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The Weirdest ‘High Maintenance’ Episode Yet Is Also the Most Affecting

Naturally, it's told almost entirely from the perspective of a dog.

All TV is voyeuristic—a fact acknowledged to varying degrees, from the mockumentary conceit of The Office and Parks and Rec to Mr. Robot's repeated winks at its audience as a character. Though these series make their viewers part of the narrative, however, they're not quite the ideal voyeuristic pleasure—that would be High Maintenance, late of Vimeo, now on HBO.

The central character of High Maintenance, Ben Sinclair's weed-dealing Guy, invades the homes and private spaces of New Yorkers to give them drugs, providing a justification for why viewers are privy to their intimate moments, what they do when no one else can see. But Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, the show's creators, take that to new heights in this week's episode, "Grandpa," which is told almost entirely from the perspective of a dog named Gatsby.

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Gatsby (played by a dog named Bowdie) is incapable of understanding human language, which is a natural extension of High Maintenance's commitment to observing other people's private moments. Though the show is usually hyperverbal, most of "Grandpa" is close to silent on the dialogue front—almost anything the human characters say is background noise. Gatsby communicates primarily through big, expressive, uncanny eyes. Sinclair and Blichfeld (who direct every episode) lean heavily on low angles for "Grandpa," tracking how the dog sees the world. Without many people, it turns out the episode's various humans are mostly just bodies, shapes to be ignored or followed by Gatsby's nose.

Gatsby's owner, played by Ryan Woodle, is not a particularly likeable man; this we know because the dog never, not once, looks him in the eyes. Of course, there are other warning signs (for one, he's a Trump voter), but the man's gross habits or workaholic behavior mostly serve to mark him as a slob, rather than as a bad person—until he's rude to the dog. He insults Gatsby, is impatient when he needs to pee, and, in one crucial moment later in the episode, leaves him in a cage for several days. Thankfully, Gatsby meets someone new. When the owner hires a dog walker (Orange Is the New Black's Yael Stone, using her native Australian accent) to take care of Gatsby during the day, Gatsby falls in love.

Chasing fleeting moments of self-determination and privacy—this might be the ultimate goal of most of the New Yorkers of High Maintenance.

"Grandpa" establishes Gatsby's more-than-friendly affection for the dog walker in a sun-soaked, obscenely slowed-down fantasy sequence where she drinks from a water fountain in the park—a scene that, essentially, invites the audience to emotionally invest in the possibility of bestiality. They frolic together under a bridge; Gatsby drools and sniffs her ass. Though there's no chance of anything ever happening between them (High Maintenance is weird, but it's not bestiality weird), Blichfeld and Sinclair develop a romantic relationship with more skill and confidence than most romantic comedies, and certainly most television shows.

Except that Stone's character is fired for smoking weed in the owner's home. (Coincidentally, she's smoking with The Guy, who appears to be her boyfriend—a rare episode in which his connection to the main character isn't professional.) For a time, Gatsby is low-energy, depressed, remaining in his cage even when his owner gets home and yells at him—the dog is heartsick. This scene, trapping the subjectivity of Gatsby, even with his indescribable emotions, makes the mere act of "owning" a pet feel impossibly cruel.

Still, the the saving grace of High Maintenance's gaze is that most of its protagonists find a semblance of happiness. In this case, Gatsby abandons his owner and finds a second life as a bandana-ed crust punk dog living in the park, now named Grandpa. The Guy and Stone's character reappear, briefly, so The Guy can hand off a free joint to Gatsby's new owners. At first it appears like Gatsby is going to take off again and chase after his former flame, but after a brief moment of hesitation, he returns to the crust punks. The brightness of the shots here and the beauty of the leaves suggests that the space of the park, outside and away from a more stringent ownership, are part of what really entranced Gatsby in the first place: freedom.

Chasing fleeting moments of self-determination and privacy, clawed out from under a mountain of stress and the expectations of society—this might be the ultimate goal of most of the New Yorkers of High Maintenance who buy what The Guy is selling. In the season premiere, the hopelessly obnoxious Max begins attending recovery meetings as a form of escape from his toxic, suffocating best friend. In last week's episode, a Muslim girl risks alienating her family in her pursuit of the liberating feeling provided by smoking on a Brooklyn rooftop. (Her swinger neighbors encounter problems of their own when their own attempt at a sacred space collapses under the rules of their group sex arrangement and an unfortunate chlamydia diagnosis.)

Somehow, "Grandpa" manages to engender sympathy even for the owner in this regard—who, after all, has lost his dog in addition to his wife, and is dealing with the stresses of a new life and high-powered job in an unfamiliar, unforgiving city. An episode of a comedy that is not only almost exclusively about a dog, but that also treats the dog like a more sympathetic, human character than most of the people around it, while still treating each of the humans as people–this is the purest strain of High Maintenance.

"Grandpa" only takes one brief interlude from Gatsby's story, in a scene where The Guy delivers his product to a bunch of dudes working on programs for virtual reality. (The first time I watched the episode, I genuinely thought that The Guy had been experiencing a virtual reality film in which he was a dog.) These guys, who have already built VR porn, view the technology as potentially transformational—they call themselves "the inventors of the new self." But, High Maintenance suggests, it seems like inventing a new self is less important than taking a moment to observe the people (and animals) around you in the interest of rediscovering the old.

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