A boxing match serves as a long, recurring metaphor for Bill and Virginia's relationship and their understanding of strength and power.
Credit: Michael Desmond/SHOWTIME

Masters of Sex is not going light on the metaphors this season. Episode 3, “Fight,” is a study in masculinity, dissecting what it takes to be a “real man.” As Bill and Virginia verbally dance/spar their way through another one of their hotel trysts, the legendary 1958 boxing match between Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle plays on the television in the background. Couple that with Bill’s heartbreaking case of a child born with ambiguous genitalia, and a more than few times it felt like the viewer was the one getting hit over the head with jabs of double meaning.

The night’s hotel rendezvous kicks off with a preoccupied Bill barely acknowledging Virginia as she enters the room while a handyman fixes the television as the Moore-Durelle bout begins. Virginia, expert at dealing with his moods, waves Bill off and announces she will be taking a bath. Bill—upset and angry about work—enters the bathroom and throws her against the wall, where he pins her for rough-sexy sex.

Afterward, she jokes about his brusque way of saying hello, but realizes something is bothering him. That’s when he explains the difficult, emotionally draining case he had earlier in the day: He delivered a baby born with adrenogenital hyperplasia—in other words, both male and female genitalia. Blood tests revealed the baby was genetically a boy, but the child’s father was furious—he refused to acknowledge the newborn as his son, and kept likening him to a circus freak. Bill, always concerned for the well-being of his patients, tried to talk the man down by telling him the condition can be fixed, though the boy might need hormone treatment. “There’s no advantage to performing surgery on an infant,” he explained, and asked the new parents for patience until an expert could perform the surgery. The man refused to listen to logic: “He’ll never be a man, so cut if off.” (Metaphor!) Bill refused to perform the surgery the father demanded, but promised to make calls to specialists seeking advice.

Virginia, of course, is appalled that, in a case like this, someone would choose convenience—”cutting it off”—over what is physically, psychologically and morally correct. Doesn’t every man want a son? she wonders. Unless they want a certain kind of son. (Metaphor!) Catching a glimpse of the television, she offhandedly makes a comment about the “manliness” of boxing, with all of the violence and aggression that it requires (metaphor!), saying Bill’s not like that. But he is, more than she realizes—at least at this part in the evening.

Throughout the night, Bill attempts to explain boxing to Virginia, a novice to the sport. (Metaphor!) She’s amused by how much he knows about it—he never struck her as the sporting type—but it turns out he was once a fighter himself. The first thing he did after unpacking his suitcase at boarding school was find the boxing coach to teach him how to fight. Why? He wanted to be able to hold his own. When Virginia presses him for a better answer, he gets moody and brushes her off. Round 1 goes to Bill.

NEXT: Round 2

As Bill was tipping the bellhop for bringing dinner, Virginia overheard him mention they both had long drives in the morning and would not need breakfast. Virginia, intrigued, wonders what story he has made up about their illicit meetings in the guise of being Dr. and Mrs. Holden. She regularly visits her sick mother in Louisville, he is a radiologist who has a medical practice in Kansas City, and when they can, they met in between. Virginia finds his story boring, preferring to pretend that her mother is actually in prison for coming onto a young man at the Piggly Wiggly, while he is a radiologist for the government working on new spy techniques. Bill calls himself Francis, while Virginia… he hasn’t given Virginia a name. Virginia pouts: “Are you making fun of me?” she asks.

“Aren’t you making fun of us?” Bill wonders. And then she says it: “What are we?” It’s a direct question about the state of their relationship, hidden within the role-play. In his imagination, are they that perfect couple on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post? Is that what he wants? Is that what she wants?

Bill reminds her he just had her up against the wall. (Metaphor!) He asks if she liked it, and she says she did. “We might look like white picket fence-types,” she says pulling back her robe, “but there’s nothing normal about us.” And how. Round 2 to Virginia.

Cut, jarringly, to the hospital. The baby Bill delivered earlier in the day is screaming, being held upright in a kind of oversize test tube so X-rays can be taken. It’s a harrowing image; you know what’s inevitably going to happen to that baby before the unwitting, otherwise occupied Bill can intervene.

Back at the hotel, Bill marvels at the sexual appetite of Mrs. Holden—Lydia, he calls her, giving her a name. Oh, there were other boys before him, Lydia/Virginia teases, but only one man. She launches into a story about how she was “a girl with sass” when she was younger, one who snagged a military man. The first time they made love was in a field of honeysuckles; her story plays out like erotic fantasy. She remembers thinking, “This is what it is to be in love.” And then the man left her to get married to his fiancee.

Moral of the story: Enjoy sex, but keep your heart out of it. Virginia may have a wild imagination, but this story wasn’t made up, and Bill realizes the truth in her words. “What’s that say about us?” he asks, and when she repeats the “us” part, surprised, “Dr. Holden” clarifies: “About our marriage?”

“Oh, darling,” Virginia says. “I would never marry a man who I don’t both love and desire.” (Metaphor!)

Cut back to hospital, where the baby is laid on an operating table. And cue the terrible knot in the viewers’ stomach.

Post-dinner, post-fantasy, Bill’s attention is back on the fight. Virginia says it’s boring when the competitors just eyeball each other; Bill says that unspoken conversation is the best part. (Metaphor!) When Virginia says she doesn’t understand (like a silly, dumb girl) Bill tells her to put her dukes up. (Metaphor!) They play-fight, but the more frustrated Virginia gets as Bill bests her and laughs about it, the more serious she becomes, until she actually does wallop him—and gets her bracelet stuck in his hair.

She saws it out with a steak knife and scolds him: “You enjoyed that, making me feel weak.” He retorts: “You are weak… weaker.” (Metaphor!) And then Bill launches into his own story of a scarring incident from his past, which is basically what this whole episode is about. Bill’s dad would’ve been a good boxer, he says: He was a master at the fake. He could act like a doting father, treating his son to a fancy shave and haircut in New York City, but then he’d drop him off at boarding school… and basically tell his 14-year-old kid, “It’s time you took care of yourself. Don’t come home again.” Bill says it’s a good thing his dad treated him that way because it made him completely self-reliant.

“We both got left,” Virginia says.

“But he didn’t break my heart,” Bill replies. “Just my nose, once.” Bill says his father did him a favor in making him the man he is today: a Kansas City radiologist. And there is Bill, just like Virginia, once again masking the truth in the guise of a fairy tale. He reaches for Virginia’s belt; the robe slips, and she tries to cover herself. Did his story make her feel vulnerable, like she was standing in front of a stranger?

Bill instructs her to takes her hands away. “I want to see you,” he says, circling her, studying her. Virginia meekly asks if he is going to touch her, and Bill asks if that’s what she wants. She shakes her head yes, and Bill demands she tell him how much she wants him to make her feel good. (Metaphor!) Virginia, proving exactly how non-weak she is, says she can make herself feel good, and begins to touch herself. Bill backs away and watches her masturbate. The sexually charged power struggles of this couple make every other will they-won’t they storyline on television seem boring in comparison. Round 3 to Virginia.

NEXT: “I want to see how it ends”

And then they’re back to watching the boxing match. Virginia says she can’t tell who’s ahead, and Bill tells her sometimes the best fighter isn’t the one who lands the hardest punch, but the one who absorbs it. (Metaphor!) Virginia says you’d have to be a masochist to enjoy that, while Bill explains that you stop feeling it after a while. When you can’t control the punishment, you can at least master your response. (Metaphor!) How does he know? Because Bill’s dad used to beat him senseless as a kid, and Bill refused to fight back. He could have gotten on his knees and begged for mercy, but Bill decided to “take it like a man.”

Virginia doesn’t buy it. You weren’t a man, she says, you were a boy. And there’s no shame in saying you’re hurt. She says she doesn’t want her son to be a boxer because, “When he’s hurt, I don’t want him to act like he’s not—that’s not a lesson he needs to learn. I don’t think that’s what’s going to make him a man.” (Metaphor!) Bill looks rattled by her words. She’s destroying what he held to be true, his understanding of “manliness.” And she’s giving him an out. He doesn’t have to think that way anymore.

Cut to the OR, where the infant is undergoing the operation… to have the male genitals removed. (Sad metaphor.)

As Virginia is preparing to leave the hotel, she phones her daughter, who’s spending the night with her dad. The little girl wants a bedtime story—a fairy tale story where a handsome prince rescues the princess. During this conversation, Virginia literally tries on Bill’s wedding ring. But she asks her daughter why can’t the princess go on an adventure all her own? Why can’t she rescue the prince? (Metaphor sandwich!)

The bellhop arrives to take the dinner trays and strikes up conversation with Virginia, asking if there was anything the couple would like the hotel to prepare for them in advance of their next stay. Flowers, champagne… Virginia says those things are nice, but not necessary. The guy doesn’t believe her; perhaps she needs to drop hints to Mr. Holden, he suggests. Virginia says he does other things for her: takes her seriously, listens. Or perhaps he doesn’t offer her those things because they’re having an affair, and why leave evidence? Round 4 to Bill.

The bellhop leaves; Bill exits the bathroom and checks the fight one last time. “It almost looks like love, doesn’t it, when they reach for each other and hold on?” Virginia asks. (She actually needed to spell out this metaphor?) They’re against each other, but against the crowd, too, she says. Aw, it’s just like Bill and Virginia. See how they did that?

He puts her bracelet on for her and calls it an anniversary gift. She touches his hair and pretends she was just making sure she didn’t completely butcher his hair with that steak knife. She adjusts his bow tie, and he says, “This is where a married couple would kiss.” She says, “Don’t forget your watch; it’s by your wedding band.” Tell us again, Virginia, about how you don’t understand masochism.

Lest we forget this is a strictly scientific interaction, Virginia tells Bill that she will write up the night’s results as including two acts of sexual intercourse and one act of masturbation with role-playing throughout. Bill seems satisfied with those results.

As he leaves the hotel, a woman with a baby crosses his path, reminding him of his own patient. He phones the hospital to check on the “ambiguous” baby, and to his horror, learns that the child is undergoing the operation. He rushes to Memorial, where Bill literally begs the father to consider the ramifications of incorrectly, irreversibly assigning gender to a child. (Metaphor!) But it’s too late; the surgery was a “success.” “Better a tomboy than a sissy,” the father says in what is hands-down the most depressing thing uttered on television tonight.

Meanwhile, Virginia is making her own exit from the hotel when she hears commotion coming from one of the rooms off the lobby. It’s a group of men watching the fight. (Either this was one helluva long boxing match or Virginia and Bill are awfully speedy in going about their research.) A man walks up to the fine young woman intruding into this smoky, loud man-cave and asks what brings her here. “I want to see how it ends,” says Virginia. So do we.

As of right now, it’s an even match: Neither Virginia nor Bill is able to hold the upper hand for long in the ongoing bout between these two emotionally damaged heavyweights.

By the way, Moore won that fight, one of the greatest comeback stories in boxing history. (Metaphor!)

Episode Recaps

Masters of Sex

This Showtime drama tells the steamy story of real-life sex researchers in the 1950s.

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