“Hand,” the latest entry in the uneven but interesting fourth season of High Maintenance is a slight, but entertaining episode. After a season full of ups and downs, and after the emotional beats of last week, “Hand” is a welcome return to the “just for yuks” mode of High Maintenance. The plots here aren’t completely devoid of meaning, of course, but they each build primarily to a climax or confrontation that is designed to be cringe-inducing and comical, or perhaps just cringe-inducing.
I’ll admit now that I have a hard-to-overcome personal bias against “cringe comedy” and generally can’t stand it. I don’t have the constitution for it, frankly, and the end of the first half of this episode was unbearable for me. Nevertheless, I appreciate what seasoned writers Isaac Oliver and Zack Schamberg were trying to do and I enjoyed some of the antics before each frazzled conclusion. This episode feels much lighter and sillier than earlier installments of the season, but we’ve seen High Maintenance in this mode before. It’s nothing new, it just depends on how you feel about it. At the very least, some basic levity was welcome from the series this week.
In the same way that High Maintenance returns to a classic sense of humor, it also falls back on the traditional episode structure. The first half of the episode features Jordan (Mara Stephens), who works as an ASL interpreter. In a clever twist, we see Jordan interpreting an MLM sales call for a skeptical client only to find herself sucked into the scheme called “Plethora.”
This episode hinges on a couple of notable plot points that are connected to the modern state of our country and economy. In the past year, I’ve seen an increasing number of television shows (Los Espookys, Lodge 49, On Becoming a God in Central Florida) featuring desperate or perhaps gullible characters getting pulled into multi-level marketing schemes. This sadly reflects the reality of these businesses encroaching on the increasingly large amounts of desperate people trying to make a buck. In the second half of the episode, Ellen (Birgit Huppuch) struggles with accepting payments from friends and co-workers to her GoFundMe, which is created to pay her medical bills. These inclusions are appreciated because, while High Maintenance doesn’t often directly comment on societal or economic issues, they often naturally integrate them into their stories, which makes the series all the more compelling.
So, naturally, we see Jordan, eager for a more inspiring, exciting, and cash-rich life, order a ton of Plethora items. She begins aggressively selling them to anyone and everyone. This includes the Guy, who reluctantly tries a very chewy Plethora snack bar, as well as Martha Freakin’ Stewart. Martha Stewart! While on the set of a food photo-shoot, acting as interpreter for Alexi (Dickie Hearts), Jordan gets a quick gig as a hand model. Ignoring the perfectly good job that she has — two jobs, actually — Jordan begins pitching Plethora to anyone she runs into on the set. Finally, before she leaves, and in a total act of delusion, Jordan tries to pitch the scam to Martha Stewart. This moment was chock-full of secondhand embarrassment; I couldn’t handle it. While it’s understandable that this can be funny, the scene’s purpose isn’t clear, unless its inclusion is only meant to torture us and poor Martha. It is typical of a High Maintenance screwball character to ignore a perfectly good opportunity in front of them in favor of a chance at something bigger. Jordan, however, was never gonna’ get Martha Stewart! On top of that, she may have ruined her chances of staying on as Alexi’s interpreter, or of Alexi ever being hired by Martha Stewart again.
The second half of the episode is less overtly comedic, but it is an unexpected check-in with two returning characters. We first saw Ellen in 2013’s web episode, called “Brad Pitts.” During the episode, she suffered from cancer and used the Guy’s services for the first time to get her appetite back. She returned, healthy, in “Ruth” in 2014, where she was set up with Victor (Chris McKinney) by the Guy. This couple is one of the few returning characters who are middle-aged, so their challenges are different than the younger couples who recur.
Here, we see right away that Ellen has suffered a stroke sometime in the past few years, which has required her to use a walking cane and has rendered her right hand stiff and immovable. This makes life more challenging and has made Victor treat Ellen with kid gloves. This has resulted in a distance in their relationship, where Ellen feels pitied and babied. At the same time, Victor is unable to engage as he did in the past, with anger or lust or anything that isn’t constant worry. On top of that, it seems Ellen has developed an online shopping addiction.
Understandably, Ellen is not in the mood for easygoing socializing, but she and Victor feel obligated to attend the birthday party of a child in the building where Victor is a doorman. The mother donated $500 to the GoFundMe, which Ellen hates knowing. In another subtle inclusion of political or social elements, we see Ellen is very much engaged in calling prospective voters and fighting to get a Democratic candidate nominated (no one is mentioned by name, but he “needs to get out of office.”). This makes more sense when we know how much of an impact Ellen’s medical history and bills are having on her life. Of course, compared to the guests at the party, who have no interest in discussing voting or politics with her, Ellen would be much more invested in working towards a new system that would be more willing to provide dignified and accessible healthcare for those who need it.
This is when another cringe-comedy moment occur: birthday girl Bella sits on Ellen’s lap for a corny, forced photo and subsequently slaps her across the face. Only able to use her left arm, Ellen drops Bella. Everyone’s fine, but this leads to a more excruciating moment.
We soon learn that Ellen has not been ordering all of those items online. She’s been stealing them from apartment buildings, including the one in which Victor works. One of the hosts of the party notices this by spotting the literal bracelet she ordered and never received on Ellen’s wrist. This scene is hard to watch, simply because it is so real. Ellen quickly gives in, as she really didn’t steal this bracelet from this woman in an intentionally malicious way, and she is now embarrassed to be caught. In the same way that Jordan’s interaction with Martha Stewart may jeopardize Alexi’s career, Ellen’s actions could affect Victor’s job, even though he knew nothing of the situation.
This revelation finally breaks the ice between Ellen and Victor when Victor is unable to hide his anger with her. Ellen laughs, delighting in the fact that she finally got through to him. He’s finally treating her like he used to rather than walking on eggshells. This half of the episode is interesting because of the insight we get into this specific relationship shift and the psychology of Ellen wrestling with accepting “charity” from friends. However, at the end of both episode segments, I was left with not much more than lingering anxiety about two women who do foolish things at the possible detriment of those around them.
- This episode was written by Oliver and Schamberg, and directed by Ben Sinclair.
- What an episode to air amid a national quarantine—everyone’s touching everything, people are going to children’s parties, or as the Guy calls them “measles city.” Eek!
- I must note the cuteness of Victor’s nickname for Ellen, “Birdie.” This is because, as seen in her previous episodes, Ellen is a birdwatcher. Also seen in their previous episode: Victor’s balls submerged in a bowl of milk. Seriously, watch the webisodes of High Maintenance if you haven’t. They’re on HBO!
- My favorite moment of the episode may be the guy on the food photoshoot who decides he’ll eat the melting bowl of ice cream.
- The depressed veterinarian from season three’s “Fingerbutt” returns! He is now painting portraits of the animals he sees, including Fomo. The Guy isn’t into the portrait, but honestly, how can a painting of any dog be bad? I’d take it.
- The closing scene is the Guy (or, I suppose, Sinclair), getting pied in the face by MARTHA STEWART. The song is “Aonde Voce Vae” by Antonio Adolfo.