This week’s episode of High Maintenance examines the world of New York real estate, an unstable institution where socioeconomic battles are fought every day. “Namaste” features two stories about how housing can create and limit opportunities, especially for people of color and/or middle-class New Yorkers. A home functions as tangible shelter and a symbol of domesticity — it’s the place to hang your proverbial hat and a demonstration of stability and adulthood — but in an environment when rapid gentrification props up class barriers in every square inch of the city, it takes determination and a little luck to game the system in your favor.
The first story stars Regine (Danielle Brooks), a hard-working Realtor living in Brooklyn who’s anxious to buy property in her neighborhood. It’s strongly implied that Regine, a black woman, tries to encourage and support fellow members of her community to rent property in the area, a small act that stymies the demographic changes. She butters up an elderly brownstone owner (Anthony Chisholm) with beer and loose cigarettes just so he’ll keep her in mind when he wants to sell. She even buys weed from a black dealer (Rob Morgan of Stranger Things), even though his supply can’t keep up with the white dealers who deliver to the neighborhood.
“Namaste” communicates Regine’s desire for upward mobility in simple, grounded terms. Director Shaka King warmly shoots the interior of the brownstone by emphasizing its elegance, not its extravagance. Most importantly, he frames Brooks in a humble position when she admires the living room; it’s an effective way to communicate her aspirations. Brooks works hard, supports her community, and she wants a piece of the better life.
Unfortunately, luck isn’t on Regine’s side. As she walks back from a class at the Namastuy Healing Collective, featuring a cameo from Dawnesha (Tijuana Ricks, who appeared in last week’s episode), she discovers that her beloved brownstone has been put on the market with a sale pending. Is this karmic retribution for Regine selling out and buying weed from the Guy? “Namaste” never explicitly draws the connection, but allows the viewer to make their own assumptions about the mysterious ways of the universe.
The second story follows Candace (Candace Thompson) and John (John E. Peery), a couple with deep roots in the High Maintenance universe. Though they currently enjoy living in a hippie co-op, their lives change when their application for the affordable housing lottery has been selected. Suddenly, Candace and John are touring a small apartment in a fancy Greenpoint building. “This is just some tax write-off for some really rich building owner. This is low-income housing,” grumbles John. “Uh-huh,” Candace replies, “and we are low income.”
Despite the cheap rent and a cool location, subsidized housing (surprise, surprise) has its downsides, most notably stratified amenities in the building. Nonsubsidized residents can access the rooftop, the bike room, a yoga studio, and a sauna, but subsidized residents cannot. There’s also a security guard (Sean Ringgold) patrolling the building to make sure people like Candace and John “stay in their lane,” so to speak. It’s an easy way to create a class-divided community that relies on renter apathy to flourish. After all, it’s not like anyone else in the building is fighting for Candace and John to share in the building services.
In order to level the playing field, Candace finds the code for the sauna on a neighbor’s fridge and invites the Guy over for a small get-together. The three friends smoke weed in the apartment, but they have to tape the sides of the door and use a sploof because John previously got caught smoking in the building. They head down to the sauna afterward, but the security guard eventually catches them inside. Candace explodes, saying that it’s unfair to separate people within the building, and that it’s an example of economic oppression. Though Candace’s point is sound, “Namaste” also illustrates her shortsightedness: She takes out her frustration on a guy employed by the building, a pawn in the larger capitalist apparatus. It’s his job to be the asshole in the situation, even if he likely doesn’t care that the three are using the sauna.
“Namaste” is a little thinner than the previous two episodes this season. Both stories this week are snapshot portraits by design, and though they contain subtle depths, they also feel a little less weighty. High Maintenance’s structure necessitates storytelling shortcuts, which force the series to compress narrative moves and character work to the absolute essentials, allowing viewers to fill in the gaps. This is easily the series’ best structural trait, but there’s also the risk of some stories failing to communicate their own consequence, or some stories feeling truncated. Nevertheless, the episode ends on a nice image: Candace and John sharing a bath together as they scheme to rent out their friend’s baby to try to get a two-bedroom apartment. Like many folks in High Maintenance, they’re just trying to game the system before it plays them.
Stems and Seeds
• This is the first episode of the series not credited to either Ben Sinclair or Katja Blichfeld. It was written by Hannah Bos (who played Reagan in the web-series episode “Sufjan”), Paul Thureen (who played Dean in last season’s “Tick”), and Shaka King. King, who directed “Namaste,” previously directed the 2013 feature Newlyweeds and most recently directed episodes of the TBS series People of Earth.
• Candace and John previously appeared in two episodes of the High Maintenance web series: “Trixie,” which covered their disastrous attempt to rent out their apartment to Airbnb guests, and they make a brief cameo appearance in “Rachel.”
• “Namaste” also features a return appearance from Justin (Elijah Guo), the virtual-reality programmer who first appeared in “Grandpa” from last season. He’s testing out some new ASMR virtual-reality technology before being interrupted for a house meeting.
• When an elderly doorman asks for his name in the lobby of Candace and John’s building, the Guy offers Ben Button. Later, when he leaves, the doorman has “become” a young boy.
• “It’s hard work, but it’s honest work,” says the Guy as he watches a man lasso on the street.