The Master is a film rich with subext that some people have found difficult to understand. The premise of the film and media attention has sturred some to expect a commentary about new age religions but I don’t think that could be further from the truth. I’m sure there are many interpretations of the film, but this is the one that worked for me.
The Master, I believe, is ultimately about dominant/subordinate relationships. Freddie Quell, unable to return to the love of his life, finds a rebound companion in Lancaster Dodd, and when he leaves it breaks Lancaster’s heart. It’s not a sexual relationship – though sex is a major component to the story. It’s much more interesting and complex than that. Which is why, perhaps, it is best told in a puzzle-like fashion. The clues into the subtext and meaning, however, aren’t hidden at all. In fact, you could say they’re right under our ears...
That is, the subtext of the movie, which may be hard to spot, is in the lyrics of the songs used at precise moments of the film. They explain the character motivations and plot choices that the visuals may not present clearly. To best explore them, I will go chronologically through Freddie’s story, not in the puzzle-like timeline the audience is given.
The first song in the chronological narrative is one that is sung directly to Freddie from a young woman he has fallen in love with, Doris. She is too young to begin a relationship with her, but he is infatuated nonetheless. As they bask in a nice day, she sings “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anybody else but me.” The metaphor of the song is clearly a command to abstain sex with anybody else until she is ready. Consider these lyrics:
Don't go walking down lovers' lane with anyone else but me,Anyone else but me, anyone else but me,
Don't go walking down lovers' lane with anyone else but me
Till I come marching home.
I just got word from a guy who heard
From the guy next door to me,
That a girl he met just loves to pet,
And it fits you to a "T".
So don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Till I come marching home.
Freddie, being a naturally subservient human being, accepts this command wholeheartedly. And throughout the film, he not only stays true to this, but is mentally destroyed by his devotion.
The next thing Freddie does is reenlist in the Navy. A perfect excuse to leave while he waits for Doris to become of age and a perfect plutonic substitute for his dominant/subordinate relationship needs. What better master to have than the Navy? But the Navy is not good to him; his unquenched desire for sex increases his drinking problem. As an audience, we meet him at this point in the story, pretending to have sex with a cheap substitute for Doris: a sand castle made to look like a woman. His drinking problem leads to his release from service. His fear of Doris' innocence prevents him from returning to her.
Instead, he tries to mask his emotions and take a photography job. There, he meets his first temptation: Martha the Salesgirl. As soon as we see her on screen, we are presented with another song to clue us in on her importance. This time, it’s “Get The Behind Me Satan,” a song about trying to avoid sexual temptation. Consider these lyrics:
Freddie and Martha, after kissing in the break room, decide to delay sex until after they have a dinner date. However, when the date occurs, Freddie is too drunk to surrender to his temptation. I propose he did this on purpose.
The next day at work, he is clearly upset and looking for a reason to leave his job. During a routine photo-shoot, Freddie, upset with his own subordinate demons, tries to reverse his role and become dominant over somebody. For Freddie’s intellect, however, the only way to do that is through violence. He assaults the customer and storms out after making a scene.
In his next job, he meets a kind older man who reminds him of his father. His special concoction of alcohol and chemicals kills the man, which forces Freddie to leave. At this point in the film, we aren’t given a song to clue us in to what is happening in Freddie’s head. Was this a comfortable relationship? Are we to assume the dominant/subordinate desire in him stems from his relationship with his father? Looking at other P.T. Anderson films, it’s a safe assumption, but its not quite clear enough in the film. What we know, however, is that Freddie is now on the run and in need of help.
Where he finds it, is with Lancaster Dodd: the intellectual, incredibly charming leader of a new religion and/or cult. This is where preconceived notions about the film fail the viewer. Looking for the film to become a comment on newage religions (most notably Scientology) will leave a viewer empty and lost. The religion is simply used as a logical backstory for the perfect match in a dominant/subordinate relationship. Lancaster is a man who loves to be loved more than anybody. He is a man that wants obedience, unconditional love, and trust. A man like that is the type of man who would start his own manipulative religion. And Freddie is the perfect fit for one of his disciples and eventually, his companion.
When Lancaster questions Freddie about his past, they eventually discuss Doris. During the scene, we flashback to her singing “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree.” As we intercut with their interview, the cameras switch to the other side of the two men: positioning Lancaster exactly where Doris is in the flashback. Thus, Lancaster has taken it upon himself to fill this role for Freddie. And Freddie wants somebody to fill that position badly. Lancaster, being a man obsessed with persuasion and breaking people down, considers this an exceptional treat. It’s a chance to practice the techniques he knows and learns others. During his daughter’s wedding, he tells a story about wrestling with a dragon until it is tamed to the point of becoming a pet. Though the room is full of people, P.T. Anderson’s cameras make sure we understand that it is being told directly to Freddie. It’s a declaration of intent: he will tame Freddie and make him love him more than he loves Doris.
Throughout his “conditioning,” a bond between Freddie and Lancaster – equal to that of man and dog – forms. At one point, after a heated argument, they actually make up by wrestling around outside on the lawn. At another point, while searching for his buried manuscripts, Lancaster tells Freddie to wait and a then moment later, tells him to come. Lancaster is testing Freddie’s devotion down to fundamental dog commands.
Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (who we learn to be the dominant force in their relationship) sees this relationship bloom and becomes jealous., She notices the correlation between Freddie’s drinking and sexual frustration (during the scene where everybody appears nude) and decides to use it as a tool against him. She awakens Freddie in the middle of the night and asks him to promise to stop drinking. He does. Then, during training, she watches him squirm as she speaks about explicit sex.
The next major point where a song assists our understanding is when Lancaster takes Freddie out to the desert to ride his motorcycle. When on it, Freddie rides off into the distance and doesn’t look back. Lancaster watches his love leave, his heart breaking, as we listen to the sad, yearning lyrics of “No Other Love.”
No Other Love can warm my heart
Now that I've known the comfort of your arms
No other love.
Now that I've known the comfort of your arms
No other love.
For Freddie, there is "no other love" like Doris. For Lancaster, there's "no other love" like Freddie. To him, this moment is as sad as watching your best friend, your dog, and your lover leave you at once. He knows that no matter how many followers or family members he has, no other love fulfilled the role he needed as much as Freddie.
Where Freddie goes is to Doris. He has realized that his friendship with Lancaster was not the one he wanted. It was yet another replacement for his true love. But what he finds when he gets there, is that Doris has moved on without him. She is happy and has a family of her own, he has waited too long.
In a dream, he is told to return to Lancaster. Which he does.
There, he finds something he didn’t expect: conditional love. Lancaster, through the direction of Peggy no doubt (she is in the room as the rest unfolds) promises to accept Freddie back IF he promises to stay. By doing this, the relationship becomes clear to Freddy. He now understands his pattern and that fulfilling his desire to be subordinate, he won’t be happy. He isn’t Lancaster’s friend, he’s his pet. This is when yet another important song comes in, this time sung directly from Lancaster to Freddie: “Slow Boat to China.”
I'd love to get you
on a slow boat to China
All to myself alone
Get you and keep you
In my arms ever more
Leave all your lovers
Weepin' on a far away shore
It is worth noting that while Lancaster sings this to him, we see Freddie smile fully for the first time in the movie. For every scene before this, he appears to have a disability on one side of his face to emote with his mouth. During this song, both sides of his mouth smile widely as tears come to his eyes. In seeing through Lancaster and understanding their unhealthy relationship, Freddie is now complete. A full person, no longer needing to be the subordinate half of a dominant relationship. Simply, he no longer needs a Master.
The result of this accomplishment is that Freddie is free to do what he has wanted the whole time: he gets laid. Sure it’s not love, but he is making progress. During sex – which is unusually happy and sweet compared to his fantasies – he tries his hand at dominating her with mind games. Laughing through them, aware of their silliness.
The movie ends with a flashback, which I feel is necessary to close with as well. We cut back to Freddie on the beach, with his fake woman made of sand: the beginning of the journey we watched him go through. The lyrics of the final song explain what he was doing the whole time and what lead to each rebound. “Changing Partners” is a song about jumping from relationship to relationship, searching for the first one that mattered most.
Freddie may not find a love like the one he had for Doris, but he is now aware of what he is looking for and why Lancaster could never be that for him. To him, he was just another sand castle.