“Revolution is the sound of your heart still beating.”
On Election Day 2016, High Maintenance co-creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair agreed to end their six-year marriage. The two had married soon after meeting each other in 2009, and quickly began a creative partnership that led to the original web series. Yet, all was not well. As she writes in a personal essay in Vogue, Blichfeld struggled with the pressures of her job, the difficulty of managing Sinclair’s increased celebrity, and her sexuality, which she had been repressing since her early teens. After a one-night stand with a woman and a prolonged separation from her husband, she told Sinclair that she wanted to be with women. Since then, Blichfeld has started dating a woman, and the two continue to work together, including on production of High Maintenance’s second season.
This would merely be a compelling behind-the-scenes anecdote and not crucial information if Blichfeld and Sinclair didn’t incorporate their shared experiences into the series. In last season’s finale, it was revealed that the Guy’s ex-wife lives down the hall from him and is currently in a committed relationship with a woman named Gwen (Rebecca Naomi Jones). Though Blichfeld and Sinclair wrote the episode when they were still together, Sinclair notes in his Vulture interview that the storyline “was subconscious, prescient” and that they both knew what was coming down the pipeline.
“Scromple” deepens the personal history of the Guy and his complicated relationship with his ex-wife, Julia (Kate Lynn Sheil, excellent per usual), following a nasty bike accident that lands him in the hospital. Over the course of the episode, we learn that the two are technically still married, having not officially signed their divorce papers, which is a blessing considering the Guy has no health insurance otherwise. We learn they’re still in contact with each other and that Julia still has a key to the Guy’s apartment, even though this clearly bothers Gwen. These two remain in each other’s lives even though they’ve clearly moved past the other.
Drugged out of his mind on pot and prescription medicine, the Guy reaches out to Julia for help, not knowing she’s in a personal crisis of her own. Stalled on a pro bono freelance brand management gig for an LGBT-friendly church, Julia joneses for some weed, but because she promised Gwen she’d stop smoking, she has nothing at her disposal. Before long, she’s trying to dig out shake from an old one-hitter, smoking a discarded roach filter, and trying to burn out resin from an old bowl. It’s a familiar sight for anyone who’s ever been stressed out and “in need,” so to speak. Yet, the frenetic music that scores Julia’s desperate search for drugs emphasizes that the behavior is concerning, especially to someone like Gwen who worries that Julia isn’t herself when she’s high.
Eventually, Julia heads to the hospital to find a very high Guy babbling inside jokes and sitcom references. (When Julia tells the Guy that Gwen thinks she changes when she’s high, the Guy cheekily responds in an Urkel voice, “Did I do that?”) Despite their time apart, the two quickly fall back into an old routine. The Guy comfortably cracks jokes and uplifts Julia while she enjoys a brief trip down memory lane, back to a time when their relationship was clearly fun and not riddled with complications. The two parrot Olive Garden slogans at each other and talk about their respective relationships: The Guy obviously likes Beth, but he’s not close enough to her to ask her to come take care of him in a hospital; Julia and Gwen haven’t had sex in three months and there’s clearly unresolved tension in their relationship. Both the Guy and Julia self-edit their text conversations with their respective partners, frequently reassuring them with half-truths and outright lies. Sometimes that amounts to maintaining the peace in a relationship, but when does that become just another lie you’re living?
The back half of the episode, which primarily focuses on Julia and the Guy in the hospital, is flat out some of the best work in the series. The chemistry between Sinclair and Sheil feels remarkably natural and lived-in, even correcting for the high-quality acting in High Maintenance. Their scenes together are fun and funny, but also painfully melancholic. Though Julia does eventually take hits off of the Guy’s pen, she’s much more sober than he is, which allows her to maintain control of their conversation. She steers it where she wants it to go, only briefly allowing the Guy to lure her into a smile-off, which provides her with the control she doesn’t really have in her current relationship. Each line reading feels layered with history, and certain moments are impossibly charged but never lingered upon, such as when Julia finds out that the Guy has still held onto his wedding ring, registers the information, and then mentally moves past it.
Most of all, “Scromple” provides a look at the life of the Guy, our eyes and ears into the larger world of High Maintenance. The Guy fills a very specific role in the show: He’s a True Innocent, someone whose job is to bring a little comfort and relief into people’s homes. He’s there to be amiable, supportive, and helpful. It’s tempting to think of him as an otherworldly figure who just passes through other people’s lives for moments at a time, but that belies the obvious truth. He’s a person with an inner life all of his own, filled with heartbreak, pain, and longing. It’s hidden under a thick cloudy drug layer in his brain, but he’s clearly loving and hurting, open and closed at the same time. It’s genuinely thrilling to see him develop into something more than a calming presence.
Julia eventually returns to her somewhat tenuous life with Gwen. They share a sweet moment together, but it’s sparked by Julia’s lie about not being stoned and having a good day. Later, when Gwen retires to bed, Julia returns to the Guy’s apartment, armed with his code for the locked fridge (it’s her birthday backwards) and she rips a bong. Is she backsliding into dependency? Is she shirking her duties as a partner? It’s difficult to say, but it’s clear that she’s still struggling with a host of issues, even if she has embraced her sexuality.
“Scromple” takes on even greater meaning in light of Blichfeld and Sinclair’s relationship. I obviously cannot speak to the details of their relationship at any stage, nor do I think it’s appropriate to speculate on the intricacies of their uncoupling, but nevertheless the episode scans as an elegy for the good times they once shared. The Guy’s emotions are necessarily on the surface because of the drugs, but Sinclair himself feels especially present. It’s as if the former couple decided that instead of working through their issues in their TV show, they’d use it as a platform to express their affection for each other. The result is a moving tribute to an extinguished flame.
Stems and Seeds
• The episode opens on a therapist contending with a particularly distraught patient. After the patient finally leaves, the therapist waits for a bit and then also leaves her office. Around the corner, she sees the patient on the phone and tries to avoid her by quickly darting into the street. She ends up running straight into the Guy, which causes his bike accident.
• It’s somewhat telling that Sinclair isn’t credited with writing the episode, but Blichfeld and Rebecca Drysdale are. Maybe Blichfeld has more perspective on their past relationship than Sinclair does at that current juncture?
• The quote at top is from the church pastor’s sermon that revolves around self-acceptance and maintaining faith, despite any prior religious teaching that might have expressed intolerance.
• From his hospital bed, the Guy listens to the world around him, taking in the various sights and conversations. My favorite of these little overheard gems is when a middle-aged man in the next bed thinks he’s dying because he ate too much pot.
• The Guy sings the improvised song, “What are you up to, Elisabeth Shue?” which is a reference from last week’s episode.