Masters of Sex
“Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying. One masturbatory act. Role-playing throughout. Am I forgetting anything?”
Forgetting isn’t the right word, but when Virginia describes the night she and Bill have just spent together, she’s leaving an awful lot out, too. The episode — this sad, sweet, and masterfully acted hour — centers around their hotel-room stay and the Yvon Durelle/Archie Moore boxing match they watch. Seriously, I never figured the Best Boxing-Centric TV Episode would be a stacked category, but Mad Men’s “The Suitcase” just might have to move over.
Before we head to the hotel, we stop off in the operating room, where Bill’s delivering a baby, which he discovers has adrenogenital hypoplasia, or “ambiguous genitalia.” Sweetly, the mother asks the father to hold the baby while she gets a pencil to write down the name of the condition so she can tell people what it is when they ask. When the father responds that she can’t have a pencil and she won’t be telling anyone, and that, no, he won’t hold “it,” it’s pretty clear where this story is going. Still, despite the father’s palpable disgust for the baby and the doctor, Bill thinks he’s convinced him to put off surgery until the baby’s older.
A few hours (?) later, he’s at the hotel across the river from St. Louis, slamming Virginia into the wall and having his way with her, and it’s, well, on, even as Virginia points out that “Hello, how was your day?” would’ve worked just as well as a greeting. As the match unfolds, Bill starts to describe his day and then his enthusiasm for boxing as a child — he asked the coach for lessons immediately upon arriving at boarding school — but shuts down Virginia’s attempts to draw him out.
He’s far less reticent “in character,” though, when she starts grilling him about the backstories he’s come up with for the Holdens. He’s a radiologist from Kansas City, she lives in Louisville caring for her ailing mother, and they meet in between when they can. Virginia ribs him for being unimaginative — why couldn’t she have a mother blinded in a prison fight? Why couldn’t he be a spy creating a radioactive pen? They begin this fascinating, fluent exchange of lies. It’s not wishful thinking, not exactly, just an articulation of a different reality. Still, it leads Virginia to demand, “What are we?” He responds with a come on, she responds with a glimpse of stocking, and they’re off again.
Post-coitus, and still in character, Bill goads Virginia into talking about men from her past. She tells a story about a yearlong fling with a man who’d turned out to be engaged. It’s less dramatic of a revelation than Bill’s description of his father’s abuse (we’re getting to that), but it’s more of an insight into Virginia than we’ve had so far. Maybe she invented this story within the parameters of their role play (I’m inclined to believe that it’s something that actually happened to Virginia), but no matter what the truth of the story, the moral is the same: “Sex? Fine. Enjoy it if and when you can. It’s a biological function. But play it safe. Keep your heart out of it, locked away, someplace safe. Like a bank vault.”
Bill turns his attention back to the fight, and when Virginia says the going ‘round and ‘round of it all is tiresome, he tells her it’s actually the best part. And then, because it was inevitable, she starts to learn to spar. They circle around each other and she throws up a few half-hearted jabs until her bracelet snags in Bill’s hair. She saws him free with a steak knife and then gives him a trim with scissors the front desk sends up. “Samson and Delilah metaphor!?!?” is scribbled in my notes, and I’m not sure if that’s overwrought or if the episode is just that powerful.
Then, finally, Bill begins to explain the correlation between boxing and his father. It’s an insanely powerful monologue, one that I’m sure will be on Michael Sheen’s awards-consideration reel next year. He reveals that his father beat him — punched him — sometimes for arbitrary reasons, sometimes because he felt threatened by Bill’s intelligence, sometimes just because he felt like it. He never stopped because Bill never begged him to, and eventually, he abandoned Bill at boarding school.
Seriously, I hereby amend all of my complaints of, “What’s your problem, man? It’s just a baby” to, “Okay, yeah, sure, of course you don’t want to have children.” Why would he? Vulnerable in the aftermath of the revelation, Bill pulls off Virginia’s robe and tries to get her to beg him for sex. She refuses, both because she won’t beg for anything because she doesn’t need to and to prove that getting someone to beg doesn’t make you a man. Instead she masturbates, and the camera pans away to the fight, still flickering on the television as she climaxes.
Just in case you needed one last reminder of where Bill’s priorities are, he sees a crying baby in the hotel lobby and heads for a phone booth, but instead of calling Libby to check on his son, he calls the hospital to ask after the baby with ambiguous genitalia. It’s then that he learns what viewers have known all along, through scenes intercut with the hotel liaison and the boxing match, that the baby’s father has convinced a general surgeon (“A hole is easier than a pole!”) to remove the baby’s penis. Masters of Sex pretty reliably conveys horrible, sad moments in a single scene; the general surgeon asking for a reference book in the middle of surgery is awful. A surgical procedure is about to change a child’s life, and the doctor is calling for a manual?
Bill does the unthinkable: He rushes to the hospital and begs. He begs the baby’s father to reconsider, putting everything he believes about masculinity aside (never beg) in order to try to save the masculinity of the little boy. It’s sad, and maybe even brave, and it doesn’t work.
Before leaving the hotel, Virginia calls her daughter, who opened the episode explaining to her mother the rules of fairy tales. In the face of a missing storybook, Virginia invites Tessy to make up a story of her own. “Couldn’t [the princess] go on an adventure all on her own without a prince? Maybe she could rescue him … It does too happen.” I don’t think Virginia is trying to save Bill. I do think she’s telling herself a fairy tale, and I think Bill is too, but I don’t know what the moral is or how it will end. But I cannot wait to see what happens next.