How High Maintenance Subverts the Gay Man–Straight Woman Relationship

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Lainey and Max. Photo: David Russell/HBO

High Maintenance’s Max and Lainey are a familiar pair of misanthropes: a gay male and straight female duo where each encourages the other’s rottenness in a game of one-upmanship. Who can be the most incisive, the most vicious, the most wickedly selfish? They’re Carrie and Stanford dipped in battery acid, Jack and Karen if they had deigned to live in Brooklyn. We first met Max and Lainey (played by Max Jenkins and Heléne Yorke) on the webisode “Olivia,” in a memorable sequence of catty takedowns, fabulous outerwear, and extreme self-absorption. With the premiere episode of HBO’s High Maintenance, “Meth(od),” you get the sense that three years have gone by, and these two have simply stagnated into each other. If “Olivia” presented an exaggerated trope of a familiar New York relationship, then “Meth(od)” went one step further, deconstructing it and showing us its rotting core. We’ve seen countless straight women with their gay best friends, but never quite like this.

The episode begins at a bachelorette party, with Max as the token gay male among a gaggle of blondes. He braids their hair, snaps their photos, and provides cultural cachet to the women who screech “Yaasss kween!” and “Werk!” “Who else wishes Max was straight?” titters one of the blondes. “Back off bitch, get your own gay husband,” Lainey interjects.

In pop culture, gay men have often figured as accessories to straight women (or straight men), and in High Maintenance, Max willingly plays that role. He does their hair and makes snappy jokes — (“I need more bobby pins 'cuz y’all cleaned me out”) — and runs out to get more vodka for their vodka tampons. He’s there to aid and assist the women around him, “like a dance, monkey, dance type of thing that you find yourself becoming victim to,” Yorke described during an interview with me. He’s an embodiment of a television trope: the helpful gay man.

There was a literal show built on the concept of the helpful gay man — Queer Eye for the Straight Guy — but he exists in a plethora of TV shows from The Real Housewives of Atlanta to, most significantly, Sex and the City. He is a fashion savant, self-help coach, and stand-up comic all rolled into one snazzily designed package. (Reality has, in turn, mimicked pop culture, with straight women looking for “their gays” and gay men performing as a way to be validated.) He provides endless, witty commentary, usually as a way to advise our lovelorn heroine on how to navigate the perils of the big city. He exists insofar as he’s useful to the heterosexual protagonists, whether it’s with their love lives or their hairstyles. Rarely does the exploitative aspect come into full view, but it does here.

We get a glimpse of just how exploited Max feels when, on a lark, he leaves the bachelorette party, goes on his “sex app,” and hooks up with a guy, Sebastian (played by the porn star Colby Keller). Instead of going back to the party, he joins Sebastian at his Crystal Meth Anonymous group, claiming he’s also an addict. The people there are a breath of fresh air, and as Max finds himself spending more time with them, he begins to realize just how draining his relationship with Lainey has been. Where she’s needy, the other men are giving; where she asks to borrow money, they fight for the bill. Moreover, in the space of an anonymous group for addicts, they willingly expose the darkest parts of themselves in an attempt to become better people. It’s with them that Max finally relaxes and stops performing.

High Maintenance ends the episode by pushing the trope of the fag hag and her gay husband until it malfunctions. Strung out on crystal meth, Max becomes a “dancing gay clown” in his underwear. He’s a drugged-out shell of a gay man who spews a stream of rapid-fire jokes and nothing else. In a twist fit for Misery, Lainey throws hot coffee in Max’s face and beats him with a stool after he lashes out at her, calling her a fag hag. It’s a disturbing end that also pulls Max back into the vortex of their co-dependence. The episode closes with Max, leg in a brace, sitting next to Lainey on the couch as she feeds him Percocet and Diet Coke. He makes a joke; she’s pleased. “Oh my god, Max. That was funny,” she says. “You’re doing so good today.” He’s exactly as she wants him to be again: funny, immobile, docile.

In this way, “Meth(od)” is less about Max and Lainey as individuals, and more about the subversion of a television trope that's often shown in glittery pinks and abdominal muscles. Max’s relationship with other gay men is the focus here, something that’s rare to see even on shows where the gay male and the straight female had equal billing. (Let’s not even talk about how Sex and the City decided to pair off Stanford and Anthony.) Will & Grace refused to give the same weight to the principal characters’ outside relationships: Grace went on dates, had other love interests (Gregory Hines!), and kissed other men, whereas Will rarely did. In fact, the first kiss between gay men on the show was a meta-joke: Jack was protesting how a TV show cut a gay kiss, so Will kisses him on The Today Show.

“Meth(od)” also acts as a cautionary tale — a parable for young, insecure gay men who don’t know how to fit in the world. It might be best described as what the actor Max Jenkins called “gay nervous laughter.” “It's part of my experience of being a gay man in the midst of searching for validation,” Jenkins told me. “Heléne's character feeds that gay laughter because he wants to be validated by her, and then he meets someone who calms that gay laughter.” He adds, “I call it gay, but I think it's really just the human experience of searching for validation in your career and in your personal relationships. And filling that lonely silence of wondering if anyone sees me or likes me.”