“Fourth of July” is a terrific recovery from the listless, punchline oriented couple of episodes that preceded it — as well as a wonderful bounce back by Hal Hartley, the indelible independent film director who has his name on the credits of this one. Hartley is underappreciated in the conversation about American movies of the past 25 years, perhaps he’s never had a slam-dunk zeitgeist hit like his partners in arms Richard Linklater or the Coen Brothers or Red Oaks own exec producer Steven Soderbergh. But Hartley films — he’s directed 13 features, including Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992), and Henry Fool (1998) — are literate, distinctive, deadpan little epics on the idiosyncrasies of modern life. Whoever thought of him to direct this episode (if I had to venture a guess, I’d say Soderbergh) deserves a tip of the fedora.
Multiple story lines get advanced here. Wheeler, lumbering into the country club cocaine trade, accidentally catches Misty’s lifeguard boyfriend “en flagrante digital” with a waitress and goes against the bro code to tell Misty about it. Also caught while up to no good is Nash, who has a humiliating confrontation with Getty after the club present finds him in a garage playing poker with other employees, and enacts punishment by challenging Nash to a one-card duel for his winnings. (Getty wins, of course, his Queen to Nash’s Jack).
David, as usual, is an observer in his own life. But the writing is crisp and clean and the subtext strong in a scene where Getty takes him into the clubhouse to gaze upon a wall of placards dedicated to Red Oaks Men’s Tennis Champions throughout the ages, a list which has been dominated for five years running by Stan Feinberg. He was the plastic surgeon whose name caused Getty agita in the third episode. Feinberg “rarely attends club functions,” complains Getty, “he’s too good for ‘em, like fixing t— makes him Jonas Salk.”
Getty books David (over the senior teaching pro, Nash) to be his coach for the six weeks between Fourth of July and Labor Day with the explicit goal to beat Feinberg in the club finals. He even promises David a bonus if he wins.
David: What kinda bonus?
Getty: Seriously, that’s how you open a negotiation?
David: I didn’t realize we were negotiating.
Getty: Well, then you’ve already lost, haven’t you? But I’m in a festive mood — it’s our nation’s birthday. I’m gonna give you a do-over. Come on.
David: I want a thousand dollars.
Getty: Okay, first of all you don’t mention numbers. You leave that for the lawyers.
David: I don’t have lawyers.
Getty: Well, just pretend you do.
The scene works because it presents Getty as a negotiation addict, rather than a tycoon buffoon, and David as having acquired some spine (and potentially a studio apartment in Greenwich Village) from the interaction. It’s subtle, but we realize exactly why Getty chose him as a coach over Nash. Winning the tennis championship, while vainglorious of Getty, is buttressed by David’s motivation to move out of his parents’ house.
NEXT: Speaking of David’s parents…
Judy and Sam have the sweetest and most Hartley-esque of the subplots here. The episode begins with Judy accepting an invitation to a July Fourth barbeque from her yoga instructor, who has picked up on Judy’s latent attraction to women and responds with those pregnant pauses in conversation that signal attraction like a pheromone spray bottle.
Arriving at the yoga instructor’s house — with Sam — Judy soon realizes what’s going on when the yogi tries to kiss her, and the feelings that are aroused cause her to flee. Sam, meanwhile, has made friends with a mustachioed S&M stud and fellow Semper Fi war vet named Ricky. Sam is oblivious to the queerness of the party, but that’s not an irony used for cheap laugh lines. When a beefcake emerges wearing an American flag thong, he sneers, “In my day, you show a little respect for the stars and stripes,” and his new leather-bound friend agrees, and a bondage fetishist might be wont to. It’s a keenly modulated, thankfully uncartoonish moment, illustrating the conservatism that sometimes overlaps at social functions.
“Fourth of July” ends, of course, with fireworks — though the action on the ground is focused on emotional mini-implosions instead of bombs bursting away. Hartley, classically, finishes the episode with two very poignant acts of looking. First we see Judy and Sam, back at home. Sam lights a fuse of firecrackers from his lawn chair in the yard and Judy, after snapping at him to be careful and brushing away his dousing of bug spray, turns her eyes to an anonymous young woman walking on the sidewalk in the dark with a sparkler in her hand. And we see Judy’s melancholy face as she stares at the girl—perhaps with longing, or perhaps simply with longing for another life where such desires wouldn’t feel so forbidden.
And the same uncertain longing is seen in David’s eyes at Red Oaks, where he’s watching the fireworks with girlfriend Karen but staring with total absorption across the grass at Skye, who returns his gaze. It’s a beautiful bit of wordlessness, made even more evocative by the music that plays during these final two scenes — not a catchy ‘80s song but electronic musician Mitch Murder’s 2014 track, “Traces to Nowhere,” which is a homage to the opening theme to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. What better melody to close this wistful little chapter.
And on the actual ’80s playlist for this episode, only John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band appear, with their “Voice of America’s Sons.”