“Masters of Sex” started its second season with two very strong episodes that showed its two main characters at loose ends following the denouncing of their sex study. Sunday’s (July 27) third episode upped the show’s game even more.
“Fight” is the best episode of the show to date, with both Michael Sheen and Lizzy Caplan turning in fantastic, nuanced performances in what was essentially a one-act play about one particular night — Dec. 10, 1958, based on the overly long* Archie Moore title fight playing on TV — in the hotel room where they meet. Other than bookend scenes featuring a particularly difficult case for Bill (and a few heartbreaking cutaways to what was happening while he wasn’t at the hospital), the focus was entirely on him and Virginia.
(*Showrunner Michelle Ashford cops to taking some license with the length of the fight. In real time, it would have lasted about an hour, with 15 three-minute rounds and short breaks in between each one. “We stretched the fight a bit — but not too terribly,” she says. “I don’t feel that’s too egregious a liberty.”)
Zap2it spoke with Ashford about the episode, why it aired at this point in the show and what it does (or doesn’t) illuminate about Bill and Virginia.
Zap2it: Tell me about the way you structured the episode — it was pretty remarkable to see such an intense focus on the two of them.
Michelle Ashford: Here was the idea. It had been in the works for a long time, this episode, and we knew it would be one of those episodes that would quote-unquote be a “very special ‘Masters of Sex.'” [laughs] But we knew it needed to go this direction, because what I didn’t want to do on the heels of that sort of cliffhanger from last season — “I can’t live without you” — I just didn’t want to fall into that sort of conventional thing: Now they’re having an affair, whatever they’re doing, we watch it all unfolding.
I just thought it would be so interesting if we knew they were meeting up, but we don’t know what they’re doing. We literally don’t know what’s going on in that hotel room. [Note: In the season’s first two episodes, we see Bill and Virginia in the hotel lobby but never in their room.] But you can only string that along so far, and then you’ve got to answer the question. So it was always in our mind where there would be one episode where it’s, “OK, this is what’s going on in the hotel room,” and it would really be just showing you this weird little universe they’ve carved out that has no relationship to reality. It’s just the two of them bouncing off one another. …
We always knew that episode would be structured differently. We knew we wanted something going on, and Amy Lippman, who wrote the script, I believe found the boxing match. We’re always digging around to see what was going on in the world [at the time] and how it might be interesting for us in the show. And I’d run across some stories about children who are born with both genitals, and I got very excited about the notion of having this story about a baby going along through this story to give it this undercurrent of dread. It all came together, and it was one of those really fun ones for all of us.
The stories Bill and Virginia tell each other start out as role-playing for the “Holdens,” but they seem to get more and more real as the night goes on. How much truth should we read into what Bill says about his dad or Virginia about the captain?
We intend to really play with that. One of the joys of doing television is you just have a long time to tell these stories. And one of the most interesting things about people is they’re so often the most unreliable narrators about their own lives. And both of those stories — Masters’ story about his father and her story about this captain — we were really careful to make sure we were blending fantasy with it as well, so you’re not entirely sure what’s true and what isn’t.
We will show down the road that … both of those characters are wedded to telling those stories in those particular ways, but it’s not necessarily the truth, not entirely. We more aggressively go after Masters’ story later in the year, although that story is far from done, because the truth of that story is even more interesting than we’ve hinted at so far.
And also with Virginia next year, we would really get into — we thought that story was interesting, but it’s a little reductive to say that woman has learned to separate sex from love because she got her heart broken. Whereas the truth of why she does what she does and who she is, is in fact much more complicated than that. But that’s a story she’s sort of clung to. We’re very excited about exploring that kind of stuff, where people say one thing and it turns out, well, that wasn’t entirely true.
Virginia also mentions her — or Mrs. Holden’s — mother being in prison…
And you wonder if that’s true or not as well, given what we know about her mom.
Exactly. That’s kind of the fun it. You think, Huh, I wonder what is the truth. Who knows how long we’ll go here, but if we go the distance, by the end you’ll go, “Oh, OK. That is actually what the story was.” … You realize people are sometimes the least knowledgeable about themselves.
“Masters of Sex” airs at 10 p.m. ET/PT Sundays on Showtime.