High Maintenance has been stretching its comedy muscles a lot this season, and it continues the trend in its fourth week by wading into the waters of farce. “Breathwork” does not divide itself up in any traditional High Maintenance structure, rather, it intermingles the day in the lives of the Guy, Lee (Britt Lower, returning from “M.A.S.H.”), and a chaotic film crew trying to stay on schedule. In the way last week’s episode lovingly, but honestly, portrayed the kind of wildly disparate people you can run into in New York, this week illustrates how the big, massively populated city can often feel just like a small town where you’re likely to run into someone you want to avoid, and everybody knows your private life.
“Breathwork” achieves this feat by drawing unexpected connections between the film crew members, the Guy, and Lee, and by sprinkling a few returning faces in there yet again. This episode also excels at demonstrating one of High Maintenance’s best storytelling strengths, which is delivering exposition and answers purely via context and visual storytelling and then later, eventually confirming the answers you had concluded for yourself. Some may say that isn’t necessary, because we’ve already figured out the context and connections we need to know, but I find it refreshingly helpful to have someone patiently “show not tell” and then later not shy away from telling you some, just so we don’t have to live off of conjecture and assumptions (because sometimes, viewers can be wrong).
What we learn in this episode is that Lee, who is in the city primarily to pack up some of her things from her apartment with her ex, is the ex-wife of a man who was recently fired from a film called Violations (love it) for sexual misconduct. This starts to become clear when an old friend runs into Lee and expresses her sympathy that “no one ever thinks about those left behind” after “people come forward.” This is further underlined when the lead actress of Violations, Jemima Kirke (playing a hopefully fictionalized awful version of herself) seems to recognize Lee during a yoga class they share together. The Guy later tells Lee with a knowing tone that he delivered weed to the set of Violations, of all places, today.
We also learn, while following Lee to an acupuncture appointment, that she miscarried after only recently learning about the pregnancy when the Guy met her three episodes ago. She’s got a lot going on, to say the least, and this day in the city is not letting her off easy. As the Guy so perfectly says about New York: “She gets ya, and then she gets ya.”
While Lee is Having a Day, the zaniest moments of this episode are reserved for the crew of Violations, who are struggling to come together and get some reshoots done with a new male lead (Tom Lipinski). This crew is partially led by Amy Ryan’s Gigi, last seen in season one’s “Museebat” struggling to save her marriage. Tonight we learn she has since been divorced (via references to a divorce lawyer), but she still uses the Guy as her guy. Through the first part of the episode, she is in contact with two other crew members, asking if they have an “agenda for the security meeting,” which later reveals itself to be code for the time they can take a smoke break.
In the midst of the near-farcical chaos of the set—moving from room to room to find a perfect shooting location, Kirke deciding she wants to wear a different pair of boots and that her wig was shorter and she should cut it, to the actors deciding their own blocking and lines—Gigi and her two co-workers are on their own desperate search for a smoking spot away from dutiful PAs. When they finally choose a rooftop location, they most likely witness a murder in the apartment in the building next door, but they’re behind schedule so Gigi’s assistant is going to have to call the police while they get back to work. In another (sadly) dark joke, one of Gigi’s crew comments, “Oh no, I forgot to vote today!” to which she responds guiltily, “Oh, yeah…” Life goes too fast for everyone on the set of Violations and yet they can never get ahead.
Once they finally get prepared to shoot the scene they’ve been location scouting and prepping for all day, they’ve already compromised so much just to get the damn thing done. The script supervisor points out several inconsistencies, to which the director responds “It doesn’t matter.” Beyond those, they’ve had to shoot a lunch scene at night, in front of a green screen. I can’t even imagine what this finished film might look like. However, before they can actually film that scene, Chekov’s bees—which had been buzzing around and scaring crew-members all day—reappear and sting the cinematographer in the eye. People begin freaking out and scatter from the set. Luckily, the set medic is there and he is returning Guy customer Kabir (Azhar Khan), who we last saw in season two’s “Googie”—dressed as a clown—and who made his first appearance way back in the web episode “Dinah,” when he was still a doctor at a hospital and friends with Chad, who we saw last week in “Blondie.” It’s a small town!
While the film set finally reaches its fate of absolute chaos, the Guy and Lee share a calmer moment at dusk by the water. Lee uses the company of the Guy, some weed, and some breathwork to attempt to shake the unpleasant day off of her. While doing so, a man trying to spread some ashes in the water instead has them blown back onto him and everyone on the pier. It’s a moment that sums up a lot of High Maintenance stories: the everyday moments of love, friendship or beauty pulled down to Earth by the inevitably weird, chaotic, or unintentionally hilarious actions of fellow city dwellers.
“Breathwork” may be an episode that is primarily meant to make you laugh and to have a little self-referential fun with the chaos of shooting on the streets of New York, but it achieves a lot in a short, crazy time. The character of Lee, becoming more a part of the Guy’s life, is deepened some by letting us get to know this woman as a person apart from him, as a component of her own interconnected web of New Yorkers she’s having trouble extricating herself from. High Maintenance always makes time for its characters and their reality, even when it is constructing a chaotically stressful day for them, and that’s how even breezy episodes like “Breathwork” make an impression.
- This episode was written by OGs Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld and was directed by Sinclair. Sinclair’s episodes are tending to be very “zany,” which I don’t know if I was necessarily expecting from him.
- The end credits scene is a total non sequitur: the Guy smokes up with a devil hand puppet. The song is, appropriately, “Small Town Talk” by Bobby Charles.
- If you didn’t pay attention, please go back and look at the costumes the characters of Violations wear. When is this story set? Who are they? I need to know everything.
- High Maintenance, in addition to everything else it is good at, regularly features underused and rising New York actors and comedians. This week we get Patti Harrison and Jo Firestone as two PAs, one of whom is named Chrinty. In addition to last season’s appearance by Bowen Yang, and the performance of Catherine Cohen in “Craig,” the supporting roles of High Maintenance are a good place to look for comedians you’re going to hear about next year. (But who you should all follow on Twitter now, or see live if you can).
- There is another familiar face in this small town episode. The guy who knocks at Eustace’s door at the beginning—a woman who we see lose her husband, Horace, in their apartment by the film set—was seen last season in a cab in “Derech” and at a picnic in “Steve.” The actor, whose name I finally learned through some tedious IMDb sleuthing, is Skittlez Oritz and his character has a name this episode: “Jed!”