors….lots of talking and intense acting….the writers, too, had a tremendous amount of material to get out there that would keep the audience interested. In my opinion, they have succeeded.

  5. It’s interesting that the writers assumed that “biological” (i.e. chromosomal) sex determines identity. A very contemporary (50s or 20-Teens), conventional, essentialist assumption.

    • I agree. Master’s view that the child was genetically a boy and therefore he should be raised as such, was not widely shared at the time. Most doctors would have agreed with the boy’s father, that genetics were irrelevant; that the child was not really a boy because of his “imperfect” genitalia, so he may as well be raised as a girl. I suppose it’s because the boy didn’t conform to the ideal view of masculinity at a time when gender roles were very defined and strict.

      • Sorry I forgot to add that nowadays we take genetics as gospel even when someone’s genetics seems to contradict their physical characteristics. To be fair, in the 1950’s people were still only learning about DNA. Nowadays we take it for granted that many diseases are genetic, that we can use DNA in forensics and in paternity testing. In the 1950’s many of those discoveries were still in the future.

  6. By the way, Basketcases may recognize Mad Men‘s own Alexa Alemanni—Allison—as the mother of newborn “Sarah.”

    She was on but she actually wasn’t the mother! She was a delivery nurse. Someone else on staff said something like, “What have we got, Maureen?” (No doubt meaning what was the sex of the baby) And a nurse standing by (Alemanni) sounded confused as she said, “Dr. Masters?”

    I saw her name in the credits at the end and actually restarted the episode to see which character she had been. I don’t think I necessarily would have recognized her otherwise, although her voice did sound somewhat familiar to me.

    Funny that we had Alemanni in this past episode, and Melinda Page Hamilton (aka Anna Draper) in the episode before that!

  7. No one mentioned it but when they were “role playing” they actually told each other true stories about their lives that neither had told anyone before. As if the role play aspect allowed them to make themselves vulnerable in a way that neither would normally do. It was one of my favorite episodes so far.

  8. […] Bill’s impotence to the night he met Shelly, since we know that Virginia met Shelly the night of the prize fight. Here’s Bill fighting […]

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