We’ve all checked out A&E’s Hoarders at one point or another. We’ve even caught an episode or two of its TLC knockoff, Hoarding: Buried Alive. (Where despite the suggestive title, participants are decidedly not buried alive.) Although both shows explore the toll of being dragged down by life’s clutter, they do somewhat of a disservice to the concept of clutter; it isn’t always plastic Burger King tumblers and towering stacks of National Geographic. Often, the things suffocating us are far less tactile. They don’t take up physical space in our homes, but can occupy serious real estate in our heads.
High Maintenance’s season finale “Ex” sizes up this notion from a couple of vantage points. Story one reunites us with Patrick (played to heartstring-tugging perfection by Michael Cyril Creighton), the genial and earnest, stocky and bearded lad from the 2013 webisode “Helen.” Although “Helen” is recommended viewing for any High Maintenance enthusiast or completionist, it’s by no means a requirement to pick up what “Ex” is putting down. We’re brought to speed pretty quickly that Patrick is a lonely agoraphobic who’s obsessed with LaCroix sparkling water and has an unrequited crush on his pot dealer, The Guy. What makes his empty rent-controlled life all the more empty these days is the fact his mother has finally lost her long battle with cancer.
One of High Maintenance’s many virtues is the way it regularly circumvents heavy-handed backstory and exposition. In the 2014 webisode “Ruth,” a character’s law enforcement past is revealed without the use of a clunky “I used to be a cop, you know—but that’s all over now”-style admission. Instead, we’re dropped in partway through a conversation where he casually throws away the line, “I miss being able to run through red lights whenever I want”; It’s all we need to put two and two together. In “Ex,” a half year’s worth of Patrick’s mourning is depicted through an urn he receives in the mail, followed by a montage of wall hangings, TV watching, restless nights in bed, and holiday-themed wreaths he designs and sticks on the front door (spanning Valentine’s Day to Halloween). This serves the cause much better than some random concerned friend blurting out, “Patrick, it’s been six months since your mom died and you’re sad and lonely and never leave the apartment and P.S. you’re gay and you really dig Helen Hunt.” (I exaggerate only slightly: Dialogue like this continues its merciless reign over film and television.)
Seeking out some long-overdue human interaction, Patrick calls up The Guy and requests a delivery. Which evolves into a request to stick around and smoke some weed. (Something The Guy soon realizes Patrick has never actually done before.) Sufficiently high and depression temporarily abated, Patrick is encouraged to pop on some headphones and walk the streets of Brooklyn, the music serving as his own personal movie soundtrack. A fun little lark for many of us, but an ambitious assignment for Patrick, who rarely leaves his apartment.
And it’s quite the urban adventure: navigating crowds, checking out a sex shop, and filling a shopping cart to the brim with his new white whale, Passion Fruit LaCroix. The trip is cut short, however, when he takes one hell of a spill on the sidewalk. “Those old lady carts are treacherous. You’re lucky you made it out alive.” Patrick’s cuts and bruises are tended to by a caring trans psychic named Pam (Justin Vivian Bond), who gifts him not just with some pressing life advice (“Your scalp is a little dry”), but with her copy of Marie Kondo’s bestselling anti-clutter book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Perhaps buoyed by his comfort zone-expanding day, Patrick takes the book’s challenge seriously. Soon enough, he begins stripping his home of anything and everything thad doesn’t spark joy: unwanted clothes, artwork, and mail, plus bags upon bags of empty LaCroix cans. Sometimes cleaning can serve as the precursor to healing.
When The Guy pops by for a follow-up delivery, he’s blown away by the dramatic change; the apartment looks like it belongs to someone who’s not just living there but actually living. Which brings us to Patrick’s next order of business: He’s ‘breaking up’ with The Guy. Not literally, of course. But with his newfound confidence comes the realization this unrequited romance is another form of clutter—one that’s keeping him from exploring new relationships. Outwardly, it’s a small moment: A fellow no longer needs his weed dealer. But inwardly, it’s a leap forward for Patrick, who’s now poised for life’s next adventure. And that’s a pretty freakin’ big deal.
Over to story two, where a woman named Gwen (Broadway’s Rebecca Naomi Jones) returns to her apartment after a long day. The scoop: She’s an overworked attorney, her girlfriend Julie is out of town, and she’s looking forward to a seriously overdue night of solitary relaxation. You know, a warm bath, some leftover noodles, a little Neil Degrasse Tyson on the telly. Unfortunately, attempts to mellow out are confounded at every turn. We then cut unexpectedly to another building, where a couple of thugs corner The Guy in the front lobby, jacking his keys (bike and apartment) and $1000 worth of his goods. Not the best way to close out a shift. He shuffles home, and, locked out of his apartment, knocks on a neighbor’s door. But not before removing the faux wedding ring from his finger. (You know, the one he wears to appear more trustworthy to clients.) Evidently, he must have some interest in the woman on the other side of the door. Which turns out to be Gwen. Good news for him: She’s home. Bad news for her: Those plans for a quiet evening have been thwarted yet again.
Gwen is the curator of The Guy’s spare set of keys. And while she searches the apartment for their whereabouts, he takes the opportunity to do a very non-The Guy thing: unload. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about The Big Lebowski is that despite The Dude’s laid-back, pot-smoking, White Russian-swilling, anything goes persona, circumstance forces him to spend the majority of the film seriously stressed out. His buzz is harshed on myriad occasions, creating a fish out of water scenario that drives the narrative. A similar dynamic plays out in the second half of “Ex,” and the results are hella engaging. Sure, The Guy’s patience has been tested in previous High Maintenance entries (the “Olivia” webisode immediately springs to mind), but this is the first time we see our breezy, good-natured drug dealer genuinely affected by his surroundings. We’re talking ‘smash-your-iPhone-on-the-floor’ affected. “Goddammit, this job was supposed to be way more fucking chill than this!” he yells in a manner that’s equal parts shocking, funny, and sad.
Although The Guy’s phone doesn’t break, his levee of frustration does. And out things pour. He’s annoyed one of his albums found its way into Gwen and Julie’s collection. He’s mad at the property manager for adding repair costs to the rent and not getting back to him in a timely manner. And when a client’s text comes in requesting an after-hours delivery, The Guy is having none of it. “Stupid fucking stoners,” he mutters, a line even casual High Maintenance fans would never imagine him saying. But this is far from a betrayal of character; those nefarious foyer bandits put a crack in our favorite drug dealer’s rose-colored glasses, causing some of life’s clutter to decloak in front of his eyes. “I gotta get my shit together, man,” he tells Gwen, but really himself. “I’m a mess. I gotta get bigger or get smaller or do something, because this is not what I had in mind.”
All The Guy wants right now is his keys and a sympathetic ear. All Gwen wants is a damn night to herself. Gwen eventually wins out, although it’s the ugliest of victories: She texts “My neighbor is talking my fucking ear off. Kill me now,” only to realize she sent it to The Guy in lieu of its intended recipient. (This gets nine Larry Davids out of ten on the awkwardness scale.) Fortunately, what could have been a friendship-busting gaffe evolves into a moment of connection. Gwen humbly apologizes, explaining she really needed a night to herself and away from Julie. “I love her,” she says, “but she takes up a lot of space.” “Dude, I get it,” he replies, honestly getting it. “I was married to her.” This is a striking reveal that doesn’t just shed light on The Guy’s personal life, but on some of the frustration we’ve witnessed these past few minutes. He and Julie were a couple, and then Gwen and Julie became a couple. He moved down the hall, which likely wasn’t all that long ago given they’re still getting his mail. He didn’t take off his wedding ring at the door because he had a thing for Gwen, but because it would have been weird for her to see it on him. The evening’s events reveal all sorts of mental clutter he’d likely been tucking away until this crap day kicked into overdrive. Just as Patrick got a little outside help shifting from neutral to drive, The Guy and Gwen get to share a small but significant moment that may just set them both in the right direction.
Looking back on the entire first HBO season of High Maintenance, “Ex” comes across as a typical episode. And contrary to how that might sound, it’s nothing less than high praise. Like many other installments this season and prior, “Ex” benefits from a relatable central theme, dynamic storytelling, well-realized characters, naturalistic dialogue, emotional weight, and some well-earned, non-gratuitous twists. If only more shows out there could strive to be this ‘typical.’
- Patrick’s mourning and de-cluttering montages are beautifully underscored by Damien Jurado (“Silver Joy”) and Gordi (“Nothing’s As It Seems”).
- The Guy junks two garbage bags of LaCroix to the curb, where Wei, everyone’s favorite curmudgeon dad (HBO episode 4, “Tick”) immediately scoops them up.
- My journalistically unethical pledge to High Maintenance creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair: A future episode centered on Patrick’s sweet, schlubby, shut-in neighbor Carl (E.J. Carroll) will nab a guaranteed A- grade or higher. Carl’s got a poignant, bittersweet story in him and I wanna see it.
- The Guy and Gwen yap about how everyone’s reading Marie Kondo’s guide to eliminating clutter. At the risk of being unnecessarily perceptive, that’s two weeks in a row a book published in 2011 serves as a thematic throughline between an episode’s A and B story. (Et tu, Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”?)
- “You wanna see that lady robot Bina 48 tonight at BAM?” Kinda bummed I never get texts like this.
- There’s a power struggle going on with Julie and Gwen, although it’s more literal than figurative: Julie forgets her phone charger at home, Gwen’s portable speaker runs low on juice, and that big ol’ purple vibrator’s dead on arrival. Appliance power sources are the furthest thing from clutter.
- It was a trying night for The Guy, but at least he locked down a sleepover party with Beth, everyone’s favorite sexy/quirky dogwalker/bartender from HBO episode 3, “Grandpa.”
- And that’s a wrap on High Maintenance season one. Really hope you enjoyed deconstructing the whole thang as much as I did. Season two has officially been green-lit, which comes as welcome news to fans of quality storytelling and not-so-welcome news to the comments section guy who called the show “unfunny, self-aggrandizing, self-serious, and mostly crap.” As Jeff Lebowski would say, “That’s just like, your opinion, man.”
- Closing credits tag: nudists, pot, and delicious olives.