“It almost looks like love, doesn’t it? They reach for each other and hold on. Two of them against each other, sure, but also it’s them against that crowd,” Virginia Johnson says to Bill Masters in the hotel room where they’ve met to do “research.” “Fight,” the third episode of the season, is hands down the best, most complex and challenging episode of the entire series. Michael Sheen and Lizzie Caplan excel in these tight quarters, duck and weaving the characters as they deal with sex, gender and power. If last week’s episode was about the burdens of femininity, this is definitely about Bill Masters’ masculinity.
The episode opens with Virginia talking to her daughter Tessa about whether or not the tooth fairy is a princess while her son tries to change his hair part (he was told by a girl that he looks like “Howdy Doody.”). We learn that Tessa has an aggressively heteronormative worldview, where there can only be one kind of prince (handsome), and a happily ever after is “inevitable,” despite Virginia’s attempts to get her to think outside the box.
Virginia says Tessa likes fairy tales because she knows how they will end.
Bill, meanwhile, is in the delivery room. The baby is born, and as he hands the child to the nurse, she asks, concerned, “What is it?”
In the mother’s hospital room, we find out. The child was born intersex — adrenogenital hyperplasia. The child has ambiguous genitalia but carries an XY chromosome. Bill is once again in a position arguing against unnecessary surgery, trying to get the parents to at least wait until they can council an expert. He is arguing that this child is certainly a boy, and that any action taken is one that should confirm the child’s masculinity. But the father wants no part of any variance. He asks, “Can you make it look normal,” and is worried about erections. He is a bully, and if his child can’t “perform,” then Bill needs to cut off the child’s penis. “You can sew a prick on him the size of the Empire State Building,” says the father, “And it still won’t make him a man.” He challenges Bill’s authority, but Bill is clear — they need to wait, and that the father will thank him later for it.
This has upset Bill, obviously, and he brings this tension into the hotel room where he waits for Virginia. A TV repairman is working to fix the screen so that Bill can watch the boxing match between Archie Moore, the aging champ, and Yvon Durelle, “the Fisherman.” We see Moore get knocked to the ground 3 times in the first round, to the upset of both Masters and the TV repairman. Virginia is uninterested and heads off to the shower. The TV man leaves, and, while Virginia is beginning to undress, the slightly drunk Bill comes in and fucks Virginia in an uncomfortably aggressive way.
The scene cuts the hospital: a bunch of people are looking at the baby, naked, spread out across a hospital bed. They look concerned.
Virginia wonders about what got into Bill, and why she got no “hello, how was your day, ” She asks about Bill’s. It turns out he’s very unhappy about that horrible father. He calls him a bully who is used to getting his way: “He wasn’t a man who could handle ambiguity.”
Virginia suggests that the baby just needs a boy’s name. “Isn’t that what every man wants? A son?” The audience, of course, gets to remember that Bill has a son, too, at his house, where his wife is. But then Virginia glances at the match: “Unless it needs to be a certain kind of son, male through and through” she gestures at the boxers. “I wouldn’t want that kind of son, or for that matter that kind of man. You’re not like that.” He looks at her. “you’re not.” Bill is struggling: is he not a man, or is he not that kind of man.
When she’s done ordering, Bill gets excited about the fight. He uses a bunch of boxing terms, which confuses Virginia, who had assumed he’s not interested in sports. She says she’s never seen him glance at a sports page. He reminds her that they don’t eat breakfast together. True! They are not actually married, they are only having sex. But then Bill explains that the first thing he did after he got to prep school was talk to the boxing coach. Virginia asks if he “enjoyed” boxing with his father. Bill did not “enjoy” it.
Elliott, the sweet, weird room service waiter, comes in while Virginia is in the bath. He is very chatty, and reminds Bill that on another visit, he helped out “Mrs. Holden.” The couple comes here often! They talk about the match. Elliott’s cheering for the kid. Bill is cheering for the champ.
When Elliott leaves, Virginia comes out of the bathroom. She asks about their backstory. He’s Dr. Frances Holden, a Kansas City radiologist. She’s going to visit her sick mother, who has idiopathic pulminary fibrosis, which causes Virginia to just repeat “idiopathic,” a few times to show that she also doesn’t like ambiguity. She develops much more exciting backstory, where her mother is in jail and Bill is a spy. and Bill is amused, maybe too amused, which upsets the super-serious Virginia, but she stops being angry. The talk about the rough sex earlier. Bill asked if she enjoyed it. She liked that he had her standing up, she says, and initiates sex..
We cut to the baby being shoved into a plastic frame so the baby can be x-rayed.
We go back to the hotel, where they’re post-coitily pretending to be Dr. and Mrs. Holden, who Bill has now named “Lydia.” They’re using it at as a cover to talk about their lives — they can only expose themselves with this extra layer of protection — and Virginia tells a story about getting her heart broken by an Army captain who had a fiance — that he told her about, once, the whole year they were dating. She was the other woman, and the Captain leaves her. This is how she learned to separate love and sex, she says. Bill, fully in Dr. Holden form, asks, “what does that mean for us,” and Virginia, as Lydia, comforts her husband. Of course she loves and desires him, she says
They go back to watching the match, which Virginia isn’t all that into, because there is a whole lot of nothing happening. But Bill mansplains that it’s a conversation and it’s actually a really nasty one where they drop their gloves to prove they can take hits and throw punches to prove that the other guy is too slow to block them. Which, because Bill and Virginia are emotionally stunted, results in Bill trying to “teach” Virginia how to box, which results in her bracelet getting stuck in his hair. She cuts her bracelet out, and then lays it out for Bill: “You enjoyed that — liked making me feel pathetic, weak.” He says she is weak, or at least, weaker than him, and if she had won she’d be gloating. It feels even better, he says if the odds are against you.
We get the story of “Frances Senior,” Bill’s father, who dropped him off at boarding school and told him he could never come back home. He also broke Bill’s nose. Bill credits him with making him totally self reliant and the man he is today, a “Kansas City Radiologist.” Virginia looks sad and confused, which turns Bill on. He strips her of her robe in his very best Christian Grey impression, which she does not like. He makes her uncover herself, and then stares at her body and tries to get her to beg him to touch her. Virginia is not going to be beaten, so she masturbates.
In Boxing, we learn, sometimes winning doesn’t mean throwing the hardest punch, it means taking it. And in Bill’s own mind, he’s done that against his father because he never begged. Men don’t beg. But Virginia thinks that’s stupid, and that she hopes that her son doesn’t end up like that.
The baby gets surgery.
At the end of the night, Virginia calls her kids, and tries to convince Tessa that princesses can also have adventures, but she is not buying it. There is a tender moment between Virginia and Bill that is sweet, but when it seems like they might just kiss, like normal people having an affair would, she reminds him that his ring is on the nightstand. They are no longer Dr. and Mrs. Holden, and they are not having an affair. They are scientists, and Virginia records the session.
As Bill leaves, he hears a baby cry, which inspires him to call … the hospital (not, of course, his own child). He finds out about the surgery and rushes back (after a whole lot of drinks) and confronts the father.
He begs him not to go through with the surgery. He says “I’m begging you,” which is a big deal, because he has learned from Virginia that this is a kind of manliness. But it is too late, and the father is still an asshole. The surgery is over, and the child is now Sarah. “Better to be a tomboy than a sissy,” the father says.
Back at the hotel, Virginia is in a smoke filled lobby watching the match. She is there to find out how it ends. We share in Virginia’s childhood experiences as the rest of the game plays over the credits — Moore wins.