The swanky hotel room where William Masters and Virginia Johnson have been role-playing as husband and wife to continue their sex study became a sort of boxing ring for the two in “Fight,” the excellent third episode of Masters of Sex’s second season. The World Light Heavyweight Title boxing match on Dec. 10, 1958, played on TV as they continued their unconventional and likely dangerous footwork, bobbing and weaving around the hard truth that their relationship is far more than professional. Round after round, the two kept the game going, fleshing out fictional backstories for Francis and Lydia Holden that inevitably turned truthful as Bill and Virginia revealed more of themselves to each other. The fight eventually ends, with Archie Moore coming back from what all thought would be a loss to the much-younger Yvon Durelle, but how does this story — this sexual and fascinating tête-à-tête between Bill and Virginia — end? Neither knows. Virginia may tell her daughter that she can end a story however she wants, but this isn’t a fairy tale. Life continues on outside the hotel walls.
Interspersed throughout the hotel rendezvous are scenes of a far sadder story: A baby boy born with both male and female genitalia and an overbearing, close-minded father determined for him to have sexual reassignment surgery as soon as possible. Masters advises against such haste, venting to Virginia later, “As if you’d alter your son’s genetic destiny for the sake of expedience — because he wasn’t hung to your satisfaction.” But the baby undergoes surgery without his knowledge, as he and Virginia continue their clandestine meetings at the hotel outside of town. Bill’s compassion toward the child isn’t surprising; last week, in “Kyrie Eleison,” we saw him comfort a teenage girl struggling with sexual hyperactivity and blocking her mother’s desire to have the girl’s uterus removed. We’re seeing the building blocks of Masters and Johnson’s work and its importance in helping people who are struggling.
Of course, Masters also lumps homosexuality into this growing “dysfunction” category. Masters of Sex isn’t shying away from these notions that make our modern sensibilities twinge in discomfort. We know he’s wrong, but we also know — and are shown — he and others who share his sentiments are products of their time. Hell, the overbearing father demanding immediate surgery on his son could easily show up in a 2014 hospital. Time, and progress, doesn’t change everything. Society still struggles with gender and all the traits and responsibilities we assign because of it. The baby boy’s father decided he would be a girl because that surgery was easier, as if any of it were easy.
Bill begins his night with Virginia by wordlessly coming upon her in the bathroom and “having his way with” her, as she puts it. She enjoyed it, and said so later right before she initiated more sex. Notice there are no wires anywhere — no being plugged into machines and counting heart rate and the down-to-the-second stages of orgasm. They say this is continuing the study, but their night was mostly spent behaving like a married couple. They can pretend all they want, but the truth creeps in. Virginia’s elaborate backstory for Lydia eventually finds itself in familiar territory, revealing Virginia’s own early heartbreak with a man who led her to believe he wanted the same things as her but eventually left her to marry another woman. Bill’s lightness about Francis going to boarding school delved into his own traumatic past with his abusive father, whom we learned dumped Bill off at his dormitory at age 14 with the news that he wouldn’t be returning home — not for Christmas, not ever. “We both got left,” Virginia says. “Well, he didn’t break my heart,” Bill replies. “No?” “Just my nose, once,” he says.
Bill can’t remember why his father broke his nose — maybe he used a word he didn’t understand, or maybe it was a Wednesday — but in his own way, he said, he showed defiance. He kept his hands down, a sure sign that he invited his father’s blows, that he disrespected him. “When you invite a punch, you’re saying you can take it,” he told her earlier as they watched the match. “So what looks like vulnerability is exactly the opposite. Play it weak, you’re saying ‘I’m stronger than you.’ ” The two even tried to spar in the midst of these lessons, their hands in fists in front of their faces. But it wasn’t a fair fight. Not because Virginia is physically weaker, as Bill pointed out, but because she doesn’t see the virtue in refusing to stop. Why didn’t he stop his father from hitting him, she asks? He could have, he said, if he’d begged for mercy. “Never did, not once. I took it, like a man.” “But you weren’t a man, you were just a kid — a boy,” she said. “There’s no shame in saying you’ve had enough. Stopping the fight to say you’re hurt.” She went to say she wouldn’t want her son to be a boxer — “When he’s hurt, I don’t want him to act like he’s not. That is no lesson he needs to learn. And I don’t think that’s what’s going to make him a man.”
It’s OK to admit you’re hurt, to admit you’re vulnerable, to not constantly invite blows you know you can’t actually take. Both Bill and Virginia are going through this Dr. and Mrs. Holden charade as if they aren’t both confused, not just in their relationship but with their families. The season premiere ended with Bill’s hopes deflated as Virginia deflected the notion that their relationship was one of love and not work. Likewise, his saving face and insisting that of course they weren’t having an affair left her unclear of what exactly they’re playing at. Both, eventually, will need to be honest with themselves and each other. Even as they thought they were playing along in the hotel room, they were easily confused. “Are you making fun of me?,” Virginia asked. “Aren’t you making fun of us?,” Bill replied. “I don’t know,” she said. “What are we? Are is this?” It will take more than the mix of truths they are presenting along with the fairy tale, the life that includes a partnership both desperately want and need. “Fight” beautifully captured this struggle, and this season of Masters of Sex already is shaping up to be stronger than the first. Written by Amy Lippman, the repartee between the two was flawless. “It almost looks like love, doesn’t it? When they reach for each other and hold on.” The match isn’t over.
Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.