One set, two actors, all dialogue: TV's best 'bottle' episodes
Sunday night’s episode of Masters of Sex, titled “Fight,” was one of the series’ best. It stuck the show’s two main characters, Dr. William Masters (Michael Sheen) and his assistant/lover Virginia Johnson (Lizzy Caplan), in a single hotel room and then let them batter out their anxieties and anger through flirtation, role play, and sex, all while an actual boxing match rages on TV.
In TV parlance, episodes like “Fight,” where characters are restricted to a few sets, are often called “bottle episodes”—they’re cheaper to make (you don’t have to build new sets or cast guest stars) but they succeed or fail depending on the quality of the writing and the actors’ performances. In other terms, “Fight” was also nearly a “two-hander,” a term borrowed from stage performance that refers to a play in which only two actors appear.
But Masters of Sex isn’t the only instance of a bottled two-hander (or a bottled two, as I will now call the phenomenon and also my soon-to-exist soda brand) on television—or even the only instance of a bottled two that revolves around a boxing match. So, in order to make sense of this new breed of episode, here are the top five episodes of the genre.
1. “The Suitcase” — Mad Men, season 4, episode 11
Frequently interested in the creative process, Mad Men hit pause midway through its fourth season to have Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) lock themselves in the Sterling Cooper offices for one night to perfect a pitch for Samsonite suitcases. While Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay duke it out in a match, Don and Peggy deliver some of the show’s best lines as they tear each other apart. The real joy in “The Suitcase” doesn’t come from the fighting, but the reconciliation—the way Don and Peggy reveal themselves to be stuck together by a mutual desire to create something worthwhile. It’s the ultimate examination of a platonic friendship, and the best bottled two around.
2. “Fight” — Masters of Sex, season 2, episode 3
In his recap of “Fight,” Alan Sepinwall noted that Masters of Sex showrunner Michelle Ashford’s face dropped as soon as he told her the plot of “The Suitcase”; it turns out she was clueless about the similarities. And yes, the parallels between “Fight” and “The Suitcase”—including the focus on a boxing match and the relationship between a man with a tortured childhood and his secretary—are pretty much impossible to deny. But in keeping with Bill’s gentlemanly morals, “Fight” is anything but a cheap shot. The episode, book-ended by Bill’s attempts to convince a father not to castrate a baby born with multiple genitalia, centers on creation, but here it is a sexual problem where Mad Men‘swas intellectual. At one point, Virginia stands in the center of the room naked while Bill, clothed in a bathrobe, examines her from every angle. What’re you going to do with a body? Well, at least Masters of Sex knows what to do with two.
3. “Fly” — Breaking Bad, season 3, episode 10
If it’s symbolism you want in your bottled two, then look no further than Breaking Bad, which sends Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jess Pinkman (Aaron Paul) on a wild fly chase around the meth lab for an entire episode. The chase could just be a silly distraction, but Cranston and Paul (along with directorial work from Rian Johnson, who went on to Looper and now to a Star Wars spin-off) imbue it with enough vigor and even comedy that the hunt for the fly starts to stand in for the series as a whole. There are tons of possible readings, but the best comes from Walt himself in a brilliant monologue: “It’s simple chaos.”
4. “Critical Film Studies” — Community, season 2, episode 19
Now we’re starting to veer away from the purer bottled twos and into episodes with B and C plots. Still, Community‘s second season pairing of Jeff (Joel McHale) and Abed (Danny Pudi) deserves to make the list just by the fact that it quotes film’s most famous bottled two: My Dinner with Andre. Abed tries to get Jeff to participate in some authentic conversation, but the plot quickly veers into childhood anxieties and disastrous accidents on the set of Cougar Town. Community gets credit both for sending up the cliché that two characters will magically reveal themselves to each other if they just have a conversation, and somehow, for getting Jeff and Abed to do just that.
5. “Conversations with Dead People” — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 7, episode 7
Buffy’s seventh season standout is the least bottled addition to the list, given that there are multiple conversations that appear over the course of the episode, but Buffy’s chat with Holden Webster, a former member of Sunnydale High (and now vampire) is too good to ignore. Written by series creator Joss Whedon, the banter captures much of the energy the show had lost over its seven-season run to pinpoint Buffy’s anxieties over growing up and learning to trust her friends. But a good two-hander brings two perspectives, and Holden’s take on life as a vampire (it’s fun! You feel powerful! Pain is good!) manages to capture the mind of the enemy in a way that wasn’t seen in much of the series.
Honorable mention: “Unfinished Business” — Battlestar Galactica, season 3, episode 9
It’s impossible to talk about bottle episodes, or episodes about boxing, without mentioning Battlestar Galactica‘s third season examination of the lives of the ship’s crew members after leaving their home on New Caprica. The multiple flashbacks in and out of a boxing ring that track several storylines ruin any chance that “Unfinished Business”could be either true a two-hander or a bottle episode, but the focus on Lee Adama (Jamie Barber) and (Katee Sackhoff) rings thematically true with the rest of our entries. To pull a line from Virginia Johnson, the way two boxers cling to each other at the end of the match (and this episode), well, it looks a lot like love.