The storytelling in Masters of Sex generally has two modes: By-the-numbers three-act plotting, or dreamy jazz improv. Last night, by abandoning 2014 television structures and going for a very simple format, it managed to tell itself in miniature.
Quietly devastating, the episode shifted between two minor events—a period-piece boxing match and the unpleasant "correction" of an intersexed newborn—as punctuation for an intensely layered roleplaying game between the show's two leads, Virginia and Bill, as they carry out a single night of their affair in a hotel room without benefit of the extended cast, all under the crumbling, nearly abandoned pretense of scientific study.
Gini navigates Bill's weirdness (even more extreme than usual) like a champ, playing the levels of their narrative off each other, retreating when necessary, trading blows and playing the innocent when it suits her purposes. Gini shows up in character, more mannered and stylized in her speech and movement than we've seen her lately: One of her most potent defenses—which always also act as weapons in her arsenal—is behaving like a storybook character, and she arrives armored.
Bill, on the other hand, is undone by his experience at work, in which he sees the male entitlement of his era—one that defines his character, usually—through another lens. The intersexed baby boy's father brooks no discussion and will hear none of his options, so desperate is he to rule out a malformed male child and relegate him to female genitalia. The show's always been plainspoken in the default-male politics of its era (and our own), and it's touching and maddening to see Bill kicking against the system that he so often takes for granted.
Meanwhile Gini watches from the outside, as what seems like a world full of men gaze adoringly at the boxing match on television, living out their most sensual and brutal fantasies as if the world for which they quietly fight all the time—one of invisible women, watching the men best each other over and over—is just a screen away.
"I will tell you this: I don't want my son to be a boxer. No. When he's hurt, I don't want him to act like he's not. That is not a lesson he needs to learn. And I don't think that's what's going to make him a man."
It's all the more powerful for its delivery: Not a soapbox stance, not a proto-feminist rant. Just a simple suggestion that Bill is right after all: A so-called malformed manhood is only as unworthy as the gaze that falls upon it. Less an exhortation to the emotional intimacy at which they've both been hammering away the whole hour, and more of a simple restructuring of Bill's personal narrative, it opens his eyes and his heart in a way no amount of demand and reprisal could do.
During the couple's heavily freighted boxing match, the two manage to hit most of the show's philosophical high points, most notably the way that passivity confers a kind of control on what some people might call the victim and other people might call the martyr. Again, this could be writ large, as a statement on the relationships between men and women in the outside world—that giving is taking; that women of the era have everything to gain from their passivity, but it's a losing proposition and a diminishing return—but instead reflects more upon the darker aspects of Bill's own childhood, a malformed masculinity itself, and something he has certainly never revealed to his real wife, Libby.
In one of his more desperate (and characteristic) moves, Bill feints back at Virginia's attempt to fuck him off a train of thought by demanding she strip off while he remains clothed. Lulled into a false sense of victory, Bill—who has already taken her pretty roughly, and without pretext, at the beginning of their session—flies too close to the sun, begging her to pursue him, to beg him for some dick.
Turned off, Gini returns the favor, in probably the best power move of the episode: Masturbating at him from less than a yard away, refusing to break eye contact, until he is overcome. It's an exploration of a different kind of intimacy, and one that I think is pretty healthy for them both—with that demonstration of "vulnerability" and of the concrete fact that she is anything but, Virginia opens the door for some of the show's rawest emotional moments to date. Just slightly enough.
Because she's not just playing with herself, she's saying: They're at play together. Fucking is never just about getting fucked, the lie that men tell themselves: It's always another boxing match. The medical terrors Bill's tiny patient undergoes aren't simply reminders of his internal state, they're asking a question neither participant is allowed to ask: What is it? Who wins out, male or female? Who's the default? What is the final form of the thing we are making together? Can a bout just end, ever? Do we really need a winner? Is that even allowed?
To ask the question without an answer, then, the two play at marriage throughout the visit, assuming and trading dominant and submissive roles that their "real" selves would never, ever countenance. I don't think it's a mistake we find them performing themselves especially well for the sweet bellhop Elliot. In his youth, he's reminiscent less of the implicated young bystanders in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than the more angelically oblivious, supposedly "gratuitous" dancers in Look Who's Coming To Dinner; in his callow appeals to chivalry he recalls Virginia's former fiancé, Nice Guy Ethan Haas. Elliot's the best their future can make, and it's not a lot; nevertheless their shared mood brightens whenever he arrives, and darkens when he leaves again.
But not because they're sad, course: They're ecstatic, in the religious sense, as the sex in Masters tends to be. They have finally found a way around their fences and their walls, a play-within-a-play, to tell the stories of their deepest origins. They pretend, to play at science, to clear a place to do the actual work of becoming human with one another, never understanding how vastly more worthwhile, and universal, the latter experiment is. (And of course, without our perspective of history, how central both will be, one day, to our own lives.)
Before Mrs. Lydia Holden (Gini's character for the night) met her husband of 14 years, she loved only one man: A no-goodnik or romantic who softly forgot his engagement, and later softly remembered it. She offers this story, a year lost to fantasy, as an explanation for her own era-defying sexual autonomy; just as deftly, she brings Libby into the room with them when things get too intimate, or whenever Bill begins falling under the spell of their imaginary narrative.
Their shared dream self-regulates, throughout, as one or the other of them fears the flood of intimacy—often, to protect the other from its sway—and as has become usual this season, Gini is usually the one to call to it explicitly, referring to their lives outside the room whenever necessary to keep Bill on alert. But it's also Gini who forgets herself, betraying the dream sometimes accidentally, usually on purpose, for one reason or another. When "Dr. Holden" falters telling the story of his own abusive childhood, Gini applies the nuclear option of using his real name, Bill, calling him out of the room and back to her. It breaks the spell, but it gives Masters a moment of a sort of peace that we've never seen on his face.
We see Williams and Simon, and most explicitly Albee, in the formal representation of this functionally bottle episode. But in the episode's foundations—post-structuralist but pointedly not postmodern, to be annoyingly precise—we see what film (and only film) can do: Rather than relying on alcohol to spin our characters into darkness, or sudden surprises, the narrative builds itself from more pieces than simply character. Quick cuts to the boxing match and its attendant voiceover, cuts to the devastating tortures of Bill's newborn patient as he is rendered out to the slag heap of gender, and even that meta-jump into the unspoken truths about boxing all re-tell the story of two brilliantly broken people, in a brilliant and beautifully broken world.
A lesser show might ask whether boxing is a useful metaphor for the feints and fears and bruises of love: Obviously. And great shows have asked whether the release of tension under highly regulated conditions like the boxing ring is substantially different than certain forms of lovemaking or verbal debate or passive aggressions. But only Masters, I think, could get away with so boldly putting that hoary metaphor in the middle of an extended meditation on intimacy and forcing it into so many shapes and layers at once. There's no need to handicap a bottle episode when the bottle contains the show's entire world; Libby Masters never leaves the room, Austin Langham is there in Bill's angry tears, Mrs. Scully is there in Gini's tentative inquiries. You're there, I'm there.
"I am going to come at you," we say—sometimes out loud, sometimes other ways—"with everything I've got. And you will come at me, and we will figure something out. I will duck, or weave, or most powerfully of all I will take the hit. And then you will owe me. And before you know it we are stuck in the story. You will pretend innocence, or act the husband, or the cowering child, or the novice wife, and I will hold you like a lover. We will break, retreat to corners, come back again."
It's a bout that never ends, reflected back on itself a million ways, in a hotel room that seems to have no exit. They are very brave, I think, knowing they could leave at any time. At points they shudder. They are boxers, they are lovers, they are scientists, they will break each other into a million pieces. They will put those pieces back together again. All of these things are true, inside that hotel room. Outside, it's true of us all. And that's Masters at its finest: By telling a story about broken toys, institutionalized horrors, and drawing its blurred lines from here to there, the show returns again and again to its radically simple truth: To fucking, and the brightness underneath.
[Images and video via Showtime]