In what I think is the strongest episode of the season so far, “Fight” keeps things contained and puts its focus on our two main characters as they physically and mentally duke it out in an episode that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality.
The episode begins at House Johnson. Virginia’s making breakfast for Tessa, while Henry is working on his hair. Why? Because Diane Delmonico said that he looks like Howdy Doody. Huh. Tessa wants her father’s address because she’s staying there tonight. She’s writing a letter to the tooth fairy princess, because she may not know where to pick it up. Virginia says that the tooth fairy isn’t a princess, she’s just a fairy with a special interest in teeth. Virginia, don’t ruin the fantasy.
Tessa counters that men can’t be fairies, so Virginia offers a hypothetical: what if a prince was on his way to rescue the princess, but got trampled and his face got disfigured. Tessa says that the princess would have to see him first on order to know what he looks like. That way, she would know that they would live happily ever after. Once the princess kisses him, she’ll return him to his normal face. It’s inevitable. Virginia likes that about her daughter- she knows how the fairy tales will end.
At Gateway Hospital, Bill helps deliver a newborn. However, there’s something very different about this child. The mother, Francine Bombeck, played by Sarah Sido, calls Bill’s attention to the child’s genitals. According to Bill, it’s a sign of adrenogenital hyperplasia. Try saying that five times fast, it’s fun. The husband, Nate, played by Josh Randall, isn’t pleased that his new child has odd genitals, but Bill assures him that it’s still a boy because he has the XY chromosome. Nate still thinks this thing is a freak. He doesn’t even want to leave the hospital with that thing and wants the genitals to look normal.
He wants Bill to operate, but Bill sees no advantage in that. In fact, he’s not the best person qualified. What Francine and Nate want is a doctor that specializes in pediatric endocrinology. Even so, Nate thinks that his thing won’t be able to perform well in the bedroom. Despite the father’s obvious anger, Bill won’t buckle and, in his own way, tells Nate that he should take some time to think about it and save his child from his own poor judgment.
At the Chancery Park Plaza Hotel, a maintenance man fixes the television for Mr. and Mrs. Holden. When he’s done, Mrs. Holden enters. Virginia is ready to start working, but Bill is too focused on the boxing match. However, the moment she enters the bathroom to draw a bath, Bill is on her in seconds and they have a quick romp.
In-between this, doctors examine the Bombeck baby.
After sex, Bill and Virginia discuss their days. Virginia’s was without incident, aside from Bill’s sudden burst of anger. Bill brings up the baby, which is a rare case of utero. Up until now, he’d only heard about and read on the subject, but never saw it in person. He scoffs at the idea of turning the child into a girl on the basis of convenience and fear just because the father is a bully. Virginia suggests naming the child with a boy’s name- maybe that will solve the problem since all men want a certain kind of son- the kind that beats another boy. She wouldn’t want her son to end up like that. Honestly, looking at Henry, I’m positive he won’t turn out like that at all unless he had some sort of nervous breakdown and just snapped. Maybe if he lost his comic book collection.
Virginia isn’t all too interested in the fight- she thinks that the colored fighter has an unfair advantage. However, he’s the reigning champion- Archie Moore. According to Bill, Moore planned to retire if he didn’t retain the title against challenger Yvon Durelle. The more Bill discusses the fight, the more Virginia is impressed with his apparent expertise on the subject. Bill picked it up while at boarding school. In fact, it’s the very first thing he asked about when he arrived. He just became enamored with the sport. When Virginia asks what spurred this interest, he ducks and dodges the question or Virginia’s hunches. He becomes testy and tells her that it wasn’t an interesting story.
Bellboy Elliot delivers some food and offers a morning breakfast for the couple, but Dr. Holden tells him that he and his wife have to leave early in the morning.
Once Elliot leaves, Virginia and Bill discuss their ‘stories:’ Virginia will be going to Louisville to take care of her mother, who is suffering from a case of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He will return to work at Kansas City as a radiologist. Virginia doesn’t find these cover stories all that imaginative, but Bill wants to maintain the semblance of an ordinary couple. Regardless, Virginia tweaks the story a bit: her mother was blinded in a prison fight and is serving time for tax evasion and contributing to the delinquency of a minor when she tried to seduce a bag boy at the Piggly Wiggly. Virginia just visits to read the Bible to her.
She even edits Bill’s tale: he’s not just any radiologist- he works for the government and is working on a radioactive pen that will be sent to the Kremlin via the Soviet diplomat, Gustav Antonovich, even though Gustav is a Russian name, not German. Also, the two have no kids. Virginia thinks that Bill is now just making fun of her, but just what are the two of them, anyway? Bill asks if Virginia liked the rough sex. She responds by showing some skin.
In-between this, the Bombeck baby is placed in front of an X-ray machine while doctors continue their examination.
Virginia’s alias is now given a name: Lydia. There were other suitors before Francis came along, but only one person counted. While at the Louisville public pool with a friend, she lost an earring that she told others was real. When a man dove in to get it, he ended up sending it down the drain. Lydia gave him an earful, you can count on that! But then she ended up meeting the man at an army dance. He took out a piece of colored glass that he had someone fish out. However, this man was also engaged. The fiancé just seemed to vanish. This man was very intelligent, knew his astronomy and even taught Lydia a little bit of French.
One day, she drove him to the train station. He kissed her, got on the train and bid her farewell. Sometime later, he got married. But then, with a devoted couple, where would there have been room for a fiancé? No. Lydia states that she would never marry a man she didn’t love and desire.
In-between this, doctors look at X-rays of the Bombeck baby, get their tools ready and put the baby to sleep so they can begin the procedure.
Round six of the fight begins. Virginia’s reminded of her father, who liked to listen to fights on the radio. She could never get into it. Bill says that boxing is all about an unspoken conversation when the fighters circle each other. Playing weak is an insult to the other fighter. Virginia still doesn’t get it, so Bill gets her up to give her a demonstration. The two put up their dukes. The key is to undermine the other fighter’s confidence. Bill will throw a punch and she’ll block it. She tries to counter, but there’s no surprise to it- Bill sees it coming
It’s not so funny when Virginia’s bracelet gets stuck in Bill’s hair. Well, it’s a little funny. When the matter is solved, Virginia now tries to fix the divot on the side of Bill’s head. She thinks that Bill enjoyed making her feel weak. She calls the fight unfair, but Bill just thinks she’s just being a sore loser. If she won, she’d probably gloat about it.
But Francis Holden Sr. taught Dr. Holden everything that he knows. Not through explicit teaching, though. One day, Holden Sr. drove his son to New York at the age of 14 to a boarding school. The two got haircuts. Holden Sr. was good at the feint. He would do one thing, but then he’d throw you for a loop. One such loop involved leaving his son on the steps of the freshmen dormitory with the taxi idling at the curb. Holden Sr. said that his son won’t be coming home for the holidays or, really, at all. But Holden Jr. didn’t cry. In fact, this toughened him up, made him into the self-reliant man that he is today. Oh, and a broken nose might have helped.
When the fantasy ends, Bill orders Virginia to disrobe, and no covering her breasts, either! He just wants to see her. He asks if he can touch her. She nods. He then wants to hear her say how much she wants him to make her feel good. She won’t do that. She can do that herself and does just that as she begins to pleasure herself in front of him.
After the two are dressed, the fight still rages on. Virginia can’t tell who is ahead, as it’s hard to tell who the clear winner is in a boxing match. Bill drops some more boxing knowledge: it’s not all about landing the hardest punch; it’s about being able to absorb blows. Soon, you stop feeling pain and resist your body’s urge to run. You master your response- it gives you power.
Virginia asks about the broken nose. Bill claims that it was due to horsing around and, again, dodges Virginia’s questions. He did, however, come up with a good defense: he just stopped putting up his hands. That’s the ultimate insult: inviting your opponent to take their best shot. He might have been able to stop it if he begged for mercy, but he never did. He took it like a man.
But, Virginia, says, he was just a boy. There would have been no shame in stopping the fight. If Moore had gone down in an early round, would he have been called a loser or a human? Sure, boxing builds character, but Virginia won’t let her son become a boxer. Again, Henry doesn’t come off like the type to be a boxer.
In-between this, a doctor takes a look at a textbook while operating on the Bombeck baby.
Elliot comes to retrieve the food cart and speaks with Mrs. Holden. He offers to put in a standing order for the next time the Holdens stop by. Mrs. Holden gives her own tip despite Bill already giving his own. The two speak of marriage, with Elliot telling Mrs. Holden that women appreciate nice gestures. Mrs. Holden suggests that Elliot drop hints, but take his significant other seriously.
Bill emerges fully dressed, with Virginia now noting that the match looks like love- it’s the two against the crowd. That’s a different way to look at it, I guess. Bill plans to write up the report, but Virginia will do it herself. Role-playing was constant throughout. Before leaving, Bill makes a quick phone call in the hotel lobby.
From there, he rushes to the hospital and speaks with Josh in the lobby. Bill orders Nate to stop the procedure and give it some more thought, but it’s already done. Bill begs Mr. Bombeck to let his son be what he is, but no, the operation was a success. Nate and Francine are going to call their daughter Sarah, because better to be a tomboy than a sissy.
Virginia heads to the lobby, but before she leaves, she spots a crowd watching the boxing match in a nearby hotel bar. She pops by to watch. A man, played by Barry Watson of 7th Heaven fame, asks about her interest in boxing, but she doesn’t have any. No. She’s not into the fight. She just wants to see how it ends.
Definitely a fantastic episode we’ve got here and one that works even better played against the boxing match. While I like the multi-story arcs and how Masters of Sex has been able to balance them all out without problems, “Fight” is a much stronger episode because, for the most part, is contained and plays out like a boxing match itself.
Each time we cut away to the Bombeck baby, in some very awkward and uncomfortable moments, it feels like the stand-in for a ring girl that would come in and introduce the next round. By the time the episode ends, you’d think you knew everything there was to know about boxing.
But each round here is another internal and external bout between Bill and Virginia, or Francis and Lydia, as what begins as fantasy slowly transcends into reality. The episode examines gender roles- not just the measure of a man, but femininity through Virginia’s talk with Tessa about a princess that could survive without a man’s help.
I like how the episode is framed, whether in the long focuses on the characters through the mirror or the close-ups of Virginia’s face as she pleasures herself in front of Bill. Amy Lippman, who wrote this episode, made an effective use of the boxing match to illustrate the ongoing battle between Bill and Virginia as they work through their affair.
And yet, their battles against each other are as big as their ongoing one against society. They’ve been shunned because of the sex study, but they’re still pushing forward, despite the odds.
We’ve gotten bits and pieces of Bill’s backstory before, but it comes spilling out in the form of his cover story. And the anger displayed toward his father is not unlike that we’ve seen him show Essie. Bill isn’t a fan of letting people into his life or seeing him in a state of vulnerability, yet it’s through his cover identity that he unravels his troubled past.
Mr. Bombeck is representative of what Bill hates about the world around him: unflinching and uncompromising in the name of fear and paranoia. When Mr. Bombeck tells Bill that he prefers his child a tomboy as opposed to a sissy, Bill sees his father in this man- he can’t accept what his child is, so he tries to force him to be something different. And that anger comes out when he forces himself onto Virginia in the bathroom, as well as when he tells her to stop covering her breasts.
But even though Bill figured that he could dominate Virginia, she pushes back. It’s her feistiness that drew him to her, and we see her defend her stance when she refuses to let Bill make her feel good, but does it herself. She won’t allow herself to become subservient because she’s not the kind of woman that takes orders.
We want people to be who they are, yes, but that’s hard to do when you have to deal with others who are too steeped in tradition. Now, am I saying there’s anything wrong with doing things the way that you’ve always done them? No. What I am saying is that there’s a difference when it comes to forcing someone to be who they aren’t, as Mr. Bombeck did with his child and what Bill’s father did to him.
And as far as performances go, Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan were absolutely on-point. This didn’t feel like two actors acting out a scene, but like an actual boxing match. I know I don’t have as much to say about this episode as I have previous ones- partially because I’ve been away at a convention this week- but this is an episode that should be seen as opposed to reading about. It pushes Bill and Virginia’s friendship, relationship and affair further and gives us another look into their individual back stories. Definitely one of the show’s strongest episodes so far.