'Room 104' Season 2 Throws It All Against the Wall - Let's See What Sticks

"Arnold", Room 104 (HBO, S2, E6)

HBO's anthology horror series, Room 104, offers glimpses of promise and bizarre insight, but often feels constrained by its half-hour timeframe.

Room 104
Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass




As in its first season, the main obstacle preventing the Duplass brothers' horror anthology series Room 104 from truly becoming the thought-provoking, incisive show it hopes to be is a simple failure of form. (The show's episodes range from 20- to 29-minutes long.) A lot can be accomplished in 30 minutes or less, of course, but not as often when characters are physically confined within a small space, or when tension is built simply to be dropped or left unexplained. In the span of a whole season, several disappointing endings becomes too much even with a compelling payoff or two thrown in the mix.

Such is the case with Room 104 season 2, which manages to bore, bemuse, excite and occasionally terrify all within the span of a few episodes. By the end of this season there will be 24 episodes in total, and such inconsistency will likely prove to be too much of a rollercoaster ride for many viewers. On the other hand, some may forgive the series' weaknesses on behalf of its audacious experimentation. I find myself sitting somewhere in the middle, baffled by the series' misfires but intrigued by its random gems of insight.

Take "Woman in the Wall", an episode from the new season directed by Gaby Hoffman and starring Dolly Wells as an exhausted, mysteriously ailed woman who starts hearing another woman's voice coming from inside the hotel walls. Wells herself is the drawing point, expertly unraveling the fragility of a lonely and guarded character as she begins to accept the voice as a potential friend and comfort. It's not an eerie episode so much as it is a deeply sad one — one filled with empathy for the outsiders of the world struggling to come to terms with their very otherness. But it's when the series does more than just shock or scare, as it does here, that Room 104 allows itself to shine.

A similar effect can be found in the episodes "Hungry" and "Arnold", which respectively feature a pair of men meeting in the room for a particularly unique (if not precisely sexual) encounter and an introverted man played by Brian Tyree Henry singing his way through a bout of temporary amnesia. At the core of both episodes is, once again, misfits dealing with the harassment and pushback they receive from the outside world. The two men in "Hungry", played by Mark Proksch and Kent Osborne, unite not out of attraction or lust, but out of a particularly strange shared interest. As the police arrive to apprehend them on suspicion of assault, the men defend their actions by attempting to normalize themselves: They speak in even tones, explain that they're not, in fact, gay (one of them is married to a woman, who sent the police in the first place) and even demonstrate a breadth of knowledge that suggests that the decision was well-researched in order to fend off any potential illegalities. It's also one of the most uncomfortable episodes of the whole series, as the true nature of their act isn't revealed until halfway through.

"Arnold" is slightly more comical, but with a doubly sad effect. Henry's committed performance presents a confused, agoraphobic man piecing together the events of the night before. It's a musical episode, which works much better than it should because of Henry's measured earnestness; as he starts to uncover more about the previous night, the narrative itself turns into a traditional love story gone awry. (A committed reader of books like Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Arnold seemingly finds his geeky match the night before, only to be rejected after they perform an enthusiastic round of karaoke). Rejected, nerdy men frequent all forms of art, often in predictably misogynistic ways, but the episode avoids that pitfall by giving Arnold's story a strange form and a surprisingly heartbreaking ending. That Arnold never actually leaves the room showcases an impressive ingenuity on the part of the writer and director, Mark Duplass and Julian Wass.

In such standout episodes, much of the credit belongs to the steady, supernatural force of the room itself, which displays both a welcoming energy and a chilling undercurrent of amorality. It's as if the characters' fates are sealed the moment they enter the room (think The Twilight Zone), which is an action more often than not predicated on some form of escape from the outside world. Those of us who've spent an alienating night alone in hotels much like this one will naturally understand the sense -- eerie but intriguing -- of being unmoored from the minutiae of day to day life. Room 104 is at its best when its subjects revel in such an escape, unaware or perhaps even drawn in by whatever sinister elements lurk beneath the surface.

On the other side of the spectrum are episodes that take the room's supernatural potential too far, exchanging true psychological nuance for gimmicky premises and set pieces. There are, unfortunately, many examples of this bargain, some made all the more disappointing by the fact that there's clearly a better episode hidden within. In the new season, the episodes "Mr. Mulvahill" and "Swipe Right" best illustrate this misstep.

"Mr. Mulvahill", Room 104 (HBO, S2, E2)

"Mr. Mulvahill" centers on a traumatized man (Rainn Wilson) who invites an old teacher to the hotel to try and get him to admit to something that happened back in grade school. The implication — sexual abuse — couldn't be more obvious, and yet the payoff amounts to little more than a red herring. The episode treats the incident (which, spoiler alert, isn't sexual abuse) seriously, but in the age of #MeToo the big twist is unsatisfying and even slightly offensive.

"Swipe Right" is simply perplexing. This is the episode featuring a rapping, Russian Michael Shannon, which would be rightly amusing if the episode weren't just a vehicle for his character's antics. Throw in Judy Greer, a routinely underserved actor, as the poor woman who shows up for a date with this man, and you've got possibly one of the most disappointing episodes of the series so far.

Which brings us back to the issue of form. Anthology TV is notoriously inconsistent, as we've seen with shows like Black Mirror, Easy and High Maintenance. The biggest problem with Room 104, though, is that its most consistent elements are often negatives ones. Most of the episodes are either too short to leave a lasting mark or -- seemingly out of an attempt at economical storytelling -- not complex enough to deserve longer treatment in the first place. It's even more noticeable given that the series runs on HBO, where nuanced hour-long programming reigns. The Duplass brothers' influence is obvious in the level of talent on display, but in execution it feels more like a promising student film; Room 104 is noteworthy, but only inasmuch as it trusts its own potential for subtle emotional reckoning.






A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.