A couple of weeks ago, I started to re-watch Mad Men, hoping to go through a few episodes each week leading up to the show’s (likely) return and denouement next spring. The series took a couple of episodes to find its footing, but was stunning television from episode three forward. One of the things that have inspired discussion about it being the finest drama on television is how it displays its themes and connects the characters with the periphery of what is happening in the world around them or in other subplots. Little details, like having the artwork in one of the ads being pitched at the agency show up in the set design of a later scene or two characters giving the same facial expression at different moments, add texture to the characters’ development and meaning as their lives intersect. These traits give the show an endless rewatchability, as we search for different layers upon each viewing.
While it may feel awkward to lend the first 150 words of my Masters of Sex review to a different show, the comparison is appropriate. Mad Men and Masters of Sex are both period pieces about the social mores of an era that feature superb acting and tiptop production design. However, while Mad Men is often thematically rich without being heavy-handed, Masters of Sex has fewer nuances as it tries to finesse the varying story threads into a theme or message. In other words, it is Mad Men with more nudity but less subtlety.
Take “Fight,” the episode the aired last night. It is a fine hour that does many things very well, from revealing new details about the main characters to giving the audience another devastatingly good turn from Michael Sheen. However, much of the symbolism feels strained and obvious, just a little too on-the-nose for a show that keeps the details of its characters’ interiors so elusive.
Almost every scene in “Fight” takes place in the spacious hotel room where Bill and Virginia – under the name Holden – find themselves on certain nights, where they can continue the study. (At this point, though, the sex study has turned into a study of each other.) There is a boxing match on television playing during their time together, which leads the lovers into a conversation about masculine power and vulnerability. Of course, Amy Lippman’s script makes these points painfully clear, especially as the few other moments of this episode that are not in the hotel room have much bearing on the same topics that Bill and Virginia discuss.
At home, Virginia’s daughter is on the verge of losing her tooth. The young girl talks about the tooth fairy, although this leads to comments about whether a fairy could be male or female. “Men can’t be fairies,” the daughter says, later adding that men have to be princes and women princesses. The only kind of prince that can marry the beautiful princess is a handsome one. Virginia, ever the liberal feminist about these matters, tries to eschew her daughter’s view of what ‘happily ever after’ means, but to little avail.
A couple scenes later, Bill has a tense confrontation with Mr. Bombeck (Josh Randall), a man who is horrified by the physical defect of his child. The blood tests confirmed Bombeck has a new son, but his genitals do not look normal. Bombeck wants to “cut him off,” commenting that he would rather have a tomboy daughter than a sissy as a son. This scene feels overbearing and Bombeck cartoonish, more of a one-dimensional tool to help Masters raise interesting dialogue in the long hotel scenes later than as a fleshed out character.