For a while there it felt like Masters of Sex was starting to develop the same problem as Nashville: too many characters, not enough development. So “Fight” comes as a welcome relief. All episode long, Bill and Virginia play house — naughty, nasty house — and uncover each other’s secrets in the process, much like we do early in the process of falling in love. I wish every episode of Masters of Sex were like this: a fever dream dressed up in a luxurious hotel robe instead of a lab coat. The show took stunning risks — in the boxing symbolism that could have felt played, in the emotional vulnerability between two leads who typically tiptoe around their feelings, in committing to a single storyline, in attempting historical accuracy a la Mad Men — and they all paid off. Welcome to the big leagues, Masters of Sex.
The episode’s only other plot fighting for attention doesn’t even need to work that hard — it accompanies ongoing post-coital conversations about gender that Virginia and Bill have throughout “Fight.” The episode begins with Virginia’s daughter fantasizing over fairytales and quickly moves towards a topic with fewer happy endings: hermaphroditism. The condition was less understood in the Masters of Sex era, but at least Bill exhibits advanced understanding of gender as a psychological concept instead of merely the physical sex. A new father (played by Ed alum Josh Randall) finds it unacceptable that his son was born with both male and female genitalia. Blood work proves the child is a boy, so the genital reconstruction surgery should aim to match this (though it won’t, much to Bill’s frustration). When the father can’t handle the idea of his son running the risk of not having, shall we call it, a substantial physical embodiment of masculinity, he screeches, “cut it off.” Bill erupts.
It’s sort of funny, the way Bill takes out his anger in the most stereotypically male fashion: by slamming Virginia against the bathroom wall like his name is Shaggy. Afterwards, she sees through the stunning display of male force — which at first seemed to frighten her, and left me worried we’d be having another conversation about rape on television — and asks Bill what’s wrong. Oh boy.
As you may know, Bill Masters is an emotional mess with a fucked-up childhood. This fact is more or less concealed on a weekly basis, but in “Fight,” it is on full display. Bill’s fascination with boxing reveals itself via the historic 1958 fight between Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle, which is televised in the hotel room occupied by “Francis and Lydia Holden.” He says he learned to box the moment he got to boarding school. She inquires about school-yard tiffs. He evades. Later, Bill explains that his father seemed like the sort of stand-up guy who took his son for a fancy hot shave in New York before dropping him off at school, but that this was merely an awful man’s cover-up. The boxing obsession begins to make sense, and Bill Masters starts to feel a little more like Don Draper, full of secrets he only reveals to the scantily-clad women who truly see him. Masters is already a brooding asshole, why not loosen that bow tie and show him enjoying his own scandal?
Does Libby know the things Bill tells Virginia? Had Virginia’s ex-husband or Ethan heard the tale she tells Bill in “Fight”? (Her story, which may or may not be fictional, involves a beau who hides his engagement in plain sight until one day he up and leaves Virginia.) This emotional striptease is how people fall in love, even when they’re hiding behind a facade of scientific research. “Fight” might as well be the wedding album Bill and Virginia will never have.
“Sex — fine,” Virginia says. “Enjoy when and how you can, it’s a biological function. But play it safe, keep your heart out of it, locked away somewhere safe… like a bank vault.”
Virginia should follow her own advice, but instead she’s a willing participant in domestic role-play with Bill. They craft their backstories and lives as the “Kansas City Holdens,” arguing all along (isn’t that what people secretly in love do — bicker?). She knows how he likes his steak, he tells the waiter her sick mother is in the same condition, they meet up in this hotel “when they can” amidst their travels. Bill and Virginia will never be this, because after one mere moment of this fantasy life, she accusingly asks him, “What does this say about us?” She proceeds to open her robe, signaling the sign of round two.
I want to skip ahead to round three, because in a lot of ways it’s the most telling. Bill wants Virginia to beg for him, but she won’t — she can pleasure herself, she tells him, and proves it. On a show about sex, this scene is the new steamy standard. Bill’s slight surprise speaks to how far female sexuality has come in the last 50-some years. But it’s also a statement to Bill that says, “I don’t need you, this is about the work.” It’s clearly not about the work, but the half-assedness with which Virginia tells Bill she will “write up” the night’s events is amusing nonetheless.
“He listens to me,” Virginia tells the room-service waiter when he brags about the jewelry he bought his girlfriend. She says she doesn’t need the baubles but by the end of “Fight,” it’s clear Virginia Johnson is in need of something more. Masters of Sex viewers though? They’re good.