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Masters of Sex, episode 3: one of the best episodes of TV this year

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Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) cradles a newborn baby with ambiguous genitalia.
Bill Masters (Michael Sheen) cradles a newborn baby with ambiguous genitalia.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The fight between light heavyweight world champion Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle occurred on October 12, 1958, and lasted 11 rounds. Though Moore was champion, he was, at 41, nearly at the end of his career. The Canadian Durelle, around 13 years younger than Moore, was seen as an up-and-comer, but his career, too, wasn't long for this world. He would later transition to wrestling. The bout was long and grueling, taking much out of both men, but the champ won in the end, with a knockout in the 11th round. He had fallen thrice in the first round, but he kept getting back up. In the end, he simply outlasted Durelle.

"Fight" is an exemplary episode of television, probably the best episode of Masters of Sex yet. Watching it, it becomes all the more apparent why the season has been so skimpy on the moments between Bill and Virginia, because outside of a handful of short scenes, this is all Bill and Virginia. It's about a great many things, like what it means to be a man and the ways that trauma can reach up from our childhoods to swallow us whole. But most of all, it's about the word in its title, as both a noun and a verb.


As honest as possible

Amy Lippman's script closes Bill and Virginia in the same hotel room for the better part of the evening on which the Moore/Durelle fight is taking place. Bill, it turns out, is something of a boxing enthusiast, thanks to reasons that are teased out throughout the hour, while Virginia knows very little about it. A boxing match, Bill says early in the episode, is a conversation told entirely in feints and punches. Keep your fists down to insult your opponent (since it indicates you believe you can take his punch), for instance. Later, Virginia observes the two men grappling in a tightly-held embrace and remarks that it's a lot like love. They're fighting each other, sure, but they're also locked in the same battle against the crowd.

The words have a particular resonance for Bill and Virginia, who have had their lives cast asunder by the poor reception to the study. He's in a different job. Hers is slowly disintegrating as Dr. DePaul's condition worsens. They're in a kind of love, but it's a love they necessarily need to hide from the rest of the world. Bill and Virginia might snipe and argue with each other, but they're also the only two people in the ring, the only two people who understand what it is to be in the relationship between Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson.

By structuring "Fight" as a series of long conversations (and occasional sexual assignations) between Bill and Virginia, Lippman is able to boil these two characters down to their essences. Ironically, the two of them are able to be honest with each other, perhaps the most honest they've ever been, because they're being other people, specifically Francis and Lydia Holden, the doctor and his wife whose identities they adopt for their clandestine trysts.

The official story is that Francis and Lydia meet in Alton, Illinois, because it's halfway between Louisville (where she is supposedly caring for a sick mother) and Kansas City (where he has his fictional practice). Virginia rejects this story as boring and suggests that, instead, she should be visiting a mother who is stuck in prison, while Bill should be a man who is working as a radiologist for the government, developing a radioactive pen that will take out Khrushchev. They have no children, no real lives outside of this hotel room. But when "Francis" and "Lydia" start to talk, they have pasts. They're just the pasts of Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson, finally given life in a fictional context. This is as "real" as they've ever been with each other. This is what it might mean to finally be intimate.


The dangers of back-story

The first season's hints about Bill's past as an abused child didn't quite work. They were teased out but didn't really go anywhere, as if showrunner Michelle Ashford and her writers weren't entirely sure how much weight they could give those painful memories from his past. Give them too much, and they might take over the show with potentially strained moments when Bill remembered the past through sorrowful tears. Give them too little, and it would seem like the show was simply brushing those memories off. In general, Masters skewed too far toward the latter in season one, and it only barely managed the trick because Bill is such a fascinating, closed-off character, who wouldn't simply up and start talking about his past.

In "Fight," though, the show deals with the potential dangers of this back-story head-on. After Virginia tells Bill the story of a time she fell in love with an Army captain as a teenager, only to find that he intended to keep up his engagement to a fiancée he mentioned but once, he slowly circles around to stories of his father, a hard man who wanted nothing more than for Bill to hit back when he began punching the boy. But Bill, proud to a fault, refused. He wasn't going to give the man the satisfaction, and it eventually landed him in boarding school at the age of 14. He would never return to his home as a child, spending even holidays at the school.

Michael Sheen's performance has always been one of the most potent on television, but he hits new heights here. Bill is not a man who would collapse into tears, but he is a man who would let the tremble of tears sneak into his voice. That slight quaver, that slight tremor, is something that Sheen makes wonderful use of throughout this episode, particularly in the sequence where he talks about how his dad could be a pretty nice guy, showing his son a good time in the big city, until the worst part of himself would descend, and the punches would come again.

It's tricky to play with the fact that many, many people are abused terribly by people they love in a dramatic setting. It can run too closely to suggesting the abuse is somehow okay, so long as it doesn't upset the love that exists. But as we all know, real life isn't like that. People get trapped in relationships where they wait and wait and wait for an abuser to simply turn the corner, even though it will never happen. But that complicated terror works here, both because Bill realizes how screwed up it is that he could think of his father as someone who was, from time to time, a good guy, and because Virginia is there to gently remind us that on the list of crimes, pouring one's frustrations out into a defenseless child is toward the very top.

And in the midst of this, we're reminded that among other things, Masters of Sex is one of TV's most intriguing and terrific interrogations of masculinity. And that quality has never been better than it is in "Fight."


Be a man

"Fight" doesn't open with Bill and Virginia's long evening in the hotel. It opens with a short scene where Virginia listens to her daughter talk at length about princesses, and what they do and don't do. (If I had a quibble with this episode, it's that the notion of the princess motif being one of the most potent anti-feminist themes out there seems a much more modern notion than a 1958 notion. But I could very well be wrong about this.) At the same time, Virginia's son is taking ages to do his hair, perhaps because he's closing in on adolescence and wants to look good, or maybe just because he can.

At the same time, Bill is at the hospital, dealing with a child who has been born with ambiguous genitalia. The blood tests reveal, conclusively, an XY chromosome set, and Bill recommends to the new parents that the child come back in for surgery in a few months to form a penis out of what's currently present. The blood test being so clear was a relief, he will later tell Virginia, because the default position for these cases in 1958 is to simply give the child a vagina and call her a girl, because it's far easier to do.

Yet the father of the baby has no interest in what Bill says. So far as he's concerned, without an obvious penis, the child will never be a man. As such, he wants to simply snip away what's there and raise the kid as a girl. Bill urges him not to do this and thinks he has things well underhand once he leaves the hospital. Yet throughout the hour, we check in on the child, gradually realizing that the father did not leave things with Bill's recommendation. The baby is prepped for surgery with a general practitioner who's never performed this surgery before but figures he can do it. When Bill confronts the father, distraught, the father sneers: "Better a tomboy than a sissy."

It's the central struggle of Bill's childhood and, ultimately, life, distilled unknowingly by a brute with no empathy for his own newborn infant, simply because of what was between the child's legs. This jerk of a father could be one of those over-the-top, unbelievable bad guys that can mar episodes like this, but the character ends up working in the episode's favor because he's not really meant to be a real human being. He's meant to be a symbol of Bill's own struggles with the memory of a father who longed to make a man out of him, as well as a symbol of everyone who is uncomfortable with the idea that there might be anyone out there who is not 100 percent masculine or 100 percent feminine.

But that describes all of us, every human alive. Don't we all have our soft and our hard sides? Don't we all have moments when we feel like Moore or Durelle, slamming the person who's against us in the face? But don't we also all have moments when we feel like Virginia's view of the two of them, trapped in an embrace we dare not break, because it's the only thing keeping us from the jeers of the mob?

"Fight" is so tremendously moving not because it finally tells us a story about how Bill and Virginia are proceeding with their affair, or because it gives us Bill's deeply sad back-story, or even because it gives us a Virginia story that's just as sad, but in a different way. No, it's so beautiful and ultimately tragic because it tells us a story about how hard we humans try to turn everything we see into a binary when reality resists us at every turn. There are some of us who set marks to judge men and women against, who long for a world of all princesses and all prizefighters, who fear their son might not be 100 percent macho but don't mind when their daughter has just a touch of traditionally boyish enthusiasm.

Director Michael Apted spends a long, early sequence shooting Bill and Virginia entirely in mirrors, right after they've gotten done having sex against a wall. It's the roughest we've seen Bill be with her, and even she, who had been wondering when they were going to have sex earlier, as he spent all of his time watching the fight, seems a bit surprised by the situation. They're looking at themselves in the wake of these new revelations, and Apted invites us to wonder just what it is they see, both in themselves and in each other, just who these people are and what they see when they look in the mirror.

But what I kept thinking about is how what we see in the mirror is a lie. The face that is reflected there, the person we're at least somewhat used to seeing every day, isn't actually what we look like. Those that look at us out in the world see the flipped version of that face, its mirror image, but that's something we can never see because we are forever trapped inside our own heads. To look in the mirror is to see a version of yourself, but not the whole truth. We tell ourselves we are all manner of things, that we are one thing or the other, but we miss the way that we are never able to really see ourselves. We chase a false version of ourselves through the glass and too rarely stop to think about all of the other things we are.