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‘Masters of Sex’ Recap: Of Might and Men

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By KATE PHILLIPS   JULY 27, 2014 11:01 PM | ArtsBeat/The New York Times

 

Season 2, Episode 3: “Fight”

 

The wails of a baby haunt Dr. William Masters from home to the hospital, even when he walks through the lobby of a hotel.

 

In Showtime’s “Masters of Sex,” perhaps that’s natural punctuation for a doctor whose profession is obstetrics and gynecology, with a medical case informing each hour of the series.

 

But in this third episode of the second season, the cries of a baby born with “ambiguous genitalia” (and the father’s abhorrent reaction) work to rattle the very underpinnings of Dr. Bill’s grip on his own manhood.

 

Toss in the masculine dance of the ultimate male sport, boxing, showcased in the legendary 11-round bout between the light heavyweight champion Archie Moore and a formidable, younger challenger, Yvon Durelle, that Bill (Michael Sheen) intently watches on television. Add the role-playing and verbal and physical sparring between Bill and his study partner, Virginia Johnson, in their hotel room as they pretend to be Dr. Francis Holden and wife, and this episode achingly reveals more than we’ve ever known about the main characters in this series.

 

It takes Virginia (Lizzy Caplan) nearly the entire night to coax out Bill’s memories of his father’s beatings, which transformed him, driving him to take boxing lessons at boarding school. He came to appreciate its art, with all the psychology of moves designed to fake out an opponent.

 

“Sometimes the best fighter isn’t the one who lands the hardest punch,” Bill explains to Virginia. “It can be the one who absorbs it.”

 

And Bill has endured, mastering more than one element of the sport, particularly that of surprise. After the heated argument with Mr. Bombeck, the father of the intersex baby, over whether sexual function defines a man, Bill barely acknowledges Virginia’s arrival at their hotel room as he and a staff member share insights on the fight.

 

Instead, when she decides on a bath, he pushes her against a wall in an intense, forced sexual encounter that leaves Virginia stunned and breathless. Sex in the lab between the two – as far as viewers witnessed – was not nearly as aggressive, let alone bordering on rape.

 

Once Bill is finished, Virginia quietly suggests that a more appropriate greeting might have been, “How was your day?” His was terrible. Hers? Without incident, until five minutes earlier, when a man she barely recognized took her against the wall, she says.

 

Bill clinically responds that standing is one of many sexual positions, while Virginia counters: “Male Affect: Angry.”

 

He denies being angry, disclosing the troublesome events at the hospital, which I’ll get back to in a little bit. And much later, as he and Virginia settle into creating lengthy back stories for the married Holdens, she tells him she did like their encounter because they’re so much more than couples with white-picket fences.

 

The glossing over of that rough sexual moment between the two struck me rather darkly, especially since Bill holds so much power in their relationship, no matter how independent Virginia can be. Remember that Virginia is still not re-employed as his research partner, and their only outlet now is this facade they refuse to label as an affair.

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Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan in “Masters of Sex.” © Showtime ©

Having also watched last week’s episode of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” where Ray’s wife protests that he is hurting her, physically, during their sexual interludes, I am growing weary of the use of so much one-way sex for shock value. In both shows, it seems gratuitously coarse, if not violent. Both men suffered mistreatment as children: Ray was sexually molested by a priest, and Bill was physically abused by his father.

 

And I’m sure some would argue that these scenes occur regularly in real life, as couples carry their anger and frustrations into bed with alternating dominance. You can certainly disagree with my take in the comments section below.

 

Otherwise, the hotel setting for Bill and Virginia, as they lounge in white bathrobes, is elegantly written, intimate even in their ruses and amusing when they put up their dukes and duck and pivot around each other playfully.

 

Walk Like a Man: Definitions of masculinity and femininity swirl from boxing to the hospital scenes with the newborn and parents as well as through Bill’s revelations. (Virginia’s effort to dissuade her young daughter, Tess, from believing in princesses needing to be rescued is just one example.) Room service lends a rather obvious symbol when steaks are on the menu. She wants hers medium well. His, well let’s guess: “He likes to say the chef can just walk the cow through a warm room.”

 

If childhood conditioning provides the most predictive form of a man becoming a parent, Bill’s descriptions of his past prove to be just as brutal as we might have divined from previous episodes, when he articulated his fear of turning into his father while neglecting his own baby boy.

 

At age 14, Bill’s father took him to New York, to the Waldorf Astoria for his very first shave as the two sat side by side in a barbershop. “No feeling in the world like walking in Central Park on a fall day after a fresh shave,” Bill says.

 

His father, he continues, could have been a boxer. “Not too much control in his punches, mind you, but he was a master of the feint.” With the big-city trip a father-son delight for Bill, he continues: “He’d come out of nowhere and knock you for a loop. Leave you on the steps of the dormitory letting you know you wouldn’t be coming home at Christmas or Easter or ever.”

 

Bill contends that toughened him, making him self-reliant, prompting him to take boxing lessons the moment he arrived at school. Those years at school were also surely an escape for a teenager whose father had once broken his nose for reasons he still can’t remember. “Maybe I slammed the screen door,” he says. “Maybe I reached for a second helping before he did. Maybe I used a word he didn’t know. Maybe it was Wednesday.”

 

He didn’t fight back, he tells Virginia. Nor would he cower or get down on his knees and beg for mercy as his father commanded.

 

Living a Fantasy: Virginia also won’t beg. She divulges a lot in their role-playing, weaving a tale about an Army captain she thought was her soul mate, only to lose him and come to terms with the fact that sex is fine, a biological function to enjoy. But the heart, she says, needs to be locked in a vault. With Bill, she drew a line that explains quite a bit, too, keeping some distance from the man who holds the keys to what she now values most: a research career. Demonstrating her independence even in sex, she insists on satisfying herself when Bill disrobes her and tells her to beg him to touch her.

 

In this setting, Bill is much more comfortable as Dr. Holden, of the Kansas City Holdens, while Virginia creates a more intriguing fantasy life for them than he had described as their “ho-hum marriage.” After telling her she had no given name, he later decides she should be called Lydia. They don’t have children, she tells him, because their lives are too busy. He’s amused when she imagines that Bill is a radiologist who devises a spy pen.

 

All the while, the boxing match plays out in the background with Bill rooting for Moore while Virginia voices a different set of lessons.

 

“That Mongoose man, if he had stayed down in the early rounds what would they say about him — that he’s a loser or that he’s human,” she tells Bill. “Maybe it is a noble sport. Maybe it’s all about character in a way that a novice like me can’t understand.

 

“I don’t want my son to be a boxer. … 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.”

 

Which circles us back to the hospital and the predominating debate and heart-wrenching events at the core of this episode, whether social conditioning or nature-versus-nurture help determine and guide gender.

 

Chromosomal Constellations: As Bill had explained to Virginia, although the baby in question had been born with male and female genitalia, tests confirmed the X-Y chromosome makeup of a boy. He tells her that in many cases, where the genetics aren’t so clear, the simpler surgical option has been to choose girlhood. Maybe if the parents just name the boy, that will help, Virginia suggests. “Doesn’t every father want a son?”

 

But the infant’s father (Josh Randall) had refused to even hold “it,” calling the baby something people would pay a nickel to see at a freak show on a boardwalk. The father rejects postponing an operation, despite Bill’s insistence that the baby was his son, who would benefit from therapy, possible reconstructive surgery and hormonal shots — all much later in life. All the father cares about is whether the infant will be able to perform as a man.

 

“Erections aren’t the totality of manhood,” Bill argued, wanting to summon a specialist. “You know who thinks that?” the father retorted. “Men with a little bit of girl in them.”

 

Much later, upon learning via a telephone call from the hotel lobby that the baby is in surgery, Bill rushes back to intervene. But it’s too late. As we saw in an earlier scene, a surgeon – viewing the pages of a book in an apparent effort to figure out what to do – alters the infant’s body.

 

The parents named the baby Sarah, the father says. “Better a tomboy than a sissy.”

 

In more recent years, much research has been conducted amid calls for more enlightened treatment, and to this day, gender identity issues remain a topic of discussion and study. Advocates like Cheryl Chase (now Bo Laurent) have eloquently spoken and written about their experiences and lobbied doctors, psychologists and others for more humane treatment than irrevocable surgery at infancy. Too often, they argue, doctors chose the sex of the baby without further study of the child’s own development and, of course, did so without the child’s consent.

 

This episode closes with Virginia watching the final rounds of the fight in the hotel lobby. When asked if she’s a boxing fan, she says no, she just wants to see how it ends. (Moore, the one who endures, retains his title.)

 

Her remark echoes an observation she made to Tess about her fascination with fairy tales and happily-ever-afters — that Tess likes to know how things end.

 

For baby Bombeck and others, the future has been far less certain.

 

Questions and Notes:

 

What were your impressions of Bill’s behavior with Virginia early on in the hotel room? Did you sense that the father’s taunting and their discussion of manhood might have influenced Bill’s aggressive actions with her at first?

In that era, masculine and feminine roles were clearly defined, and any blurring was largely shunned and shameful. How much of those stereotypes still linger today?

Another article written about an intersex child named Cynthia appeared in The Chicago Reader seven years ago.

Does anyone know how Bill came to choose the alias Dr. Francis Holden?

Oh and p.s., the entire Moore-Durelle match is on YouTube. (http://youtu.be/XTtzltIK2ng )

 

 

 

Reference: ArtsBeat/The New York Times  By KATE PHILLIPS   JULY 27, 2014 11:01 PM

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