In its fourth season, High Maintenance debuts perhaps its most conceptual episode yet. In just 23 minutes, we follow the decades-long life of a single lighter as it passes through different situations, designs, and individuals. In a way, this lighter is a stand-in for The Guy in every other episode of High Maintenance. I’ve said this before — and I’ll say it again! — but the best part of High Maintenance is its ability to, and insistence on, stepping into the lives of a variety of people in an array of contexts and configurations. Even “repeat guests” often appear seasons apart, so we catch up on their lives in short bursts over long periods, filling in the gaps ourselves.
Because of its commitment to following the path of the lighter, “Backflash” gives us shorter looks than usual into the lives of various characters in and around New York City. However, with the skill of practiced High Maintenance writers Zack Schamberg and Mel Shimkovitz, paired with director Katja Blichfeld, the episode gives us enough information to keep each character stopover from feeling careless.
We begin sometime in the ’90s, as quickly indicated by a Christian camp counselor with Eddie Vedder hair singing Joan Osborne’s “One of Us.” Here the lighter is introduced — initially a navy blue color — by way of a cool camp counselor (Megumi Nakamura) sneaking a smoke with the younger Charlie (Erin Florey). The counselor lets Charlie keep the lighter and we soon see her sticking a Buffy the Vampire Slayer sticker on it to make it hers.
We skip ahead several years to adult Charlie (Tessa Skara) returning to her childhood home with her sister Eva (Kelsey Carthew) following the death of their mother. While sorting through a box of very late ’90s memorabilia, Charlie finds her lighter, with the Buffy sticker a bit worse for wear. It still works, though, and she uses it to share a smoke with Eva. This brief scene gives us a glimpse of the two sisters and a bit of Charlie’s life since camp. We learn that her time there was due to her “God phase” and that, in the intervening years, she struggled with and overcame addiction. However, she feels comfortable smoking occasionally.
Eva considers moving back into their childhood home, even though she currently lives and works in the city. We see the lighter go back home with her and to her work as a waitress. She loans the lighter to a co-worker, who holds onto it ever-so-briefly while on her smoke break.
Dana’s customers, Bill (K. Todd Freeman) and Ted (Russell Gregory), are increasingly impatient with their waiter, who delivered them unopened beer bottles. In a pinch, Dana uses the Buffy lighter to pry open the beer cap. In her haste to deliver their food, she leaves the lighter on the table, and the more impatient customer, Bill, takes it somewhat spitefully.
We follow Bill and Ted back to their apartment and learn that the year must be 2014 because the couple just saw Birdman. In this segment, we spend the most time with The Guy when he delivers to the men and gets roped into Ted’s video review of the restaurant.
Soon, the lighter gets tossed into a junk drawer, and we stay in there with it as time passes, hearing snippets of conversation between the men. Eventually, Ted dumps the entire drawer into a box that they place outside, full of stuff that’s free for the taking. Here, it gets picked up by a kid passing by. He takes it to his friends; they get it working again and play endurance tests with the flame. Another child holds the lighter and keeps it with him until he runs away after wetting himself. The most interesting part of this brief segment is when the initial kid hears “put it on your head” by a passing cop and immediately places himself against a nearby car with his hands on his head. The cop was referring to how to use a head massager, but it’s a pretty stark moment of gravity amid a relatively breezy episode.
The next segment also brings in some grounded moments alongside the whimsy of the traveling lighter. Mo (Crystal Monee Hall) picks the lighter up off of the laundry room floor (where the child’s parents washed his wet pants) and tears off the blue wrapping along with the Buffy sticker. Now, the lighter is bright white. Mo’s visiting niece, Hailey (Rachel Hilson), is an intelligent high school senior who we learn is likely in the city for an abortion. Isn’t it wonderful how the opportunity for safe reproductive health is becoming something you can only find in a few major cities?
While staying with Mo and Hailey, the lighter gets painted with various shades of nail polish by Hailey; to remove the bad luck white lighters supposedly carry. This time, the lighter gets lost, then picked up by the security guard at the Women’s Health Clinic (again: awesome that a health clinic needs security detail). The man takes the lighter with him after hours as he goes to see his girlfriend perform with her accordion at an outdoor café. Soon, the woman begins singing a familiar song: “One of Us.” It’s a charming moment, as we know what a moment of delightful serendipity this is to be hearing the same song twice, performed in different circumstances years apart.
The man raises his lighter in delight, waving it in the audience. The old lighter has just a small flame left until it flickers out and our journey ends. This episode doesn’t offer too much complex storytelling, but what it does give us is a kind of condensed, potent macro view of High Maintenance. The smallest things in life, whether a click lighter, or your weed Guy you call upon every once in a while, can connect us in small, large, and surprising ways without our ever being aware. People are more similar than different, and High Maintenance has always striven to prove that by showing empathy for and interest in even the most minor of characters, in even an inanimate object.
- The credits scene is the lighter floating on some trash in the water. This pops a pin in the whimsy of the episode, but it’s real. Another great High Maintenance trait is its commitment to reality at the end of the day.
- The title is likely a nod to something we overhear Ted say: “you keep saying splashback when it’s backsplash.” The title of this time-traveling episode is a flipped version of “flashback.”
- We get a great moment at the end of the episode with The Guy and Lil FOMO. When the security guard sees the one-eyed dog, he remarks, “she’s winking at me!” The Guy responds, “Yeah, forever.”
- The appearance of K. Todd Freeman is especially delightful because he played Mr. Trick during season three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of just about three prominent roles for people of color on the series).
- The man who plays opposite K. Todd Freeman is Russell Gregory, executive producer of the series and the third point in the creative triangle.
- My knowledge of High Maintenance is always deeper than I expect. I recognized Crystal Monee Hall from her last appearance in season two’s “Scromple,” despite her being in that episode for maybe two minutes?
- This episode is virtually free of any modern indie songs that usually pop up. Instead, the gentle score consists of original music by Chris Bear.
- Hailey’s journey to New York City for an abortion gives me an excuse to tell you to look out for the upcoming drama Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always, which follows a young teen traveling into the city for the same reason. It’s directed by Eliza Hittman, who has directed two episodes of High Maintenance.