After an episode that was entirely about Red Oaks and the world that it exists in, Red Oaks switches to the domestic life of David, his parents, and Wheeler. Despite the inciting action of the series — Sam’s heart attack in the pilot — most of the story has taken place in the confines of the club or, by extension, Getty’s house. But in “MDMA,” David and Karen, Wheeler and, Sam and Judy, get their own plots away from tennis, Getty and Skye.
The stories between David and his parents felt nicely congruent. David is living the beginning the fractured love story, while Judy and Sam are at the tail end of it. One of the better aspects of Red Oaks is how it interacts with its time period. There are guys like Steve who feel so tied to it, caricatures who only exist to make fun of the decade, but Judy’s therapy session took a deeper dive into the decade than most nostalgia-prone pieces of culture do. Her identity has always been tied to being a wife and mother. When other women her age were going to sit-ins and taking part in second wave feminist movements, she was changing diapers. She didn’t get to have the same experience as her peers. So now that her son is growing up and becoming more of an independent person who doesn’t need her to bring his towels into the bathroom, the distraction from her own unhappiness is gone. It’s not necessarily Sam’s fault that she’s so miserable, but she settled into this life that she thought she wanted without actually exploring to see if that’s what she wanted or not. It’s important that they toned down her closeted homosexuality, something that was not done in the pilot. A therapy session could have been the way to play her sexuality as a joke, as it was in the pilot. Instead, Judy gets to air real grievances about her situation, who she has become, and who she thought she would be.
The scene where Jennifer Grey and Richard Kind attack poor Gage Golightly with their ectasy-ed out, underwear-clad hugs was quite amazing, one of those scenes you watch and your stomach twists so deeply inside. Everyone was just trying to do the right thing, and it’s David and Karen who end up intensely unhappy. It moved Karen and David’s break up story along, and, notably, didn’t make David blameless in their inevitable end. So far, their floundering relationship has been seen as failure of Karen’s because she wants what’s safe, and as viewers were more attuned to what David wants. But in “MDMA,” he’s not the perfect guy that Karen will probably cheat on. He’s with Karen but lusting after another girl, and while he remembered the roses and the chocolate covered strawberries (and, of course, the condoms. Or con-DOMS, as Nash calls them), he didn’t think to make a basic dinner reservation. His attempts at giving her the perfect birthday were too little too late. Had Sam and Judy not been rolling at home, things might have turned out differently for Karen and David. But I liked that David wasn’t infallible, and Karen has a reason to go to Barry’s art show, and not just because he photographs her and says seductive things to her, but because she feels slighted. She’s figuring out that this path she has set out for herself might not be the right one. “Marry her!” Sam advises, but perhaps that advice, marrying the woman he’s not sure about, is what has made him so miserable later in life.
The David-Wheeler friendship still feels out of nowhere, considering they haven’t interacted much since the pilot, yet David knows all about Wheeler’s dealings with his new coke dealing buddy. I did appreciate Wheeler and Misty’s relationship a little more outside of the Red Oaks setting. Misty, like David, wants more out of life than what she currently has. College couldn’t spurn Wheeler on to be anything more than weed-selling valet parking, but Misty can, even if that means selling coke. While David’s relationship with Karen is holding him back, it’s inspiring Wheeler to be a better guy, even if Wheeler is using the inspiration in the legal way. That’s the ideal relationship, the one that makes you a better, more fully realized human. Not the one that holds you back.