Last night's Masters of Sex was, to put it simply, an excellent, brilliantly-acted episode of television, one that should prove to any naysayers that this show is playing with the big boys of television drama. It also recalled a fantastic, game-changing episode from another: Mad Men's season four episode "The Suitcase."
The main point of comparison between Masters of Sex's "Fight" and "The Suitcase" is that they both use a historic boxing match as a backdrop to the plot. Bill and Virginia of Masters spend an evening in their hotel room roleplaying as the married Holdens while Archie Moore and Yvon Durelle duke it out on a flickering TV screen. Eight years later (in TV land), Mad Men's Don keeps Peggy working late while other members of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce team go to watch the Muhammed Ali beat Sonny Liston.
It's easy to see why both Amy Lippman, writer of "Fight," and Matt Weiner would be tempted by the symbolism of a boxing match as their two main characters go head to head. The punches thrown in the fights stand in for the verbal back and forth between the characters. Virginia, watching the match, remarks to Bill, "It almost looks like love doesn’t it, when they reach for each other and hold on." What Bill and Virginia were doing—having sex, sharing their pasts—also almost looks like love.
In both fights, a champion was challenged by an upstart. The same could be said of the couples on screen. The relationships between Bill and Virginia and Don and Peggy are similar, even though Bill and Virginia's is sexual and Don and Peggy's is almost defiantly not so. ("The Suitcase" makes this more clear than ever.) Both Virginia and Peggy were their male counterparts' secretaries, but rose above that title. When both "Fight" and "The Suitcase" take place Virginia and Peggy are inching closer to becoming Bill and Don's equals, even if they aren't exactly there yet.
In neither case, however, are the couples on screen doing battle. Though they start out combative with one another—"The Suitcase" features the famous "that's what the money's for!" line—the episodes are more about how the long nights Virginia and Bill and Don and Peggy are spending with one another are prompting them to open up about their past traumas. Roleplaying as Mrs. Holden, Virginia explains how the first man she loved suddenly left her to go get married. Peggy opens up to Don about whether or not she thinks about her pregnancy. Bill tells Virginia about how his father beat him and abandoned him. Don awaits the phone call from California in which he is certain to learn that Anna Draper has died.
All of this is not to say that Masters of Sex is copying Mad Men, even though the two episodes share some key components. (And for what it's worth, Alan Sepinwall talks about how Masters showrunner Michelle Ashford looked "mortified" when he described the plot of "The Suitcase" to her.) "Fight"—which is not only set against the backdrop of the fight, but also against the operation set to take place on the baby with ambiguous genitalia Bill delivered—is about gender roles. The episode cuts abruptly between Bill and Virginia's coitus to the baby, which is genetically a boy, being poked and prodded in cold hospital apparatuses. We later learn that the nightmarish-looking doctors are doing the bidding of the child's father who demands that he become a girl, refusing to believe that he would ever be a true man in his small-minded definition of the word. Both the boxing match and the baby force Bill to reckon with his own definition of manhood, while his and Virginia's roleplaying find them easily slipping into the rapport of a husband and wife. These themes are nowhere to be found in "The Suitcase." And yet the episodes feel almost like companions to one another, showing how great writers and actors can use familiar structures to create television gold.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.