After a small private plane crashes into a jet liner, Joan Deakins (Amy Landecker) stows away in ROOM 104, under a false name (“Ms. Smith,” an evergreen fake name), circa 1969. She struggles to come to terms with lingering guilt stemming from her status as the impact’s only survivor, compulsively, repeatedly rinsing her face and body. Discovering she’s been counted among the dead on a news broadcast depicting the incident, she contemplates a fresh start with her extramarital lover.
After a day of ruminating holed up in Room 104, Joan is greeted the following morning by an insistent series of knocks at the door. The knocker is a mysterious but seemingly benevolent stranger (Mae Whitman, a.k.a. Ann Veal from Arrested Development), who has sniffed out our protagonist’s pencil-thin disguise, and potentially tailed her from the scene of the accident. Joan calculates that the stranger, who comes bearing sandwiches, may be an intrepid reporter with her own hunger for a scoop.
The stranger does not necessarily deny Joan’s hypothesis, but she doesn’t vocalize any confirmation, either. Flatly, she asks Joan if she’s spiritual at all, and compares her remarkable — nay, miraculous — survival to that of a mighty phoenix rising, reborn, from the ashes of death.
The reporter (if she is in fact a reporter at all) may have eavesdropped in on Joan’s conversation with Dan (Spencer Garett), the man she’s been having an affair with for several years, through the motel door before making her presence known. Dan, not Joan’s husband Stephen, was her first call. Her family doesn’t know she survived the crash. She insists Joan make a choice — move on with her life and her family (her grown children and Stephen, though she was something of a disappointment as a wife and mother) or begin anew.
Joan strangles the stranger with a telephone wire until she passes out. Joan, assuming the stranger is dead, hovers over the bathroom toilet to dry-heave. A shaft of light moves through the motel floor and touches the stranger’s feet. She awakens, rises, and stands in the middle of the hotel room in time for Joan’s reentry from the bathroom.
The shaft of light pushes the hotel door open. Joan asks the stranger about Joan’s strategy going forward. The stranger rescinds her prior offers of help, then asks Joan pointedly what she would like to do — keep her current, somewhat unhappy life, with her family, or embrace a new, now-unrestricted happiness with her lover and shake off the mortal coil that is Joan Deakins. Joan confesses that she doesn’t know. The stranger beams, the light at her back, then disappears. Then the editing of the piece turns on us, as we are dealt flashes of the accident, coverage of the motel room both furnished and unfurnished, snippets of the news report, and finally a shot of the back of Joan’s head, sporting a nasty, bloody gash.
Then it all just ends. Is Joan dead or dying? Was this stranger secretly an angel visiting her in her time of reckoning? Perhaps Joan is actually in the midst of a Jacob’s Ladder scenario (spoiler alert) — she is in fact dying, and amidst her final waking breaths her subconscious has constructed this motel room decision-making scenario, the angel, all of it, to create some illusion of agency during a moment where she has none, as a coping mechanism. I don’t know. Maybe one of the choices Joan makes could save her life, maybe in the world of the story the Mae Whitman figure is truly an angel passing judgement, and Joan’s indecision seals her fate. Or maybe it seals her survival. Or maybe she survived and is day dreaming. Or maybe a reporter is playing tricks on her. Maybe she’s imagining that head wound. Maybe it’s real.
“Phoenix,” directed by Ross Partridge is one of those Room 104 episodes I’ve come to dread: full of promise and intrigue, it devolves into deliberate murky ambiguity, with intense performance significant of nothing definitive in the narrative. It’s tough to care about characters when you never really know what the stakes are. Yes, we know what Joan’s choice is established to be, but then she doesn’t make that choice, and then the character who had been compelling her to decide disappears without making any definitive statements, and then we see a hint that maybe Joan didn’t make it out of the wreckage of that crash after all, or that if she did she’s not long for this world. But we never get much of an answer, and find ourselves instead saddled with questions.
Season 1, Episode 8 (S01E08)
Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30PM on HBO
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor