The evolution of High Maintenance has been a slow and steady one. The format of the show has evolved since its beginnings in 2012 as a several-minutes-long web series released in small chunks at a time, to a four-season-long HBO series. At the same time, the storytelling choices have become bigger, bolder, and deeper. The most distinctive decision the High Maintenance core team of Katja Blichfeld, Ben Sinclair, and Russell Gregory made when moving to HBO was to make the Guy (Sinclair) more than just a convenient thread connecting New Yorkers. At the end of the fourth season — and possibly the series? — that choice pays off by finally giving us a name for our Guy that we’ve been hanging out with for close to a decade.
The year that was High Maintenance’s fourth season comes to an end on a Christmas Eve in which everyone’s flights home are canceled due to a “bomb cyclone” moving into the city. This episode reverts to a formula we haven’t seen on the series in a bit, in which the Guy’s plot is interspersed with someone else’s, and I don’t believe the Guy even has any connection to the other characters except for both of them having their flights canceled. However, they do share a thematic link, of two family members bridging some distance or hesitancy between them.
The slightly less substantial plot is between sisters Destiny (Mayaa Boateng) and Pam-Anne (Heather Alicia Simms). Their flight to their scuba trip is canceled, so they go to the nearby “crash pad” for flight attendants, to which Destiny has access. The most interesting section of this segment is the concept of a flight attendant crash pad. It makes sense, particularly for these unpredictable situations, but the logistics of it are fascinating to me. This is one of many pieces of New York life that High Maintenance turns its focus to, which are so interesting on their own.
Regardless of the details, this apartment manages to bring together an excessive amount of people on Christmas Eve who have been waylaid by canceled flights. This results in plenty of “fly on the wall” scenes High Maintenance is so good at, where we get to sit back and watch several natural conversations and interactions take place. For instance, one scene sees this group moving from a discussion of religion to the decision to have children and bring them into the world as it is now (as one person says, “You’re basically enlisting them for the water wars.”). This is relevant to Destiny’s situation, which is that she is unexpectedly pregnant. She has a committed partner, but they weren’t trying to get pregnant just yet. This sits heavy on Destiny throughout the night as Pam-Anne flourishes as a social butterfly with her new acquaintances. Eventually, they manage to bridge the distance that kept them apart through the night as Destiny reveals her secret to Pam-Anne, who rejoices and helps dispel any anxiety Destiny may have. This is another key aspect of the episode: seeing how relating to those closest to you and discussing your feelings honestly can help two people understand and therefore help each other better.
The bulk of the episode’s emotional power comes from the scenes with the Guy. He’s headed initially to the Southwest to his brother’s home with his niece, Ilana (Rachel Kaly), who is studying at Barnard. He refers to her sister, who had visited him previously. We saw that visit from niece Kate in the web series episode “Matilda,” and the two girls honestly look so similar I wasn’t sure if it was the same actress or not (it’s not). The Guy convinces Ilana to stay with him until they can get a new flight because he lives closer to the airport. There’s a kind of begrudging lack of enthusiasm in every interaction between the Guy and Ilana, up to when they have dinner and Ilana’s dad calls the Guy to check up on them and ask why they aren’t in the Guy’s neighborhood. We begin to learn that the Guy’s brother is a “narc” (“He once told on a guy for smoking at a Tom Petty concert.”) and that Ilana may share some of those tendencies.
Hearing the Guy’s conversation with his brother on the phone, and seeing Ilana’s judgment of his work is almost startling. When we spend so much time in the Guy’s world, we naturally encounter people who are mostly open-minded, experimental, and relatively non-judgmental. To see or hear people so scandalized and uncomfortable by the Guy’s close dealings with marijuana is surprising. We can forget that not everyone lives as if they are on High Maintenance.
The Guy and Ilana eventually begin to have a real conversation and the one they have back at the Guy’s new apartment (it’s nice!) happens organically and is very convincingly performed. They begin by lightly discussing Ilana’s mental illness, which requires her to take a few medications that we saw at dinner. She explains how this aspect of her makes her feel alienated from her parents (“I feel like [they] are scared of me, and I don’t even know what they would be scared of.”) and how the specter of “Uncle Jonah” hangs over everything. The Guy understands that as well, as this mysterious Uncle Jonah, who had a severe mental illness, has undoubtedly been referenced when his family talks about him. This conversation becomes a very comforting exchange between the two, who were initially at odds. The Guy offers some encouraging words to Ilana about his own journey of self-acceptance. The only problem is that his life gets distorted in the eyes of his family and made into something he has to defend and explain, something he shouldn’t be proud of whenever he sees them. This realization eventually inspires him to skip the family get-together this year.
Once Ilana can fly back home, the Guy takes her there and sends her off with her new support animal, Fomo (!!). The Guy decides he’s going to go anywhere else instead and considers buying a ticket to Auckland. Earlier in the episode, we learn the Guy’s family name is Mann. When Ilana says goodbye to him, we learn that his name is Rufus (excuse me while I pick my jaw up off of the floor). I don’t know why this superficial revelation feels so important, but it does. We’ve gone so long in the series carefully evading learning our Guy’s name, the very basics of his identity. We’ve learned about his relationships and how he relates to his family, but we never were close enough to him to call him by his name. And now we are.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Ben Sinclair stated that the High Maintenance team wants to take a break for a while, and may not be back anytime soon. So, if this is goodbye, it’s kind of perfect. It feels as though I say that every season, but the final revelation of the Guy’s name was the sweetest gift High Maintenance could give to its audience.
- This episode was written by Katja Blichfeld, Isaac Oliver, and Ben Sinclair (in the show’s credits K.B. is credited twice, and I’m not sure why). Blichfeld also directed the episode.
- The credits scene is a view of people walking through the airport. The song is “State of Independence” by Jon & Vangelis.
- At one point, the Khruangbin cover of “Christmas Time Is Here” can be heard. This is a great cover, and I recommend you listen to it!
- At first, when we only learned that the Guy’s last name is Mann, I thought this was hilarious. Sure, we’ll give you his name, but it’s just a synonym of “guy.”
- The Guy — sorry, Rufus — used to tell his family that he worked at Vimeo. Might this be a shout-out to the origins of High Maintenance?
- Is it intentional that they named a character Pam-Anne when this episode is so airport-centric? Pam-Anne…Pan-Am…maybe this is just me.
- That’s it for the season! It’s been a bumpy season, but only because I have to grade these episodes. I look forward to doing a full series rewatch sometime this year. If you have HBO access, you can do it too! All of the original episodes are streaming on HBO under “High Maintenance Web Series.”