Well, fuck. I thought I had this series figured out. But episode 3 of High Maintenance just defied almost every convention set up by the series to date.
As we’re only three episodes into the season this statement may not bear much weight, but: “Grandpa” is the best and most beautifully complex episode so far. This week’s story introduces us to Gatsby, the dog who moves to The Big City from Indiana.
We had to know a transplant story was coming — it’s the tremendously incisive High Maintenance, after all — but this was an especially refreshing and original take on it (literally from a dog’s perspective) and there are some honest to god real emotions there. With that dog, man. That fucking dog has gravitas.
Gatsby is a listless dog who gets into trouble around the apartment, but only for lack of any real attention or affection from his owner, Chase (Ryan Woodle). Chase’s first response to the dog’s unruly behavior is to get him a dog walker, Beth (Yael Stone of Orange is the New Black).
Beth made brief cameos earlier in the web-series as well, selling mushrooms to Chad and The Guy in “Sabrina” and then buying weed from The Guy in “Esme.” In a stunning fantasy sequence that emerges through Gatsby’s patient gaze while he watches Beth drinking from a water fountain, we see the dog falling hopelessly in love with her (the way she “presents” herself to Gatsby in that erotic dance will always be the kicker for me).
Through Gatsby’s eyes we are privy to that head-out-the-window, tongue-wagging exhilaration of moving through a city usually reserved for the canine experience. We are given license to fall in love with New York all over again. In his relationship with dog walker Beth, we get to see how equal parts exhilarating and heart-wrenching finding and then losing love can be.
And why shouldn’t he fall in love with Beth, the manic pixie dog walker? She’s beautiful, but she dresses like a geriatric tourist and wears glasses that she says make her look like a grandma (a clear hint at the title). She feels like she’s part dog. She loves bubbles! Gatsby looks forward to their walks together, even if it’s with other dogs, and spends his days waiting by the window for her to come back. We experience just how long a weekend of waiting can be when you’re lonely and in love.
Meanwhile, Chase is more and more disconnected from his wonderful pet Gatsby. And at this point, it probably makes sense to bring up that other Gatsby, whose literary name surely inspired this one.
It’s no coincidence that Chase eventually starts referring to Gatsby as “Gatz,” either — a not-so-subtle nod to Jay Gatsby, the self-made man who creates a new identity for himself in pursuit of love. Jay Gatsby’s real surname was Gatz, and Chase’s use of the nickname heightens a near-allegoric tension: between the new identity that dog Gatsby has embraced since moving to New York falling in love and moving to New York, and his past, of which owner/roommate Chase is a constant physical reminder.
Just as Jay Gatsby is remembered for staring across the water at that green light, a beacon for his hopes and dreams, so dog Gatsby stares out of his window, waiting for his own beacon of hope, his Daisy (Beth).
Tragedy inevitably strikes when The Guy enters on the scene — the “other man” — visiting Beth at Chase’s apartment while Chase is away. They crack open some beers, with Beth assuring The Guy it’ll be fine as Gatsby looks on.
Upon Chase’s return, he finds empty beer cans in his trash and fires Beth. Gatsby is physically caged by his owner, and goes into a depression spiral. But opportunity strikes at the dog park when another walker leaves the fence open, and Gatsby makes an escape. He eventually hooks up with a new owner, a homeless woman who cares for him and names him “Grandpa.”
Gatsby is coincidentally, albeit briefly, reunited with Beth — who doesn’t recognize him — when she and The Guy happen to pass by the homeless woman in the park. He is faced with yet another open-fence opportunity, having to choose between running after Beth and staying with his new owner.
For a lot of us, our first love likely had that same magical, fleeting quality. We can all remember having a Beth to our Gatsby. It’s a transformative, addictive love, but it’s also ultimately unsustainable. For whatever reasons, we’re forced to move on — but some of us, like Jay Gatsby, become obsessed with it, and are constantly chasing (get it, Chase???) after that original feeling.
As Beth moves away from him in the park, Gatsby presumably experiences a bout of adult decision-making. He begins to run after Beth, but then thinks of his new owner, and the supportive relationship he’s in now. Those feelings for Beth won’t ever go away, but he’s found something more mature, more grounded. He gets to have someone to grow old with, to become a grandpa with. It’s sweet, and it’s beautiful, and if it didn’t haunt you a little afterward then you might be some kind of monster.
There is one other key scene that doesn’t appear to gel with Gatsby’s love story — at least at first — in which The Guy is delivering to some virtual reality programmers. He is given a device to put on, whereupon he observes a traumatic event in VR. It’s a scene that comes seemingly out of nowhere, until one developer tells The Guy that they call themselves “The Inventors of the New Self” — a direct Gatsby tie-in — and explain what they hope to achieve with the VR technology: they want to use it to cultivate empathy in prisoners towards their victims.
There are two stories going on in this episode, though we only get glimpses of the second. Both Chase and Gatsby are newcomers to the city. Chase, forever in the background or off-camera, is in a deep depression after presumably ending things with his partner Nancy, and unlike Gatsby he is unable to fully acclimate to his new home in New York. And yet, his depression is set in the background of Gatsby’s.
This episode of High Maintenance inverts the human-animal perspective in order to put the spotlight on a dog. We’re invited to transpose human emotions, emotional baggage, and heartbreak onto an animal. I guess that makes Gatsby a “device” (get it?) as much as he is a dog. He is the lens we put on, and just like The Guy’s VR experience, this perspective trains us to cultivate empathy for our pets. As hard as it may be to watch Gatsby’s pain up close, we find ourselves able to imagine how animals also have feelings, perhaps even hopes, and how they can suffer as victims of neglect. The effect is pretty transformative for a viewer; I know that I, for one, will never look at a dog cage in an apartment the same way again.