Living through the Covid-19 pandemic is impossible to compare to any prior experience. Early on, it felt there were attempts to do so to lessen the fear associated with the unknown. Then as our needs to social distance and quarantine became required, it was undeniable. A week in, we have now realized not only how comfortable we felt in our routine but how we have had to make a mental shift into a new one, at least for the immediate future. Chances are many have experienced melancholy due to the acknowledgment of this change and what’s lost without ensured regain or return.
A gaze into that currently lost previous reality in all its beautiful flaws has become a craveable thing. Season 4 Episode 7 of HBO’s High Maintenance provided this fix with an unintended eloquence. For those unaware of the show, it follows ‘The Guy,’ (series co-creator Ben Sinclair) a Brooklyn based weed deliverer as he travels around on his bike with his one-eyed dog FOMO. Each episode focuses on a new set of characters as they all procure their cannabis from Sinclair’s character.
Its latest episode titled ‘Hand’ starts by following a professional sign language interpreter who has fallen victim to the ‘sales opportunities’ of a pyramid scheme. She has acquired a plethora of health products of which she needs to resell. As the episode builds, so does her stress level and the necessity to rid herself of the products she has indebted herself with.
She finds herself on the set of a photoshoot as the interpreter for one of the designers. Mid-shoot Martha Stewart walks in, and we learn the shoot is for the businesswoman and TV personality’s company. On a whim, she sees the ‘nice hands’ of the interpreter and asks to use them in the shoot. The interpreter gains a substantial extra income through this which helps her situation. Yet she can’t let go of her addiction to her pyramid scheme and the need to sell products. So, as she attempts to leave the set, the interpreter stops Martha Stewart and tries to sell her health products.
What happens next exemplifies an uncomfortable life moment that we have been removed from in our current state of isolation. It’s tough to watch but that’s what’s so brilliant about it. It makes viewers realise how much they’ve craved a moment with this much depth due to outward circumstances rather than internal contemplation.
Watching it you feel alive for a painfully awkward yet truthful two minutes. As Martha Stewart grabs the interpreter’s card and leaves to escape the situation, one sees the rest of the staff look at the interpreter in disbelief. At this current moment, you can’t help but let out a sigh of joy at the experience of taking in the energy of that room through a screen. We right now could only hope to be someone in that public space or a fly on the wall witnessing someone take such a risk based on conflict and insecurity. Now with the absence of these moments, we can genuinely appreciate their value.
The unexpected joy of witnessing beauty within struggle only elevates as the episode switches narratives. The episode then swaps over to the household of Ellen and Victor. We become aware early that Ellen has some sort of condition or illness that limits her mobility and that she is stubborn when it comes to receiving help from her husband. He’s concerned, meanwhile, as she has been seemingly purchasing many small items they can’t afford for their apartment.
Victor works as a doorman in a nice building and is invited to a birthday party of a little girl who lives there by her mom. He wants to go because he feels he owes the parents who contributed to a GoFundMe page for his wife for treatment. Ellen and Victor attend and in an awkward moment the child punches Ellen in the face during a picture.
This awkward moment is quite the guilty pleasure as it wreaks of built tension and overcompensating. Usually this would be something audiences would not pine for per se. But as viewers are experiencing less human interaction than ever, they can see the enjoyment in the moment’s many intricacies. Ellen pushes for the focus to be placed on the kid’s well-being rather than her own to avoid attention. The specificity of this intention and struggle in this intense moment of human interaction is captivating.
This leads another woman from the building to give Ellen ice for her face as Victor consoles her. The woman then notices a bracelet on Ellen’s wrist. She compliments it before slowly realizing it is her custom bracelet she ordered to the building that was stolen. The woman confronts Victor about stealing it which he denies. She then confronts Ellen and as Victor tries to defend her Ellen takes the bracelet off and hands it to the woman and asks to leave. This sudden exposure of Ellen’s dirty deeds creates such enticing set-up for a cathartic breakdown.
The scene then cuts to a fight on the sidewalk that is the episode highlight. Victor questions, accuses and scolds Ellen for her self-involved stealing which could have risked him his job. In response, Ellen firstly reveals that she had a stroke and has cancer, the reason for the GoFundMe, which she then accuses Victor of starting to get laid out of sympathy. He recklessly starts to drag Ellen down the street and loses his sense of understanding entirely.
As this happens, Ellen starts cracking up. This moment of clarity, love and perspective defines the whole episode. It displays a level of raw intimacy based on flawed though pure human interaction that we have been separated from in our quarantine. Watching it felt like a release from this current Covid-19 state and a glimpse into the specificity of the human experience.
We can all see ourselves in Ellen and Victor. We first become angry in alliance with him before immediately empathising with her as she exclaims: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s been so long since you got mad at me, it’s amazing!’ We see her attempt to cope with life through reproachable actions and then her fall into her husband’s chest and laugh and cry because of feelings of regret mixed with love. The couple work out their issues and purge their long-repressed feelings through an honest fight that many viewers watching are likely not to experience at this current time.
Taking all this into consideration, ‘Hand’ reminds audiences of the conflict they didn’t know they’d miss once there wasn’t a chance to experience it. The loneliness of social distancing makes us long for authentic human interaction. This episode of High Maintenance taps into that need accidentally, as it was shot before the pandemic. It brings release in its discomfort and enthusiasm in its purity. More TV should examine this specificity during this time, but for now, this episode is perfect.