“I want to see how it ends.”
That’s Virginia Johnson at the end of “Fight,” Masters of Sex’s finest episode to date (one that single-handedly moved the show from “good” to “great”), talking about the boxing match between Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle that framed the episode’s action—serving as a handy metaphor for the back-and-forth between Virginia and Bill—while also calling back to something she said to her daughter at the beginning of the episode explaining why she likes traditional fairy tales: “You like knowing how things are going to end.”
We already know how this ends. We’ve known since before the show even premiered that Masters and Johnson eventually wind up together. But—thanks to this excellent episode—I still want to see it.
“Fight” was largely a bottle episode, confined to Virginia and Bill’s hotel room save for a few hospital scenes involving a baby born with ambiguous genitalia and the unaccepting father who would rather turn his son into a daughter (despite genetic tests confirming that he is, in fact, a boy) than have his son be “half a man.” And what a breath of fresh air it was to watch a show that has struggled so frequently with cramming too many disparate storylines into each episode take a step back and simply let its two strongest characters be in a room together for an extended period of time.
What transpired in that room was huge—for the characters and for Masters of Sex. We start with Virginia entering the hotel room right as the match is beginning. Moore is the seasoned veteran, going against Durelle, the young challenger. We find out Bill’s a boxing fan, and his money is on Moore. But the first few rounds are rough for Moore and Bill. The latter starts off the “work” session by pinning Virginia against the bathroom wall and having angry sex with her. She’s into it, but afterwards, she tells Bill she “barely recognized” him and asks what he’s upset about. He opens up about his rough day with the baby and its bully of a father (and it’s hinted that perhaps the reason he’s so troubled by it—besides the fact that the idea of turning someone who is genetically male into a girl without their consent is repugnant—is that this man reminds him of his own abusive father). Then Virginia catches a glimpse of the boxing match on TV, likens it to the brutish alpha male personality of the baby’s father and says “I wouldn’t want a son like that. Or a man like that. You’re not like that.”
But Bill’s a boxing fan, and Virginia’s amused by this revelation. “I’ve never seen you so much as glance at the sports page,” she smirks. But Bill gets in a jab of his own here, responding “Well, we don’t ever have breakfast together, do we?” He softens, then, telling her he learned to fight in boarding school, but when she presses the issue and mentions his father, he tightens up again. Another rough round.
When their dinner arrives, they take a few minutes to get their story straight—Virginia (as Mrs. Holden) is tending to her ailing mother in Louisville while her husband Bill (Dr. Holden) practices radiology in Kansas City, and they meet halfway for some quality married-couple time. Virginia wants to liven up the story, adding prison fights and espionage to the mix, and when Bill makes a comment, she says, “You’re making fun of me.” “Aren’t you making fun of us?” he responds. She’s caught off-guard, stammers an “I don’t know” and asks “What are we?” It’s clear she’s not talking about Dr. and Mrs. Holden. She and Bill have sex again. This round feels like a draw.
Afterwards, they sit in bed and have some fun with the Holden personae. (“You surprise me, Mrs. Holden” might be the flirtiest thing we’ve seen Bill say on the show to date.) Then Bill—in character as Dr. Holden—asks Virginia about her romantic past, and she opens up, telling him about her first love, who stomped on her heart by leaving her for his fiancé after a year. That’s why, she explains, she’s learned to “keep your heart out of it.” “What does that say about us?” Bill asks. Once again, Virginia’s caught way off-guard, but Bill quickly brings it back to fantasyland by clarifying “about our marriage.” Virginia pauses, her eyes a little watery, and says “Oh darling, don’t you know I would never marry a man I didn’t both love and desire?” It’s a superbly acted scene, with Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan both driving home that subtext. Things are getting interesting this round.
Soon it’s back to boxing, and Virginia accidentally gets her bracelet caught in Bill’s hair while he tries to teach her how to fight. They cut it out, and she gives him an impromptu haircut to even things out. While in the chair, Bill finally opens up about his father’s abuse (something he, presumably, hasn’t even told Libby). It’s a huge breakthrough, the closest these two characters have ever been, but Bill takes it a step too far when he pulls off Virginia’s robe and does a little lap around her, looking at her naked (both physically and emotionally naked). She asks if he’s going to touch her, and after getting her to admit that that’s what she wants via a reluctant nod, Bill wants her to “tell me how much you want me to make you feel good.” She refuses and instead masturbates in front of him to prove that she can make herself feel good. She’s not ready to tell Bill she wants him. She was hurt by a man with a fiancé before, and Bill’s not just engaged—he’s got a wife at home. Round four goes to Virginia.
As they get dressed and prepare to leave, however, she temporarily puts down her dukes when Bill sits down next to her, puts her bracelet on for her and resumes the Dr. Holden act, referring to it as her anniversary present and promising that next year he’ll do better. It’s a tender moment, and Virginia uses it as an opportunity to tentatively make a move, running her hand through his hair. Bill gives her a surprised look—it’s important to remember that although they’ve had sex countless times, they’ve never held hands or cuddled. Any kind of intimacy like that would be a sign that this is not, in fact, “work.” Seeing his surprise, Virginia pulls back and says “I did a good job” (referring to the haircut she gave him). Nice save. When they get ready to say goodbye, Bill makes his move, quietly saying “This is where a married couple would kiss.” Instead of kissing him, Virginia reminds him he left his wedding band on the table and then offers to write up the session: Two instances of intercourse (mutually satisfying), one masturbatory session and “elements of role-play throughout.” Ouch! A devastating knockout blow.
Except that it’s not. We find out by episode’s end that Moore, Bill’s surrogate this episode, has made an impressive comeback and won the match, just like Bill will eventually win over Virginia. But beyond that, “Fight” was a victory for Masters of Sex that demonstrated what the show is truly capable of and raised the stakes for its two main characters. Unlike Bill, the show has more in common with the young challenger; it’s an up-and-coming drama that learned how to fight by aping the moves of more established shows. But man oh man, it worked this week, and they won. I want to see how it ends.
—If this isn’t the episode that gets Michael Sheen nominated for an Emmy next year, I don’t know what is.
— “They’re having an unspoken conversation. They’re telling each other what they think of each other.” This is Bill talking about boxing, but it is obviously not Bill talking about boxing.
— “He didn’t break my heart. Just my nose once.”
—This was the second week in a row we got a former Mad Men cast member on the show. Last week it was Melinda Page Hamilton (Anna Draper) as Rose’s mother, and this week we got Alexa Allemani (Allison the secretary) as a nurse in the delivery room.
—This episode marked the first time in a long time I’ve yelled “KISS” at my TV.