'High Maintenance' Season Four Is a Wholesome Reminder of a Normal New York

After the city's "stay home" guidelines were put place in the middle of the season, the show feels like a pleasant alternate universe.
April 7, 2020, 4:27pm
ben sinclair, rachel kaly, chris roberti, and a one-eyed dog in "soup," the season finale of season 4 of hbo's high maintenance
Photograph by David Russell/HBO

The fourth season of High Maintenance, HBO's distinctly New York series about a weed dealer and his cast of clients, started on February 7 and concluded this past Friday, April 3. The world that existed when the season started isn't the world that exists at its end.

On March 1, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York City, and on March 20, five days after asking bars and restaurants to voluntarily close, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared that the state was "on pause," cautioning all non-essential workers to stay home. Since then, the dog parks have been closed indefinitely; Central Park now houses a field hospital; and a giant hospital ship is now docked in the harbor.

While season four of High Maintenance began as a mirror of mundane city life, just as the seasons before it, the season by its end felt more like an ode to the world—and more specifically, to the city—that we miss.

High Maintenance's creators, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, surely didn't intend for this to be the case: for the season to be watched through the lens of a global pandemic—when, instead of loud streets bustling with people, New York is an endless echo of sirens. But as the situation in the city has changed so drastically day by day, the context of each weekly episode has, too, and season four finished like an alternate universe where things aren't the way they are now.

Season four ended with "Soup," an episode in which "The Guy," whose real name is finally revealed at the very end, reconnects with his niece Ilana before the two of them are set to fly home for Hanukkah. The idea of reunion is fraught since it's clear that the family's expectations for the two of them clash with their realities, but the result is High Maintenance at its most raw. A candlelit conversation between The Guy and Ilana makes you wonder if Ben Sinclair, who also plays The Guy, is really acting.

Happening in tandem is a plot line about a group of flight attendants spending an awkward Christmas Eve together in a hostel-like crash pad, including a pair of sisters who aren't getting along so well after bad weather has forced a delay in their vacation. It's the old normal, amplified through the holidays. Everyone in "Soup" is gathering, going out to restaurants, and traveling through the airport; they hug and touch, and they sit close together in tight quarters in rooms full of strangers.

In our new climate, it's also easy to ascribe a sense of eerie prescience to scenes in "Soup," which, of course, is also unintended but inevitable. One flight attendant spends the entire night of the makeshift Christmas party in one of the N95 masks with which we're all now so familiar. The two sisters tell each other at a bodega to grab "all three" rolls of toilet paper, and they leave armed with a six-pack of Corona, of all beers to choose. These things that would all seem normal during normal times now suddenly seem like uncanny premonitions of our current lives instead.

High Maintenance excels in its depictions of the interplay between people and the minutiae of their daily interactions, as VICE has written before. It was easy to take those things for granted—sitting in a crowd at the airport or waiting in line less than six feet away from people at the bodega, as we see in "Soup"—but through the lens of today, High Maintenance is a pleasant reminder of all the small things we can look forward to when this is over.

If we'd somehow been able to watch season four all at once in early February, it would have been good. Watching it episode-by-episode through the changing framing of New York under lockdown, however, makes High Maintenance feel even more necessary and even more pleasant. If you haven't taken the time to watch the show, well, maybe now's the time to start. Will things go back to normal? Here's a vision of that.