A put-upon housekeeper, Vivian (Dendrie Taylor), reconnects with her younger self (Sarah Hay), quite intimately, while cleaning ROOM 104 in this week’s edition of the Duplass Brothers’ HBO anthology show. This week’s episode, written and directed by Dayna Hanson, is almost entirely communicated through visuals and music. There is virtually no dialogue.
Vivian enters room 104 and commences to cleaning it. She notices evidence of her past — cast-off cigarettes, a slick of cake with pink icing, a birthday card packed with money, a half-consumed bottle of wine beneath a bed, an article about her own promotion at a law firm, deep red lipstick, an old ’80s Sony tape player.
As she takes a cigarette for herself and puts on the Sony tape player’s headset, her younger self, in a red nightie, emerges from one of the hotel beds, following her along as she lounges. The young Vivian starts dancing along to the music in the older Vivian’s head. The older Vivian flashes back to a moment of receiving a rejection phone call in this hotel room, years before.
Finally, the middle-aged Vivian and the younger Vivian acknowledge each other, and begin to dance together, in semi-synchronized fashion, as cinematographer Doug Emmett’s light palette transitions from simple daylight to sleek green, then back to daylight and finally a flashing moody blue.
At the emotional center of “Voyeur” is a letter, glimpsed in fleeting close-ups throughout the piece. The original reads thusly:
“Happy Day Beautiful
Even when this is all long forgotten, you’ll always have a place in my heart.”
At first, the middle-aged housekeeper grabs the letter before her younger incarnation can see it, crudely crossing out the message in light blue marker. Her new message:
“I’ll give it all up to be with you.”
The dance begins to slow down, as the middle-aged housekeeper begins to mirror the activities of the younger housekeeper, suddenly swapping garb. Here, at last, the older Vivian shows her younger self the letter. The dancing now gets somewhat flustered and the lights flash red and green. The women pull tissue paper and toilet paper out in a flurry. An envelope full of cash is examined. Images flash of a phone ringing, of the younger Vivian crying in bed, of a man’s hand leaving the note on the nightstand by the bed, of the younger Vivian cradling her stomach. The older Vivian fades away.
The younger Vivian lies on the bed and stares at the ceiling. And we transition out of the episode and into the credits.
“Voyeur” is deliberately ambiguous, more of a ballet or performative tone piece than a strict narrative story. So appraising it strictly as drama feels unfair. That’s not what this is. Comparing it to last week’s episode, “The Internet,” would be an utterly reductive exercise, essentially comparing apples to oranges. My theory — and keep in mind, this was a bit tough to glean, merely an idea cobbled together by the elements I’ve mentioned to you — is that the younger Vivian had a tryst with a professional associate, and possibly became pregnant, only to see the associate her in the morning with a note and cash. I’m not pulling this out of thin air, there’s empirical evidence to suggest that this transpires in the episode, but I’m open to alternate interpretations.
That being said, I’m not strictly a performance artist snob. There aren’t oodles of examples of this kind of material that I could point to and weigh “Voyeur” against. All I can tell you is that I liked it.
Hanson, who has been a dance choreographer for three decades (according to this very helpful Seattle Times piece), designed the episode to be a bit of a bridge — a fusion of a traditional expressive dance piece and a narrative that moves a story forward without the aid of dialogue. Hay and Taylor are terrific and playful in their interactions, and the moves feel dramatically motivated, even if those motivations are (deliberately) murky.
In the midst of production, Hanson rented a hotel room to practice her own bed dance work and brainstorm different moves. That level of commitment shows, in an intricately considered installment of Room 104, a show that has proven to be significantly more permeable and strange than this writer may have been expecting in his initial research. This isn’t The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits across every installment, although it certainly begs for comparisons to those midcentury anthology classics. The show has proven itself capable of David Lynch-esque flights of fancy, episode-long intermissions into abstraction. While those experiments aren’t always abject successes, they have thus far all proven to be thoroughly captivating. “Voyeurs,” though not perhaps crystal-clear on a plot level, will keep you immersed as a viewer throughout it 26 minutes.
Season 1, Episode 6 (S01E06)
Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30PM on HBO
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor