Tonight’s episode of High Maintenance is entitled “Derech” after the Hebrew word that means “path.” It’s most often employed in the expression “off the derech” or “off the path,” which is used to describe someone who leaves an Orthodox Jewish community. It certainly applies to the episode’s driving force, an ex-Hasid named Baruch (Luzer Twersky), who, with the accidental help of a flighty Vice writer (Ismenia Mendes), has a wild night out at a club. Yet, the expression can apply to all of the episode’s subjects: a nightclub performer (Darrell Thorne), a Zen rideshare driver (Abdullah Saeed), and even the Guy himself. They’re all off the path, so to speak, and trying to find freedom by walking to the beat of their own drum.
Written by Ben Sinclair and directed by Shaka King, “Derech” covers a New York night that doesn’t go as planned. A free man invites an outsider to his insular community and awkwardness arises. A deliveryman loses access to his bike and relies on the kindness of an old friend to help him out. An artist gets thrust into an emergency situation after an exhausting night performing for a crowd. Befitting the unpredictability of the situations, the episode assumes a freewheeling rhythm that hits all the proverbial bumps in the road at just the right tempo. “Derech” feels a little patchy at times, especially in some of the crosscutting between story lines, but there are stretches of incisive, funny material.
The majority of the episode adopts an anthropological bent as it explores sequestered communities, specifically a group of ex-Hasids who struggle to integrate themselves into mainstream society. Baruch searches for kosher jobs while sleeping at his friend’s house, but finds some drive when he links up with Anja, a staff writer for Vice who has been tasked to report upon defectors from Orthodox communities. The only thing is that Anja hasn’t really been open with Baruch about is her journalistic intentions.
High Maintenance first introduced Anja in last season’s “Selfie,” the series’ weakest episode to date, as a social-media-addicted, opportunistic 20-something writer with a shaky sense of ethics and self. But even if you haven’t seen that episode, the series tips you off immediately that you’re not supposed to trust her. Watch the Guy’s body language when he delivers to her: He’s distrustful of her motives and wants to leave as soon as possible. He has good reason — she tried to “out” him on Instagram during a one-on-one interview — but even if he didn’t, just listen to how Anja describes her latest assignment. She talks about the plight of the ex-Hasids with a faux-sensitivity that hits all the prescribed surface-level talking points, but mostly serves to flatter her own perspective. Is High Maintenance taking the piss out of millennials just a bit? Maybe, but it’s more that Anja represents the opposite of the series’ worldview. This show serves to depict people honestly and with care, while Anja wants to use them for a byline.
Thankfully, Anja’s condescension never amounts to more than posturing because (1) the ex-Hasids are onto her motives and treat her warmly but with just the amount of skepticism and (2) she ends up abandoning her subject. When she attends Baruch’s Shabbat, she tries to take pictures of the group, but is stopped because many attend the gathering in secret. She argues with the most conservative members of the group about politics, and though she rightfully pushes back against the most egregious claims (blacks and Jews don’t face the same type of state), she still comes across as an obnoxious interloper. (Side note: High Maintenance has been excellent at depicting annoying people who are on the right side of social issues.) She suggests to Baruch that they go out to a nightclub, but eventually leaves him to go make out with a stranger.
Meanwhile, the Guy has his own adventure when he discovers a stranger has locked their bike to his. He calls a car to get him to his next delivery and discovers an old client named Abdullah (Abdullah Saeed) behind the wheel. Together, the two jet around the city as they work side-by-side delivering weed and transporting passengers respectively. It’s a pretty breezy subplot, but it’s enlivened by the funny, stoned banter between the Guy and Abdullah. A high point is when Abdullah mentions that he likes the transient nature of the driver-passenger relationship, with the Guy comparing it with “The Merv Griffin Show” episode of Seinfeld. It’s a pointed description of High Maintenance itself: Characters drift in and out of frame, and we have the opportunity to catch a glimpse of their life in motion.
In the end, Baruch ends up dancing with Marina (Natia Dune), a woman who respects his liberated self. They end up briefly connecting in the wee hours of the morning, and when the club shuts down, they travel to a local bodega looking for food. There, Baruch ends up choking on a sandwich, and a drag queen from the same club, who went to the bodega looking for contact solution, performs an emergency tracheotomy on him. It’s somewhat of a pat ending, but it works as a neat illustration of how hope and help comes in many forms and from all walks of life. It’s like the beginning of a canned joke, “An ex-Hasid and a drag queen walk into a bodega …” but there’s no punch line, just a brief moment of connection.
Stems and Seeds
Abdullah first appeared in the High Maintenance web series episode “Brad Pitts” as an unnamed ultra stoner who introduced the Guy to dabs. The real Abdullah Saeed previously hosted and produced Bong Appétit on Vice, but he quit following sexual harassment allegations against the company.
Baruch’s roommate was watching John Woo’s American debut Hard Target before he left for work. He’s at the end, when Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Chance Boudreaux drops a grenade down the pants of Emil Fouchon (Lance Henriksen) and says, “Hunting season is over.”
The nightclub performers discuss best Nicolas Cage movies, citing Leaving in Las Vegas as a strong contender. But in my opinion, any best Cage film discussion must include Bringing Out the Dead in order to pass muster.
When the Guy returns to his bike, he finds a Post-it Note that reads, “Sorry, Was Drunk.” The Guy, stoned out of his gourd, accepts this apology. “That’s okay. Hakuna Matata, baby.”