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.