High Maintenance Recap: A Buffalo Smile

High Maintenance

Season 1 Episode 6
Editor’s Rating *****
Ben Sinclair as the Guy, Michael Cyril Creighton as Patrick. Photo: David Russell/HBO

Many threads connect the two stories in “Ex,” including exes, self-preservation, personal improvement, and even Marie Kondo’s best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, or as it’s known in the episode, the “throw away what doesn’t spark joy” book. But after last week’s misstep, tonight’s season finale brings out High Maintenance’s overwhelming sense of empathy for neighbors, strangers, and disparate or lost souls, all of whom are crammed in a city known for its supposed impersonality. “Ex” effectively embodies what’s been at the heart of the series all along: the act of reaching out to those in need, whether it’s through drugs or plain-old compassion.

The first half of the episode follows Patrick (Michael Cyril Creighton), a lonely, Helen Hunt–obsessed agoraphobic man who barely leaves his apartment unless he’s picking up a package or delivery food. He first appeared in the fifth episode of the web series “Helen,” which revealed he takes care of his ailing mother, creates art in his spare time, and only buys weed from the Guy for the company. But in “Ex,” Patrick’s mother has passed and he’s still stuck in the same rut — until the Guy comes over and, after providing Patrick with a mentally incapacitating gravity-bong hit, subtly tells him that walking around the city with headphones on can feel like you’re in a movie. “Hope you feel better, man,” the Guy offers on his way out. “I feel great!” Patrick replies through fits of laughter, unconvincingly.

When Patrick finally ventures out into the world, he doesn’t discover fear around every corner, but something resembling inner peace. As he walks amongst the crowds that used to frighten him, he sees the city in a slightly new light, a place where you can be yourself and even find a few boxes of a new La Croix flavor for your wall art. When he trips and falls pretty hard on the concrete, a psychic appears almost out of thin air to take him into her shop and clean him up. Overcome with the gentle kindness of a stranger, Patrick almost immediately starts crying in her care, which in part compels him to “simplify” his life — removing his mother’s clothing from his apartment, throwing away his clutter, and generally tidying up.

Though series creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair imbue Patrick’s story with enough bone-deep humanism that it would basically succeed regardless of whoever was at its center, Creighton brings so much personality and sweetness into the role that it elevates the whole thing. Blichfeld and Sinclair maintain tight close-ups on Creighton’s face to communicate Patrick’s essential sadness, but they never fetishize or wallow in it, preferring to capture him from a more observational distance. They portray him as a mostly normal guy who fell on hard personal times, just doing his best to stay afloat. It’s crucial that the story’s emotional climax isn’t when Patrick first ventures outside or when he shares a La Croix with his neighbor on his stoop, but when he “breaks up” with the Guy and returns his weed to him, all but admitting his secret. It’s a touching, somewhat awkward scene, and yet Sinclair and Creighton play the moment wonderfully. These are two characters parting ways on amicable terms, having been changed by their brief relationship.

The next story is the episode’s real winner. “Ex” then turns its sights on the Guy himself and offers a few more details about his life, including his past marriage and his marginalized existence as a courier for people with “real lives.” In short, the Guy gets robbed after a referral gone wrong and must go to his neighbor’s place to try to collect his spare keys. Though he clearly has a familiar relationship with Gwen (Rebecca Naomi Jones), she isn’t wild about him showing up to her place unannounced, especially because she was trying to have a relaxing night at her apartment alone after a long week. Unfortunately for her, the Guy needs a place to lick his wounds and vent about the risks of his job. “I gotta get my shit together, man,” he says solemnly. “I’m a mess.”

Gwen can’t find the Guy’s keys because her partner, Jules, also reorganized their apartment by way of the “throw away what doesn’t spark joy” method, so she’s forced to entertain him. When the Guy sees a text message Gwen sends that her neighbor “is talking [her] fucking ear off,” he realizes that his geniality and general easygoing attitude isn’t always hospitable to everyone. However, as he walks out the door, Gwen sees that the Guy saw her text and runs after him to apologize, which is when we learn that Jules is the Guy’s ex-wife. Their relationship has many more layers than meets the eye.

The second half of “Ex” plays out like a short story, starting with an oddball encounter with nudist customers and ending on a nice ironic button. In between, Blichfeld and Sinclair illustrate the self-conscious, slightly off-balance nuances of a relationship with history. Gwen comforts a clearly shook-up Guy, but communicates through body language and demeanor that she just wants him out of her apartment. (After all, his ex-wife already takes up so much emotional space in the place.) The Guy erroneously assumes that his presence is welcome and feels embarrassed when he finally recognizes that he’s intruding, yet none of these things are quite explicated. Instead, they play out in the subtleties of character blocking and minor expression changes. Gwen and the Guy clearly enjoy each other’s company, but Gwen is a lawyer who needs a night off. She’d rather not hang out with her girlfriend’s weed-dealing ex-husband and the Guy clearly overstepped his boundaries.

The scene when Gwen and the Guy reconcile is the icing on the proverbial cake, exhibiting so much warmth from two characters who know each other but don’t really know each other. She profusely apologizes and the Guy more than understands, telling her to “make a buffalo smile,” a play on words that involves the visualization of a “buffalo smile” as opposed to the act of making a buffalo smile. It’s a sweet, down-to-earth moment between two people who have had rough days and are, again, just trying their best.

“Sometimes your best is just putting your pants on for the day, you know?” the Guy tells his nudist customer. That’s really the mantra for all the subjects of High Maintenance, people struggling in their own ecosystems who just need a little connection and relief.

I love that Blichfeld and Sinclair chose to end the season not on another customer, but on the Guy himself because it demonstrates both the gentleness of his presence and the fundamental gentleness of the series. In High Maintenance, people are connected less by their recreational-drug habit and more by their internal struggles, by their ability to get up the next morning and try again in a seemingly cruel, unforgiving world. Like a superhero in the night, the Guy bikes the streets, doing what he can to help those in need. In times of uncertainty, he’s the kind of person that people can rely on.

High Maintenance Recap: A Buffalo Smile