Pop Culture at its Best

Masters of Sex Ep. 2.03-2.04: “Fight”/”Dirty Jobs” reach, but cannot sustain, new heights

Masters of Sex, S02E03, "The Fight"Masters of Sex Season 2, Episode 3, “Fight”
Written by Amy Lippman
Directed by Michael Apted

Masters of Sex, Season 2, Episode 4, “Dirty Jobs”
Written by Steve Levenson
Directed by Michael Engler
Airs Sundays at 10pm (ET) on Showtime

One of the breakthroughs in television as an art form came when creators increasingly realized that they could ignore any perceived obligation to use every cast member of their show in every episode. Any given hour or half hour could narrow or widen its focus as need be, and almost every prestige drama shuffles on whom they concentrate in their ensemble. Hell, The Leftovers is doing this right off the bat, not even bothering to give the audience time to grow accustomed to every character before it spends whole hours featuring one or two characters. It’s an increasing trend — not quite “bottle episodes,” since they aren’t confined to one location, but somewhat similar in spirit. “Fight” is such an episode, immediately drawing comparisons to Mad Men‘s “The Suitcase,” which only makes sense. After all, both are episodes of period dramas that are mostly about the relationship between the lead male and lead female characters. “Fight,” though, comes much earlier in its series’ run than “The Suitcase” did, and it acts not so much as a rumination on its main relationship as it does a contextualization of it.

Bill and Gini have developed an unusual (to say the least) bond, based mainly on how scarily well they work together as a research team, and which has evolved to include a sexual and secret-keeping aspect. If it’s love, it’s in a form unlike any we’ve seen before — certainly, neither of them acknowledge or perhaps even realize it. As they get together for another hotel room “session,” Bill is troubled by an encounter with a Mr. Bombeck, who instantly asserts himself as Television Asshole of the Year 2014. Bombeck has ordered that his newborn child, born with “ambiguous sex organs,” get immediate surgery to “make it female,” even though the baby is perfectly healthy and chromosomally male. Bombeck reminds Bill of his own asshole father, and the emotional distress sets off a chain of actions that makes him open up to Gini (and, really, the audience) for the first time.

“Fight” is primarily about gender roles, and how both Bill and Gini grapple with them is what sets off their mutual emotional vulnerability. The taciturn Bill reveals a surprising knowledge of boxing, spurred by the Archie Moore/Yvon Durelle match on television (whose duration is stretched out for artistic purposes, unless the many events of this episode took place in an incredibly brief amount of time). He endured years of abuse from his father, who never thought Bill man enough for his liking. Gini has two futile arguments with her daughter about what men and women can and can’t do in fairy tales: Princes can’t be ugly, princesses can’t go on adventures, she insists, to Gini’s dismay. She tells Bill of how an early heartbreak led to her emotional closing-off towards romance. And then, when Bill demands she tell him how she wants him to pleasure her, she defiantly asserts that she can pleasure herself. And does so.

It’s a quiet episode that screams in its subtexts. Bill and Gini’s numerous games — their dueling stories about what their hotel cover identities’ backgrounds, their mock boxing match (any other show would have had that fistfight end with someone getting socked in the eye, which is what I honestly was bracing for) — are their way of dancing around just what the hell it is they’re really doing in that hotel room. Their pretext that it’s just more research is flimsy, brought up sporadically at the most (and at the end, ironically: “Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying. One masturbatory act. Role-playing throughout. Am I forgetting anything?”). It’s a tremendous showcase for both Caplan and Sheen, performing reams of subtle acts.

Bill is proud that, throughout all of his father’s beatings, he never begged him to stop. But at the end of the episode, he begs Bombeck not to mutilate his child. Interspersed throughout the episode are scenes of doctors coldly prepping the baby for surgery, all of which are utterly horrifying. The worst scene is a toss up between the wailing infant being crammed into a clear tube for an x-ray and the preamble to the actual procedure, which sees the doctor ask for a textbook because he’s so at a loss for what he’s supposed to do. It’s another glimpse at a world that we’re trying our best to phase out, with the help of research done by the likes of Johnson and Masters. It’s interesting how the show continues to play Bill’s sense of progressivism even as it still keeps his views bound to past convention. His view of the baby’s situation, though more rational than Bombeck’s by far, is still based in gender essentialism.

After the greatness of “Fight,” it would have been difficult for the next episode to be anything but a step down. And “Dirty Jobs” is just that, with its theme of trust not played at any low key. It’s another piece-moving episode, finally seeming to bring everything to the point where it all needs to be for the sex study to finally move forward again. Still, it has some wonderfully affecting scenes, chief among them the conversation between Betty and Gene (whom I have finally deigned to call by name — congratulations, Pretzel King!).

Danny Huston is bowing out of the show sooner than I thought, it seems. Greathouse’s skeezyness only escalates over the course of the episode, as Bill cannot ward him away from perving over the sex sessions, no matter how hard he tries. Bill finally hits his breaking point when Greathouse brings a bunch of colleagues into the examination room as well. He’s out at that hospital, though he soon rebounds… at a black hospital looking to integrate.

That’s an interesting indicator of things to come. This choice of setting positions Masters of Sex to do what many critics and viewers have (rightfully) asked of the burgeoning subgenre of period drama television: to confront matters of race in a substantial manner. We already have a glimpse of this in the interactions between Libby and Coral, which only get worse this week. This season keeps fraying Libby’s nerves, as her fantasy of the perfect ’50s life keeps crumbling around her, another blow dealt by Bill losing the job she only just secured for him. It’ll be interesting if the show goes on to reveal Libby to be an all-out racist as opposed to being a “standard” racist, something that the preview for the next episode possibly hints at. It’d be another chink in her likability this season, though she remains devastatingly sympathetic in her despair.

The other half of setting up Gini and Bill’s reunion with the study is Gini losing her partnership with Lillian, who ends up turning her research over to her old teacher. She’d hoped to pass it on to Gini, but she can’t bring herself to trust her (THEME OF THE EPISODE) after Gini continues to withhold her relationship with Bill from her. The worst part is that you can understand both their reasons for what they do, and the resolutions satisfy neither of them, but make utter sense. With nothing else left for supplementary income, Gini dives full on into pushing those vile weight-loss pills, proving unnervingly effective at preying on her neighbor’s insecurities. This more than anything else feels like a betrayal of her feminist ideals, and it’s awful to watch.

But now Bill seems to have finally found a place that will let him continue his research unimpeded, and with Gini by his side. So we’ll see where Masters of Sex, which even more now than in the last season is leaving history by the wayside (I still have the book on which this show is based on hold at the library — I’m eager to learn about the real story), is prepping to go next.

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