Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Masters of Sex #203 “Fight”

Lizzy Caplan
Lizzy Caplan received an Emmy
nomination for her role as Virginia Johnson. 
Keep Your Heart Out of It
by Catherine Giordano

Spoiler alert: If you plan to watch the episode, don’t read this review and recap until after you have watched the episode. I don’t usually post spoiler alerts when I’m just discussing plot and themes, but this episode relies upon the tension between the characters and the tension between what is taking place on the TV screen and the viewer.

This episode was intense and intensely focused. It takes place primarily in the hotel room where Masters and Johnson (aka Doctor and Mrs. Holden) meet for their weekly assignation. There are two main themes: What does it mean to be a man and how past experiences have made both Masters and Johnson guard their hearts carefully. They are both afraid to love. There is a boxing match on TV throughout the whole episode, and this becomes a metaphor for the two themes. 
 
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Bill and Virginia continue to pretend that their meetings are just about the work. When Virginia touches Bill’s head in a tender manner, she quickly pulls back, saying she was just checking the hair cut she gave him.  (His hair became entangled in her bracelet and she had to cut his hair to free him. If only all the emotions that are binding them together could be cut so easily.)   

Bill and Virginia can’t talk to each other directly so they role play as Dr. and Mrs. Holden. They create lives for their alter-egos which express some of their inner desires about who they are. Virginia says that Mrs. Holden’s mother is in prison and Bill says he is a radiologist. Virginia embellishes his identity saying he is working on a secret mission for the CIA to create a radiological pen to be used as a weapon of assassination. It is obvious that Virginia craves adventure. 

Bill comes to the hotel room angry. He delivered a baby that had ambiguous genitalia.  A blood test revealed that the baby was a boy—he had the XY chromosome--but the baby’s father will not accept this.  Bill assures him that when the child is older, a specialist can operate on him so that his outsides will match his insides.   

The father is adamant that his son can never be a man and the male genitalia must be removed immediately. “Better a tomboy than a sissy” and “It’s easier to make a hole than a pole.”  Bill learns that the father has found a general practitioner to do the operation, and we see the “surgeon” looking at a book in the operating room as he learns how to perform the operation as he is doing the operation. Bill is distraught and begs the man to stop the operation, but the father won’t listen. Bill sees that the man is a bully just as his own father was a bully. 
 
So Bill arrives at the hotel room angry. At first, he appears to be too upset to engage in sex, but then when Virginia  goes to have a bath, he follows her into the bathroom and takes her roughly, holding her against the wall. 

Bill is venting his anger on Virginia, but he is also showing her that he is “real man.”  He lost the fight with the baby’s father and must now win it with Virginia. In the meantime, a fight—a boxing match--is playing on the TV.
  
Bill tells Virginia about how is father sent him to boarding school at the age of 14, and he was never allowed to return home again. But before heading off to school, the two went to New York City and had a father-and-son bonding moment getting a shave together at the Waldorf Astoria barbershop. This moment of closeness made his father’s abandonment all the more painful to Bill. But to admit to that pain would make him less of man--even though he was still only a boy. At the school, before he had even unpacked, he sought out the coach and said he wanted to learn to box. Because that is what men do. They fight. 
 
Bill’s father was always fighting with him, pretending to be playing the way bully-fathers do. Bill was beaten in these fights, but he would never cry or back down. Bill’s father would say, “I’ll stop hitting you. All you have to do is get on your knees and beg me to stop.” Bill would never do it. Why do some father’s want to humiliate their sons?  
 
Bill described some of the moves in the boxing match as a game of manhood.  Sometimes a boxer will take a punch he could have avoided to show that he can take it.  Sometimes he’ll lower his hands as a way of insulting the other guy.  Bill tells Virginia it’s a way of saying, I’m not afraid of you. You’re weak. Virginia is as bewildered by all of this as I am. This is why men like boxing?  It’s a game of manhood.  

The whole fight motif is an echo of an episode from last season when Ethan (Virginia’s lover) and George (Virginia’s ex-husband) get into a pissing contest about who is manlier as they taunt each other about body hair. The series has been building up to this climatic manhood episode. 
 
Now we know why Bill always has to be in control. We know why he is afraid to be around his son. (He might be just like his father.) When he lost the battle with the father of the baby he delivered, it was like losing to his own father again. No wonder he comes to the hotel so angry, so needing to dominate, so needing to prove he is a “man.” 
 
Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson
Lizzy Caplan as Virginia Johnson
 as Mrs. Holden in the hotel room
Then Bill tries boxing with Virginia. He doesn’t actually hit her, but he shows how he could beat her. Virginia is a person who likes to win, and she is getting angry.  Bill wants to taunt and dominate her the way his father did with him. He takes it even further when he brings sex into it. He demands that Virginia tell him that she wants him to make her feel good. Virginia is not giving in. She says that she doesn’t need him to make her feel good. Then she stands before him and masturbates to orgasm. 
 
Virginia’s story is that as a young woman just out of high school she met a captain from the local army base. He mentions something about a fiancé, but asks her on a date. They soon become lovers—he is her first. They talk about their future again. Then one day, he announces he is leaving, going back home to get married. Virginia is stunned—her soldier-boy had never once mentioned his fiancé after that first time. She thought he had been kidding about it. Now we know why Virginia wants to keep sex “all business.”   

As Bill and Virginia are getting ready to leave the hotel, Bill asks Virginia how she will write up the session. She coldly replies: “Two acts of intercourse. Mutually satisfying. One masturbatory act. Role-playing throughout. Is that about right?” Bill nods his assent.  But I get the feeling he was looking for something else.  

This episode has layers and layers of meaning. Layers and layers of social commentary on the mores of the time. Layers and layers of meaning about emotional relationships then and now.   


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Masters of Sex has three Emmy nominations: Outstanding Lead Actress for Lizzy Caplan (who plays Virginia Johnson), Outstanding Guest Actor for Beau Bridges (who plays Dr. Barton Scully), and Outstanding Guest Actress for Allison Janney (who plays Margaret Scully). This show so clearly deserves a few more nominations. You can’t get outstanding actors without an outstanding director and outstanding writing. Put it all together and you have an outstanding drama series.   

Do I have to say it again?  Masters of Sex is the best drama series on TV. And “Fight” is one of the best episodes of the series. However, I’ll be glad when they dial the intensity down a bit next week.
 
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