One of the more commonly held themes (maybe even beliefs) about New York is that it is a pit of loneliness, where you can never feel more isolated while surrounded by millions of people. 30 Rock encapsulated New York’s uncanny ability to grind you down perfectly here. This can feel like a shitty city, especially during any given rush hour on the subway. In High Maintenance’s season finale, however, the final story they have to tell is about the kindness of strangers and acquaintances, that sprouts like weeds (nice) through the cracks in the pavement.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. After a season of stories all across the map, this episode focuses on one of its main, underlying themes. This is a city where people don’t just lock their doors, they often deadbolt and chain them. That can start to feel pretty normal after a while, even if you grew up in a rural area where people don’t carry around house keys because the door is always open, but it has a psychic effect as well: we become closed off, silos living in our own personal narratives. High Maintenance is actively trying to fight this mindset, to open us up to the world around us, to the human stories going on right under our noses. Most of all, it’s trying to open us up to our neighbors, either because they can help us, or we can help them.
In this week’s finale “Ex,” the stories present tableaus of people who are hurting, but also the moments when they find help from near-strangers. Patrick (Michael Cyril Creighton), who first appeared with his sick mother and all of his Helen Hunt fan art in “Helen,” is now alone in “Ex,” agoraphobic and emotionally bound to his apartment. His encounters with The Guy used to be due to a crush, but in this episode they are more about companionship and the need for human contact. Through The Guy’s light encouragement and weed (shout-out to gravity bongs), Patrick is able to finally leave his house.
Though his initial moments — literally being chased by a crazy woman — are as stressful as he probably always feared, he eventually finds kindness from a true stranger, the psychic who takes care of him when he trips over his cart. The psychic becomes an agent of change in Patrick’s life, manifested in the token of the obliquely referenced The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (a bestseller and cultural phenomenon centered on the concept that you should only keep things around you that bring you joy, a nice companion mantra for HM). The book is later referenced in Gwen and The Guy’s story. The self-help book is the impetus Patrick needs to remove the clutter (physical and emotional) from his life. He’s even able to “break up” with The Guy, freeing himself to find love from someone who is able to reciprocate. The kindness he has experienced when he puts himself out into the world has changed his life for the better.
The next encounter between strangers begins with a short monologue on selfishness by a naked client (comedian Arthur Meyer, in more male frontal nudity than Game of Thrones or other HBO fare ever attempted). But just as with other moments in the series, this scene is played for both comedy and real emotion, with the juxtaposition of a man baring his insecurities about his personality while fully exposed. The client is exposing himself literally and figuratively to The Guy, laying out all of his insecurities, and it resembles more of a therapy session than a drug transaction. The naked guy even recognizes as much, tipping The Guy because he feels like he’s been given an extra service. Also, a stray observation: it doesn’t surprise me at all that the one time we see a nudist apartment, they’re looking for a roommate. Something tells me there are still depths to which New York’s housing market can sink.
Contrast these scenes with the final story, in which The Guy is robbed and locked out of his apartment, so he stays at his neighbor Gwen’s to lick his wounds and wait until he can get a spare key. Gwen (Rebecca Naomi Jones) was hoping to spend the evening alone, recharging from her taxing job as a social worker (from what we can gather in her work calls). In a twist, The Guy, who has typically been characterized as a drug dealer/friend/therapist in a 21st century take on the bartender with a sympathetic ear, is an unwelcome guest in Gwen’s apartment. This is a scene that takes place between friends, or whatever you call your ex-wife’s current girlfriend (yeah, the guy was married!). Though they clearly have a relationship and Gwen hears people’s problems on a daily basis, she’s not down to play the role of therapist to The Guy. It’s another of the show’s reversals on what you might expect, that familiarity is not a prerequisite for intimacy or kindness.
It’s also a huge turn for The Guy, who is always greeted warmly in his client’s homes. They often want him to hang out, and he’s usually the one who has to politely excuse himself so he can get back to work. But this isn’t a business transaction. This is our window into The Guy’s personal life, and it’s the first one we’ve ever gotten. He’s been our guide through all of these stories, taking us with him into people’s lives, but now that we can see his life, it’s obvious it’s just as much a mess as anyone else’s.
He doesn’t know if he should think bigger or smaller as a drug dealer, or if he needs to seriously reassess his life and make a major career move (what’s the upper limit age of drug dealers you know?). The Guy has a story, just like everyone else in this world, though in a series that fixates on unseen stories, his is told in the margins. We only saw a hint of it before during Gatsby’s episode, when it looks like he and Beth may be dating, but the details get colored in a lot more in this story (as Gwen is literally working in her adult coloring book).
“Ex,” like episode 4 “Tick,” purports to be about the literal exes in its characters’ lives — The Guy for Patrick and Gwen’s girlfriend for The Guy — but come on, that wouldn’t be any fun in a series that traffics in puns, or for a recapper who sits and watches every episode with his tinfoil hat on, looking for all the hidden meanings?
“Ex” can mean “former,” but it’s also a prefix for “out of” or “outside.” Patrick finally allows himself to go outside and pull himself out of a La Croix/Helen Hunt shut-in spiral, and The Guy is locked out of his apartment. Visually, this episode fixates on doors. The Guy delivers to a building where a resident relies on her front door and then the elevator door to keep him out. The Guy is robbed in a vestibule, literally trapped between two doors. Gwen tries to enjoy herself in the apartment, only for new interruptions to keep coming to the door. All The Guy wants after he’s robbed is to go home, but he doesn’t have his keys. We look at doors as a way to keep unwanted people out, but sometimes they keep good things out, too. Sometimes they keep us out.
In the final scene, The Guy is texting his lady friend/doggy wet dream, Beth from “Grandpa“, when he realizes his door has actually been unlocked the whole time. Beth texts him “COME TO THE BAR,” and even though The Guy can finally go home, he walks right back out into the world.
It’s a nice ending to the story, and a good message from the show to us in its finale: Life can be pretty fucking terrible. Our instinct in the face of it all might be to shut ourselves up and shut out the world. But amazing things can happen if you let the outside into your life. People can be kind if you give them the chance. Go outside and enjoy the day. Come to the bar. Open your door once in awhile.
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