An evening with The Master (3)

In the first two instalments, we discussed Paul Thomas Anderson’s developing style as a director and the two main characters of his 2012 film The Master. For this post we’re focusing on Peggy Dodd (played by Amy Adams) and the film’s riff on Scientology, The Cause.

Matt   The film is mainly Phoenix’ and Hoffman’s, but there’s also Amy Adams’ fiercely protective Peggy Dodd, Lancaster Dodd’s wife. It’s an untypical part for Adams, isn’t it?

Mege   Very. It’s the 1950s, and it’s unheard of for a woman to lead a cult. If you ask me, she is the brains of the operation, some sort of Borg Queen, while Lancaster brings truckloads of charisma and a talent for improvising to the Cause. There is that telling scene where she talks and he types away furiously at his typewriter. If he is not typing verbatim what she is saying, he may at least take her words as inspiration. In a way, that would make her the author of at least the second book, wouldn’t it? Then there is the scene where we learn that she controls her husband’s sexuality. She sees right through him. And there is that scene in England where she tells Freddie Quell exactly what’s what, and then leaves the room. Lancaster would never do that. Peggy Dodd is miles away from Amy Adams’ other roles. The Muppets. Enchanted. And I am sure the new Lois Lane cannot change her eye color.

The Master

Matt   With you mentioning women leading cults and the Borg Queen, I have flashbacks to Alice Krige’s New Age speaker for The Plan in Six Feet Under… which sounds close enough to The Cause to get me back to the topic at hand. I agree, she’s a very strong, smart character, but I find her quite puzzling. On the one hand, she seems to see Freddy as a threat; even at the beginning, when she’s apparently nice to him, her eyes are cold and guarded as she talks to him. Why exactly does she see him as a threat? Is she jealous of his closeness to Dodd? At the same time, both she and Freddy are probably the most zealous about Dodd’s crackpot cult philosophy, so there is a link there – but she never wavers, whereas Freddy does have moments where he says, quite clearly, that the Master is making it up as he goes along.

Mege   It’s Val, his son, who says that first, and Freddie almost beats him up because he knows that Val is right. But about Peggy: Maybe everyone is a threat, until they become their allies. I think the Dodds see themselves as threatened, as weak, but getting stronger because of their Cause. That the second book is probably much weaker is a threat to them. Newer disciples must be tested, so she might turn on Freddie with that cold stare of hers just to see how things are with him. After all, he appeared out of nowhere and by complete coincidence, and he might disappear the same way: anytime and without good reason.

The Master

Matt   I wonder about that… While I see your point about testing new recruits to the Cause, my impression was more that Peggy, and the rest of the family to some extent, feels threatened by how quickly and completely Freddy is taken in as Dodd’s friend and confidant. One of the first things Peggy says to Quell is that since he’s arrived Dodd is writing like mad, and while on the surface this seems to be a compliment, underneath she comes across as guarded and wary. In some ways the film strikes me almost as a battle between Peggy and Quell for the Master – only Quell isn’t aware of it, but Peggy is, painfully so. In that last scene between the three, Peggy is barely visible on the sidelines and practically cancelled out by the intensity of the connection between Quell and Dodd. It may well be a combination of the two things: that Peggy is jealous of this new man in her husband’s life and how he might change Dodd for the worse, doubly so because Freddy is so volatile. She feels both jealous of and threatened by a man she sees as a human time bomb, so to speak.

In the final instalment of this four-part series of blogs, we’ll discuss miscellaneous issues.

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