(Ben Sinclair, Amy Ryan (Screenshot: HBO)
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Moral relativism dates back to the Ancient Greeks, and suggests ethical convictions can rely more on social, cultural, historical, or individual circumstances than so-called universal truths. Meaning folks not guided by religious scripture can still maintain a well-calibrated moral compass by adopting a personal code of honor. (Naturally, ‘well-calibrated’ is, itself, a relative term here.) “Museebat,” High Maintenance’s second HBO episode, puts the conceit of moral relativism into real-world play, then sits back, takes a couple of hits off the bong, and lets us soak in the results.

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Story one gives us Easha (Shazi Raja, in a captivating TV debut), a pre-med student living with her religious aunt and uncle in Brooklyn. As Muslims, her surrogate parents’ ethical road map is laid out pretty clearly in the Quran. As a young Americanized Muslim, things are a bit more complicated with Easha. She’s exemplary in many respects, steering clear of romantic distractions and spending the bulk of her free time cramming at the library. That said, her code of ethics decrees such focus and diligence entitle her to some personal liberties. In the absence of her aunt and uncle, Easha drinks, smokes (cigarettes and pot, obvi), sports multiple piercings and a pair of shit-kicking boots, and keeps the hijab out of sight. Duplicity is sine qua non when you’re straddling a pair of cultural outlooks that don’t always jibe.

When a friend’s break-up robs Easha of her pot connection, she briefly stakes out her neighbor’s apartment to ‘bump into’ their dealer—a.k.a. The Guy—as he finishes a delivery. To appear older and more worldly, she swaps her hijab and baggy clothes for a hyper-sexualized ensemble. Does The Guy take the bait? Not a chance. Because despite being a New York drug dealer with zero denomination to speak of, it’s revealed he has a moral code of his own—one he takes pretty darn seriously. “I don’t sell to kids, dude,” he explains dismissively. “Referrals only. I can’t break the rules.”

Left without options, Easha, it’s implied, scores some pot from the unseen neighbors. Pot she later enjoys (and stashes) on the building’s rooftop, a hidden urban oasis where she can occasionally step away from school and family responsibilities. The serenity she feels is fleeting, however. After a night of covert drinking and clubbing, Easha stumbles home to the worst possible tableau: her uncle holding up the previously-hidden bag of weed, her aunt holding up a cell phone with her mom on the line. And with this, two seemingly irreconcilable standards of behavior collide. Clearly something’s got to give, but we’re not privy to the aftermath. Although this lack of resolution is somewhat frustrating, Easha’s struggle provides a compelling tale that doesn’t resort to broad character strokes or painting the Islamic faith as the bad guy.

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From a narrative standpoint, “Museebat’s” second story couldn’t be more of a contrast. Yet it pulls at the thematic thread Easha leaves exposed. Leo (veteran character actor Lee Tergesen) is having a bit of a day. He’s just turned 50, the bickering with his film producer wife Gigi (Amy Ryan!) is getting worse, and he’s taken to questioning her fidelity. To top it all off, they’ve both come down with chlamydia, a diagnosis that may cast a shadow on his lavish costume birthday party just hours away.

Fortunately, The Guy pops in with what will hopefully be enough birthday weed to take the edge off. Problem solved? No such luck. Throughout the festivities, the THC does little to dampen Leo’s jealousy. Particularly when Gigi gets her flirt on with Colin (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens), the crossdressing, handsome AF screenwriter she’s gearing up to finance. Throwing social filters to the wind, Leo corners Colin in the kitchen, point-blank asking if he’s sleeping with Gigi. (He isn’t.)

Frustrations with his wife still running high, Leo announces to the attendees that the two of them have chlamydia. A spiteful move from a jealous husband? Yes, but only partially so. Turns out this isn’t a typical birthday bash: With the exception of Colin and his wife Becky (High Maintenance co-creator Katja Blichfeld), the partygoers are all members of a tight-knit swingers group. And group sex—slated for later in the evening—tends to hit a snag when chlamydia pops by for a visit. Which raises the question: Why would a guy in an open marriage care about his wife having sex with another man? Short answer: Even swingers abide by a code of honor. For Leo, inviting Colin into the group is acceptable. Sleeping with him in secret is not.

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Leo’s STD admission leads to a party-wide argument, replete with anger and accusations. “I feel so betrayed,” one member says, asserting the couple broke ‘the code’ by sleeping with people outside the group. “We follow the rules. We follow the fucking rules!” Another member confesses to having played with a separate group while vacationing in Las Vegas. (Where her use of protection may have been a little slipshod.) She’s swiftly and sternly reprimanded: “That is irresponsible. That’s not how it works!”

Its internal morality betrayed on multiple fronts, the swingers group may be hard pressed to schedule another meetup. As Colin and Becky awkwardly tip out the door (they’d been hiding in the bedroom with a hired belly dancer, natch), Leo faces one more awkward confrontation: his angry neighbor. Specifically Easha’s uncle from story one. It quickly becomes clear Leo and Gigi are the folks who hooked her up with the bag of weed, and uncle is hella perturbed about the “drugs,” as he calls it. His personalized moral code still firing on all cylinders, Leo balks at the suggestion he’s corrupting a young girl. “This is pot,” he scoffs. “This isn’t drugs.”

Story two functions wonderfully as a stand-alone piece, a fly-on-the-wall peek into seemingly everyday relationships where secrets and resentment bubble just beneath the surface. (It seems even society’s ‘progressive’ and ‘chill’ subcultures fall victim to discord.) The interactions are equal parts funny and raw, a balancing act at which High Maintenance often excels. Paired together, “Easha’s Tale” and “Leo’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Birthday” (titles courtesy of me) pack on the synergy, offering up a poignant take on how we often fall short at marching lockstep with our own agreed-upon sets of principles.

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Stray observations

  • Because The Guy shares a birthday with Leo, Gigi invites him to the party, suggesting he bring his wife. In the High Maintenance web series episode “Rachel” (2014), The Guy reveals to Colin—who’s just come out as a crossdresser—that he doesn’t actually have a wife. He wears a wedding band to appear more trustworthy, ya see.
  • Despite Gigi’s invite, The Guy and his non-existent spouse (The Girl?) don’t make an appearance at the swingers party. Gotta wonder if he’d have been DTF. (Down to forgive. You know, the whole STD thing.) Remember friends, chlamydia is treatable.
  • “I thought we were going to a fucking party, not an asshat convention.”
  • Happy birthday to Leo and The Guy from a fellow Scorpio. Who wants the groin piece?

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