People say that it’s difficult to write about something you enjoy and I am feeling that acutely this week. “Payday” might end up being one of the best High Maintenance episodes because it’s an example of so many of the things that the show does so well and so right.
Let’s start with the basics. High Maintenance has always been a reliable half hour for stories about, and portrayed by, people of color, queer people, and general oddballs that aren’t necessarily represented often onscreen. This first half of the episode follows a queer couple, Doc (Margaret Cho) and Ayasha (Hye Yun Park), who check a lot of “diversity” checkboxes, but who never cease to feel like a lived-in, real relatable couple. They are two queer Asian women, partners with a significant age gap, and their sex life is all shades of kinky. If it had been written, directed, or performed by any other group of people, I can’t help but feel that this couple’s dynamic would be scrutinized or heightened to absurd or objectifying degrees.
Instead, we just get to sit inside of it with them and just accept it for what it is. It is a particularly High Maintenance trait to open an episode with a character getting kidnapped with a “Happy Birthday, bitch!” only for her to be strapped up inside of a sex van while her “captors” bully her and threaten her with a trip to Gowanus. Doc gets dropped off at home with her girlfriend, to whom she sweetly says, “That was the nicest thing anybody’s ever done for me.” That genuinely sweet sentiment, which nevertheless is a bit ironic considering what she’s thanking her for, is a familiar mix of earnestness, a self-aware sense of humor, and total acceptance of the characters.
This fresh, uncomplicated sense of acceptance continues in the scenes of Doc, Ayesha and their friends in Ginger’s Bar. There are a few glimpses here of various pairs of queer women, having various kinds of conversations and it’s a straightforward, non-judgmental glimpse into a world that not everyone is privy to. Similarly, we get a sequence of Doc and Ayasha’s sex life and get a glimpse into the workings of a relationship that employs a lot of kink. We also get to see exactly how that dynamic functions for them, both successfully and otherwise.
We see that Doc and Ayasha have a basic agreement that Doc will Venmo Ayasha with a sum of money for “set of emojis that indicate various sexual activities.” Maybe Ayasha will let Doc tie her up, maybe Doc will ask Ayasha to have sex with someone else while she watches them, and maybe Doc will be Ayasha’s bad puppy.
However, when Doc doesn’t let Ayasha pay her for something and sends the money back, things start to wrinkle. The delicate dynamics of their relationship are laid out on the table. Ayasha puts it so excellently when she says, “I like feeling like a hooker and not some charity case.” She accepts Doc’s “play money” on Venmo but doesn’t put it into her bank account because she doesn’t want to feel like her older, successful partner sees her as a mess she needs to take care of. Ayasha understandably wants to feel independent and responsible, and if she really is just accepting “charity” money from Doc, that sense of independence goes away and their age difference feels much more noticeable.
Eventually, they find a way to restore a balance to their relationship while still letting each other give what they want. Ayasha knows she sometimes does need money—like for new glasses—and Doc wants to give it to her. But, Ayasha wants some sense of control. So, she Venmos Doc for a few hundred dollars and she requests another hundred dollars “for putting up with your shit,” which restores a familiar dom/sub balance they like to maintain, as well as allowing Ayasha some sense of financial control. It’s an actually sweet, but specific, ending to this particular couple’s conflict and it is resolved with complete honesty about how that relationship functions, which is not how many TV relationships are seen to function.
The back half of “Payday” features an equally unconventional relationship. We follow Karen Farad (Jenn Harris)—a supporting player of web episode “Genghis”!—and her co-worker and fellow familiar face, Ezra (Micah Sherman) as they enter an affair. They’re both married (old viewers will remember meeting Ezra’s wife in the web episode “Sufjan”), and they both work at a summer school for high school kids. Karen is bored, to say the least, with her life and job and it becomes clear pretty quickly that she is interested in starting a relationship with Ezra. On a lunch with their four other co-workers, Ezra picks up on Karen’s heavy hints and they leave together to have a ton of sex. This montage of Karen and Ezra cycling through numerous positions goes on for just long enough to be hilarious, but its frankness is refreshing. That straight-down-the-barrel-of-the-butt-crack shot is especially rare to see, even or especially on HBO, which tends to glamorize or, at the very least, over-sexualize their participants.
At the end of their day, Ezra calls over the Guy. For some (hilarious) reason Ezra tries to act very professionally about his friend, Mrs. Farad, even though he is walking around with his shirt unbuttoned and she is only wearing pants and a bra. Later, Ezra admits he feels a little guilty about this affair, while Karen responds, “I don’t, I feel great.” And she really does! She wakes up the next day, full of pep in her step and excitement about going to work and seeing Ezra. They’re both in the throes of a new relationship, excited about life in general. That is, until the kicker comes. And it’s either the best example of “karma” you’re ever going to see or just yet another example of how life can punch you in the throat anytime it thinks it’ll be hilarious.
Ezra and Karen find their four co-workers screaming and celebrating in the office and they discover that the four of them who, after finishing the lunch Ezra and Karen left early from to go have sex, went in on a Take 5 lottery ticket together and won. Now the four of them each get $20,000 and Ezra and Karen get nothing because they came up with lame excuses as to why they had to leave lunch early when they could have waited—or not had an affair at all.
This ending is like a delicious sour candy: it’s tart and a little harsh but it is so, so delicious because of that unusual and surprising kick it delivers. This kind of ending, with the rug getting pulled out from under the protagonist in a completely unforeseen way, reminds me of some of my favorite High Maintenance episodes, and uniquely skirts any expected resolutions for an “affair plot.” It’s entirely too fitting that this episode, in which every character is having a lot of sex, is extremely satisfying.
- This episode was written by Mitra Jouhari and Mel Shimkovitz and was directed by Katja Blichfeld.
- The final credits scene just solidifies how surprising and funny this episode is. The Guy sits in what appears to be awkward silence with the Japanese couple until his phone timer goes off and he says “so that’s what a minute feels like.” They did this because the Guy was telling them about Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and Mr. Rogers did that! The Guy says goodbye with a Rogers-ism as well: “And don’t forget, you’re special just the way you are.”
- The credits have no music but during the final scene “Money” by Leikeli47 plays.
- One of the ways Doc’s kidnappers insult her is by yelling at her, “Your book sucks!”
- Doc’s abduction was not a “kidnapping,” it was a “ravishing,” according to Ayasha.
- The Guy’s suspicious back mole is referred to again, this time by Lee. Um, gee, I hope the Guy doesn’t have skin cancer (!?).
- Mrs. Karen Farad sees Annette Bening in American Beauty and does her one better.