“Fight” succeeds like only the very best dramas do: delicately crafted, heartbreakingly revealing, with honest performances that do the exquisite script justice. This episode is a master class in what the television medium can accomplish.
Most of “Fight” takes place between our two main characters inside a single hotel room. With little outside interference (except for a televised boxing match as a framing device), the episode offers startling insight into Bill and Gini’s non-affair. We’ve seen from the first two episodes this season that the couple is meeting at this posh hotel in Alton, but Gini has maintained what they have in common is the work, most importantly. Bill replied by dismissing romance outright, and trying to describe their relationship merely as a continuation of the sex study, just without the wires, meters, and other gadgets.
As game as these two are to get physical with each other, we haven’t seen much reason for their reluctance to embrace emotional intimacy as well as the sexual. Until now. The fact that “Fight” plays this emotional battle out against a background of redefining gender roles vaults this episode into legendary status, one that will immediately come to mind when pondering what makes Masters Of Sex TV drama at the highest level.
The heartbreaking case of the Bombeck baby, born with “ambiguous sex organs,” conjures up all of Bill’s old childhood trauma. The awful, sneering, bullying father wants Bill to “cut it off,” even though blood tests show that the child’s chromosomes indicate that he is in fact a boy. But Mr. Bombeck is worried about a child who will have to get testosterone shots, who may not be able to perform sexually: “better a tomboy than a sissy,” is his reasoning. As with Scully’s nightmarish efforts to cure himself of his homosexuality with shock therapy, this case is another instance of something that’s absolutely horrifying from today’s perspective, and we can be grateful that gender roles have come a long way over sixty years. We now know that nature always wins over nurture, that “manhood” encompasses a wide spectrum. But for Bill—after Bombeck taunts that only a sissified man himself would even entertain the idea of leaving the child a boy rather than making him a girl— the conflict causes him revisit his worst example of consummate “manhood”: his father.
Bill’s immediate reaction is to do the most male thing that comes to mind: to have Virginia fiercely, against a bathroom wall, without even taking the time to disrobe. It’s a disturbing greeting, but Virginia still finds it exciting, and our episodic battle is on. The rest of the hour features revelations—sexual, emotional, historical—as our two players offer some shots to the other and retreat at other times. Both participants become intrigued by the other’s fictitious version of their trysts: Bill perks up when Gini tells room service how rare “her husband” likes his steak. In Bill’s backstory, he’s a Kansas City radiologist, but she, pointedly, doesn’t even have a first name.
Virginia fights back with a seductive glimpse of stocking under her robe, and in the couple’s next post-coital scene, she is granted the name of Lydia. She responds with a story that starts out fake but ends up real: Her heart was broken when her first love left her to marry someone else. She finally opines what we’ve seen in her actions, but not in her words: “Play it safe. Keep your heart out of it, keep it someplace safe, like a bank vault.” When Masters asks where that leaves them, she replies: “Oh darling, don’t you know I would never marry a man I didn’t both love and desire.” Cloaked by the fake relationship, she can tell the truth about herself and even tell Masters she loves him, something she could never do outside of the hotel room, away from the scenario.
Although Virginia pummels Bill earlier with questions about why he knows so much about boxing, he deflects them. In an effort to learn more about his surprising choice of sport, the two engage in an actual boxing match, and he defends himself there too, until Virginia’s bracelet gets ensnared in his hair (I have a theory that Virginia’s bracelet symbolizes romance. I could be overthinking this episode). After Bill finally reveals how his father used to beat him to a bloody pulp, he grabs at Virginia’s robe and demands that she stand there uncovered, and wants her to tell him how she wants him to make her feel good. This time, she fights back against his demands with, “I can make myself feel good,” and she masturbates in front of him. It’s certainly erotic for Bill, who has scored a blow with a major confession, but it’s also a victory for Virginia: She doesn’t need him. Michael Apted’s masterful direction here moves the focus from Virginia’s heavy breathing immediately to the televised fight. As the camera stays on the fight, the lengthy Masters and Johnson conversation continues, this time getting at the truth of what “manhood” really is. Bill maintains that he bested his father by keeping his gloves low, never giving him the satisfaction of fighting back or admitting defeat. Gini, the mother of a son, maintains she would never want Henry to think that’s what “being a man” is.
After the tryst, Bill discovers what viewers have been painfully aware of over the hour: The Bombecks have decided to go ahead and castrate the baby. Bill’s begging of Mr. Bombeck has so much more gravity now that we know the real reason why his father beat him: Bill wouldn’t beg his father to stop. But here Bill begs another bully, in an effort to save this poor child a lifetime of feeling uncomfortable in his own skin. When he fails, it’s like a knockout, and all he can do is just back away.
These gender roles affect women, too. The episode begins with Gini trying to dissuade her daughter (who spouts, “Men can’t be fairies. There’s only one kind of prince: the handsome prince.”) from buying into classic fairy-tale stereotypes: What if the prince was ugly? Later, in a phone call from the hotel, Virginia offers: What if the princess goes off and has her own adventure? What if she saves the prince instead? Gini has been around long enough to know that Prince Charmings usually end up tarnished eventually. Can she save Bill? She pauses to watch the fight before she leaves the hotel, because, like her daughter, she wants to know how it ends.
If we know how it ends, we know how invested to get in the beginning: We know how much it’s going to hurt. But there’s strength in revelation: As Bill points out, it takes a certain amount of courage to fight with your gloves down, to be saying in effect, “Come on, give me everything you’ve got.” And by lowering the gloves, we at least are putting ourselves in control of the situation. We may get pummeled, but it is our choice to open ourselves up to being pummeled, and Bill and Gini both lower the gloves at certain points this hour.
It’s a big step. It could be why Bill stays in the Dr. Holden persona at the end of the evening, as a giant safe wall he can hide behind after all his reveals, telling Gini stories that even his own wife has never heard. Although Masters and Johnson can open up to each other on these other levels, they still can’t kiss goodbye. Because a kiss goodbye would go past desire to show how much they actually care for one another: A revelation neither is ready for yet.
I’ve thought a lot about—outside of the fight mimicking Masters and Johnson’s relationship—the significance of the aging, defending champ, Archie Moore, who gets knocked down three times in the first round but is still standing by the time Virginia is leaving the hotel. The younger generation, like bellboy Elliott, roots for “the kid,” while we see Masters egging on Moore from the beginning. I am as unschooled as Gini about the unspoken language behind the boxers’ battle, but here’s my take: Like the elder boxer, Bill and Virginia both have been knocked down a lot. She’s divorced, with two kids; he’s just been fired and his life’s work is in limbo. But they, like most of us, contain an inherent need to incessantly return to the ring. Though we may lose in love, work, life overall, we continue to get up: As long as we’re alive, we just keep fighting.
- This episode was penned by Amy Lippman, who is best known as a writer for Party Of Five in the ’90s; she really hit it out of park here.
- Jessica Biel isn’t the only 7th Heaven star returning to television: That’s an almost-unrecognizable Barry Watson asking Gini why she’s watching the fight at the end of the episode.
- That poor little baby getting poked at and prodded may be the most disturbing thing I’ve seen on TV this year. For a tragic real-life account of a similar situation, see As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl by John Colapinto.
- Archie (“The Old Mongoose”) Moore was the World Light Heavyweight Champ when he defended his title against Yvon Durelle in 1958: Despite all the trouble he seemed to be having in this episode, he eventually knocked Durelle out in the 11th round.
- “Two acts of intercourse, mutually satisfying. One masturbatory act. Role-playing throughout. Am I forgetting anything?”