Masters of Sex: Battle of the Sexes

Fight, the latest episode of Showtime’s Masters of Sex, is literally set against a televised boxing match that has captured the nation’s attention. However, this being an acclaimed cable drama, the titular fight is clearly a (slightly heavy handed) metaphor for the verbal sparring that happens between Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson over one of their now regular clandestine hotel room couplings.

MastersofSex S02E03

For those who follow Mad Men (and, yes, here I go again drawing parallels), you’re likely to remember the brilliant forth seasons episode “The Suitcase” in which Don Draper and Peggy Olson spend a drunken night working through a Samsonite pitch, also set against a nation-captivating boxing match. As with that episode, Masters of Sex has delivered a touchstone chapter, one that temporarily elevates it to greatness and overcomes the inherent difficulties of such a thick metaphor.

Primarily contrasting the common definitions of manliness and femininity, Fight will presumably loom over next year’s Emmy season as it provides leads Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan the kind of meaty material that make voters swoon.

The episode uniquely focuses on the Masters and Johnson relationship as it begins to evolve and deepen beyond sexual intercourse. In fact, it does a great deal of work to make Bill Masters a more sympathetic character. Aside from Masters and Johnson, the only other characters featured are a new mother and father who are wrestling with their newborn’s blended sexual organs, the result of a complicated birth defect. It is Masters who serves as the audience surrogate in combatting the father’s instincts to remove all male organs and, as he says later in the episode, “make a pole a hole.”

His reasoning is that, if his son cannot perform sexually later in life, then he would not truly be a man. Cut to Masters wordlessly greeting Johnson in their hotel room and roughly taking her from behind. Turned on, shocked, or disturbed (take your pick), Johnson begins to engage Masters in the more feminine pastime of role-playing. They initially imagine backstories for their hotel personas, the Holdens of Kansas City, but later segue into deeper, more personal revelations.

Just as Masters becomes uncomfortable with verbal intimacy, he retaliates by, first, making Johnson disrobe and study her body in full light and then, later, by proving his physical superiority in a mock boxing match.

Fight is one of those episodes that interested viewers could pour over for hours and soak in the rich dialogue and lofty themes. I am reluctant to discuss many more of the revelations as it’s far better to watch and absorb them rather than read them through a review. I have long considered the Masters and Johnson couple as raw equals, intellectually if not in social stature, and this episode feeds that and more. It strips them of social and economic stature and imagines them in a hermetically sealed environment in which they strive for balance.

Here, Johnson fully realizes the damage inflicted upon Masters through the masculine cruelty of his father. She re-confirms her objections to the male sex and, in side moments, instructs her daughter to look beyond ideals of men and women as taught in fairy tales. Johnson has always been something of an early feminist character, but this episode catapults that persona. I applaud the show’s direction and anxiously look forward to how it continues to evolve Virginia Johnson.

As she says in the end of the episode while watching the boxing match, which she admits to having little routine interest in, “I want to see how it ends.”

You may also like

Sign In

Reset Your Password

Email Newsletter