Masters of Sex: “Fight” Season 2 Episode 3 Review

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Masters of Sex tackles gender roles this week, resulting in the most brilliant episode they’ve ever done.

Within the past few months, I’ve witnessed someone’s skull get crushed in on Game of Thrones, someone’s jaw be ripped from their head on True Blood, a man be brutally assaulted with fertility equipment on Orphan Black, and several dogs get shot at on The Leftovers. Oh, and let’s not forget almost every episode of Hannibal this season.

Suffice it to say, I have a pretty strong stomach when it comes to onscreen violence—I am a Quentin Tarantino fan, after all. Still, nothing I’ve seen prepared me for the utter discomfort I felt upon witnessing an infant being poked and prodded by a group of doctors on this week’s Masters of Sex.

The baby in question is born with “ambiguous sex organs,” but the abundance of XY chromosomes in his body reveal that he is, in fact, a boy. The problem is, his terrible bully of a father can’t stand to think that his son would grow up to be a freak. So he tells Masters he wants the male portion of his genitalia cut off. “Better a tomboy than a sissy,” he says. Masters tells him not to rush this sort of decision, especially since surgery on a newborn is very risky business.

Of course, the father doesn’t listen. What follows are several truly disturbing sequences of the baby being examined, being put in different laboratory settings, and, eventually, being operated on. He’s screaming and crying, completely unaware of what’s going on around him. It’s incredibly unsettling to see something so innocent and helpless being subjected to the consequences of rigid societal norms.

The interesting thing, however, is that the baby plotline isn’t even the main focus of the hour. “Fight” is a decidedly self-contained episode, taking place almost entirely in the hotel room where Masters and Virginia conduct their non-affair. The quick flashes we get to the baby’s whereabouts serve to give us a connection to the outside world. While a battle of the sexes wages on in the hotel, these glimpses offer a dark look at the societal expectations of men and women in the 50s. Masters and Virginia may be two very open-minded individuals, but the world around them is still very unenlightened.

Dealing with this baby’s awfully brutish father presents a problem for Masters. He’s immediately reminded of his relationship with his own father; something which negatively skewed his idea of masculinity during his formative years. So, upon arriving at the hotel, he does something he deems to be aggressively manly: he pins Gini against the wall and has rough, vigorous sex with her. Gini is shocked, but ultimately excited by Masters’ sudden dominant streak. What follows is one of the most interesting examinations of gender roles I’ve ever seen on TV.

Framing the antics at the hotel is a match between real-life boxers Yvon Durelle and Archie Moore that blares on the TV. The fight both adds to the historical accuracy of the show, while also beautifully paralleling the more subdued struggle occurring between Masters and Gini. Gini doesn’t understand the need men have to cheer on this sort of animalistic behavior, but Masters explains that there’s an unspoken language in their physicality. The same can be said of these characters’ relationship. They conduct physical acts with each other on a weekly basis at the hotel, all under the guise of recording more information for the study. Yet, there’s an unspoken intimacy between them that neither will dare acknowledge.

Masters perks up when Gini refers to him as her husband while ordering his dinner, picking his food off the menu like a seasoned pro. The two revel in their fake-married personas—The Holdens—that they use with the hotel staff, even going so far as to make up inventive backstories for their characters.

Initially, Masters is a radiologist from Kansas City, but Gini’s Mrs. Holden doesn’t even have a first name. This changes after she seductively lifts up her robe, inviting him to join her in the bed for round two. This time, the sex is on her terms, and afterward Masters gives her the fake name “Lydia.” As the two become more comfortable in their roles, a crack surfaces in Gini’s resolve. She tells a story about the first time Lydia fell in love, but it becomes clear that it’s really about her.

After the man she fell for left to marry someone else, she decided to never fall that hard again. What’s really telling is what she says after Masters playfully asks where that leaves their married counterparts. “Oh darling,” she coos. “Don’t you know I would never marry a man I didn’t both love and desire.” To them, the world of the hotel almost serves as an alternate reality. Here, they’re the married Holdens, and they can say how they really feel about each other without any real-world consequences.

Gini’s confession of course leads Masters to give one of his own. It comes about in a very smart, and organic way, once Gini again announces how confused she is by men’s obsession with boxing. This leads to an actual boxing match between the two, with Masters trying to explain the importance of different stances.

There’s a bit of awkward sparring until Gini’s bracelet gets caught in Masters’ hair and she’s forced to cut it out. During their impromptu barbershop session, Masters reveals the source of his fighting knowledge: his father. After being abandoned at a boarding school at 14, he decided it was time to learn to fight for himself. One of the boxing stances Masters talks most about is keeping your gloves low to your chest, as if to say, “give me your best shot.” That’s why Masters’ father kept beating him. He never begged him to stop.

Gini doesn’t understand this refusal to beg for mercy. She doesn’t think it makes you any less of a man to want to end the pain in your life. Of course, this comes from her own gender role struggle at home with her fairy tale-obsessed daughter. “Men can’t be fairies,” her daughter says when discussing the story of a fairy princess. “They can only be the handsome prince.” Later, when talking to her over the phone, she argues over the finer points of a bedtime story. “What if the princess goes off and has her own adventure?” Perhaps this is too much too soon for her little girl to comprehend, but it’s exactly the kind of thinking that got Gini to where she is today.

Her refusal to sink into a certain approved role is apparent during the episode’s climax. After Masters’ story about his father, he feels vulnerable. He takes off Gini’s robe and tells her to beg him to touch her. To tell him exactly how much she needs him to make her feel good. Gini refuses, saying she can feel good all by herself. Then she masturbates in front of him. Though it’s clearly a turn-on for Masters, it’s a triumph for Gini as well. Her princess doesn’t need his prince to be happy. For a show that deals heavily with the power dynamics of sex, this is perhaps the most explicit it’s ever been in its assertion of female agency. It’s completely fascinating to watch.

In their struggle to remain in control, both Masters and Gini are able to sweep one simple fact under the rug. They have very, very strong feelings for each other. Even after everything that goes down in the hotel room, they can’t even kiss each other goodbye. Gini tells Masters she’ll write up a report of their research findings. She states her report will include, “Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying. One masturbatory act. Role-playing throughout. Am I forgetting anything?” Yes, Gini. You’re forgetting almost everything.

There’s a thin, but very noticeable line between a good TV drama and a great one. With “Fight,” Masters of Sex has elevated itself into greatness. Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan deliver some tour de force acting, which only further enhances the smart script written by Amy Lippman. At this point, it’s clear just how strong of a hold this show has on its two main characters. Now I’m beyond excited to see where it will take them. Grade: A

 

By Mike Papirmeister

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