Sunday, August 3, 2014

Episode of the Week: Masters of Sex - "Fight"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 2, Episode 3

"I don't want my son to be a boxer.  Nope.  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's going to make him a man." --Virginia Johnson

It would have been easy to characterize Masters of Sex as Showtime's version of Mad Men, and many did at first.  After all, both shows depict a similar era, and thus share an interest in exploring the ways in which society has changed or stayed the same since then.  But in its first season, Masters of Sex quickly broke free from those comparisons, revealing itself to be much livelier and more devoted to examining the many definitions of intimacy.  This week, it circled back around to taking a page from Mad Men's playbook with "Fight," which resembles the "two characters confined to one space, talking for an entire episode" format of "The Suitcase."  The latter is one of the best television episodes ever made, but the former comes as close to filling those large shoes as a TV episode can.

Like "The Suitcase," "Fight" is framed around a monumental boxing event.  Here, it's the 1958 match between aging defending champion Archie Moore and young up-and-comer Yvon Durelle.  It occurs on one of the nights that Bill and Virginia spend at a hotel, under the guise of a long-distance married couple, to conduct their sex study.  The night is one full of intercourse and boxing, but in between that is an illuminating character piece.  "Fight" feels like a lovely little one-act play in the way that Bill and Virginia trade off monologues and revelations.  Talky episodes can sometimes feel too laconic, but this one is absolutely riveting.

It has been said many times before that Masters of Sex is a show about intimacy.  But it's not just about intimacy of the sexual nature, but also the emotional kind, and the latter often takes on more importance than the former.  This episode functions like a fist slowly unclenching, with both Bill and Virginia starting off with their cards close to their chests and then incrementally letting their guards down.  All of it builds to the moment when they're finally able to briefly drop their hands and allow themselves to let somebody else in.  Early in the episode, there's a crucial scene of Bill and Virginia talking to each other in front of a mirror, so that you can see only their reflections, as if to say that you must confront yourself before you can truly be open with others.

Role playing is key to this episode.  Boxing is not an actual fight, at least not really.  It's all for sport -- there's a winner and a loser, but no life and death stakes.  And yet, you're still capable of getting hurt.  In the same way, Bill and Virginia's stories and fake identities reveal some truths.  "Just for the study" isn't just for the study, and as much as they try to make their relationship purely scientific, reality seeps into every crack.  There's nothing but unspoken communication in the sport of boxing, which takes on it's own sort of intimacy.  "It's alot like love that way," Virginia notes.  While Moore and Durelle fight it out on the TV set, she and Bill are involved in their own delicate dance in the hotel room.

What makes "Fight" so terrific is that there's so much to unpack in it.  It's got the framing device of the boxing match, but it also starts off with a hospital subplot that carries out in brief snippets over the course of the episode.  When Bill delivers a baby who's born with both sets of genitalia, he recommends that the parents wait a few weeks to have the child -- whose blood tests reveal X & Y chromosomes -- undergo a procedure to sew up the vagina.  But the father, thinking that the child will never truly be a man, orders Bill to just cut the penis off and deny his baby of its true identity.  Learning more about Bill's backstory with his own macho, abusive father makes it clear to the audience why he has such a personal investment in the outcome of this case.  In the end, he's able to do what he couldn't with his own dad -- beg -- when he desperately implores the baby's father to reconsider his choice.  That it ultimately turns out to be too late is a devastating cap to the storyline.

The story of the baby born with both parts is just one of the many instances where gender roles come up within the episode.  There's also the bit in the beginning about princes and princesses between Virginia and her daughter, which pops up again later when Virginia tells her daughter over the phone that she can choose to define her fairy tales however she wants to.  At the center of it all are these two characters, Bill and Virginia, who defy the traditional perception of their genders.  In the case of Virginia, that's mostly proven to be to her benefit, as we've seen how men are attracted to "the girl with sass," because she's not like other women.  But Bill's failure to live up to his father's perception of masculinity caused him nothing but pain his entire life.

With all these themes and ideas running through the hour, "Fight" proves to be an incredibly dense episode, but writer Amy Lippman and director Michael Apted pull it off with absolute aplomb.  It's also an incredible showcase for Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan.  The two of them are completely magnetic, alternately revealing their vulnerabilities, and displaying an electrifying chemistry.  It's only three weeks in and season two of Masters of Sex is already aiming to surpass the first.  "Fight" manages to be one of the very best episodes of the year, simply by putting two people in a room and having them discover that there's no defeat in opening up.

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