Brothers Jay and Mark Duplass launched their anti-serial anthology HBO series ROOM 104 last night. The Duplass brothers dabbled in intimate, “mumblecore” character feature stories for years before breaking out with The Puffy Chair — Mark is also a highly sought-after comedy actor, probably best known for FX’s long-tenured fantasy football series The League. After the relative failure of their serialized dramedy showcase Togetherness, the Duplass brothers have opted to delve into a spookier, Night Gallery/Twilight Zone-esque terrain with their latest venture for the premium cabler. The show’s conceit? It centers around a single motel room, and any and all of the occupants who pass through. Each episode is nominally a standalone piece, and ostensibly can go anywhere. It’s a clever storytelling device — restrictive in its locale, sure, but incredibly broad in its narrative scope. Room 104‘s debut episode was “Ralphie,” the story of a babysitter, Meg (Melonie Diaz), and her mysterious charge for the night, Ralph (Ethan Kent).
Ralph’s dad Bradley (Ross Partridge), clearly nervous and in a rush, doesn’t bother to vet his babysitter in person when she arrives to his motel room, the titular Room 104 (though Meg does ask him as he rushes out if he wants to see her references). He informs Meg that Ralph has an “active imagination,” promises to be home by 10, and darts out.
Meg approaches the door, open ajar. She tries to let herself into the bathroom. Ralph slams the door in her face, and offers her a “You wouldn’t understand” by way of an explanation. She eventually coerces him out, after Ralph convinces her to stand back from the door. Ralph squeezes out and quickly shuts the door in his wake. Ralph comes across as being exceedingly polite and sweet, as he tells Meg that his “very different,” seemingly imaginary friend Ralphie “has a bit of a temper.” Ralph has locked Ralphie into the bathroom.
After some pizza and TV, Meg tries to get Ralph ready for bed. Ralph explains that his dad won’t actually be back soon. That his dad, on a date, will be back much later than his projected 10 p.m. ETA. Meg wants Ralph to get a bath before bed. Because this of course would involves waking up Ralphie, Ralph demurs. Meg is persistent, waking Ralphie from his supposed slumber.
Now, Ralph claims, Ralphie wants to talk to Meg.
Now, too, dear reader, is when you should stop reading if you’d rather let the simple twists of the episode unfold in real time.
Has everybody left the room who wants to?
A screaming Ralphie (who looks just like Ralph, so we of course assume that they are one and the same), shirtless in a cape and underwear, dashes at Meg and chases her around the room, screaming and offering ominous threats, knocking over pizza boxes. Meg cowers beneath a table. Ralphie dashes back inside the bathroom. Ralph, in his evening wear of yellow-and-green striped PJ’s, re-emerges, apologizing to Meg on Ralphie’s behalf. He cleans the pizza box. Meg, totally shaken, has to be calmed down. She wants him to stop his Ralph/Ralphie “game.” Creepily, he confides that it’s not a game, and of course doesn’t go any further than that. Meg puts him to bed.
At 10:17, Ralph wants to talk to Meg about sex. Though he’s tucked into bed, he’s restless. Meg, anxiously consulting her phone and hoping for any news from Bradley, offers up a diplomatic response. She tacitly attempts to steer the conversation into a different direction — any different direction will do. Ralph’s mom is “gone,” Ralph offers by way of yet another ambiguous explanation. Ralph explains that Bradley has invented a fictional tale of Ralph’s mother’s disappearance, which differs significantly from the real tale. The “fake” story: One day after school, Ralph’s dad told Ralph that his mom hung herself to get away from it all.
The true story, Ralph explains, is that Ralphie killed his mom. Meg tries to calm Ralph down — which invariably rouses Ralphie again, according to Ralph. He sprints into the bathroom, we hear the sound of the boy’s screams and shattering glass. Meg calls Bradley, his phone goes directly to voicemail. She calls 9-1-1, warning that Ralph may be a danger to himself or to her. They agree to dispatch someone.
Suddenly, Ralph and Ralphie burst out of the bathroom. “I’m sorry, Meg, Ralphie’s too strong for me,” Ralph explains. The boys fight. Ralphie gains the upper hand, and suffocates Ralph with a pillow. Ralphie then tackles Meg and begins to choke her.
Meg tries to retaliate, choking the kid in kind.
Bradley comes home. Meg has been choking Ralph. She looks to the bed. There is no Ralphie.
She chuckles and the door slams. Fade to black.
So… what happened, exactly? For an anthology series that’s supposed to comprise wholly self-contained episodes, “Ralphie” is frustratingly open-ended. What was Ralphie? The extension of Ralph’s id? A manifestation of Ralph’s deepest and darkest desires? By the end, Meg, with blood dripping from her nose, appears to be completely insane. Was Meg just insane the whole time? We never get an “a-ha” moment, where the events of the episode are re-framed within the true reality. So we’ll never know if Meg was being put on by Ralph, if she was a raving child-murderer by nature, or if the motel possessed them both. Weirdly enough, this episode leaves me desperate for more, because it feels so emotionally unresolved.
That was quite the build-up. I loved the whole set-up of the proceedings until the show’s confused final seconds. After consuming a few more episodes, I hope to discover a consistent rhythm for the show. And then I’ll be able to fairly appraise “Ralphie” as a stand-alone moment (or as part of a more vast and mildly connected enterprise). The Twilight Zone never left me feeling this high and dry.
Season 1, Episode 1 (S01E01)
Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30PM on HBO
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor