There’s an anthology series trap that some series fall into when they focus on their own mythology, at the expense of the rich characters right in view. But in its early going, “Room 104” has a strong grasp on its own ambitions. It’s not trying to set up a sequel or connect its episodes into an overarching master plan. Though they may pass through the same room, these individuals live in their own clearly defined, personal worlds that have a very distinct set of concerns and anxieties.
So even though previous episodes have occupied some of the weirder psychological corners of holing up in a chain motel, that mood was always going to be flexible. With its fourth episode, “I Knew You Weren’t Dead,” “Room 104” still flirts with the metaphysical, but to a decidedly different end. A sweet, simple tale of friendship, loss, guilt, and regret, it’s an episode that still manages to keep the show’s best elements while pivoting to a different outlook.
Daniel, in the throes of a potential divorce, reaches a moment of hopelessness inside Room 104. The only person to rouse him from his stupor is Patrick, a figure from his past. Shortly after he shows up unexpectedly, Daniel’s initial excitement is tempered by his realization that this Patrick is a manifestation of his own memories. Patrick hasn’t looked like this for a while.
“I Knew You Weren’t Dead” is rooted strongly in ideas of time gone by, because this is the first “Room 104” episode to be concerned with the main character’s future. The immediacy of the first three episodes mostly revolves around figuring out what exactly is going on. The concept of a ghost popping up to serve as a therapeutic guide to navigate the present isn’t exactly a blinding dose of reality, but it’s readily clear from the outset that Patrick is not an ordinary guest. “Room 104” can still be compelling as a puzzle episode, but this episode shows it doesn’t have to withhold most of the pieces until the final minutes.
As an acting and storytelling showcase, it makes sense to keep the cast list for these episodes fairly short. There’s been plenty of ambiguity in the preceding weeks — Is Ralphie really real? Did Orlando Jones’ spiritual mentor figure really exist? — but this is the first clear indication that an episode only features one living person. As a result, it fulfills the promise of the show’s setting. What are motel rooms if not simple places for existential grappling? It’s the double-edged sword of solitary experiences: You’re alone with your thoughts, but those thoughts can quickly take the shape of anything your mind wants them to be.
But this isn’t just the story of a lovesick, middle-aged man bummed out about the dissolution of his marriage. Once again, “Room 104” plays with memory, and “I Knew You Weren’t Dead” drops the mystery of Patrick’s identity in favor of a spiritual trip through recollections, shaped by someone struggling to come to terms with how a tragedy actually unfolded. This show operates on the same ground rules. It can shape these stories into anything, but the closer it gets to something real, the more value it has.
Finding that authenticity in a ghost story is no easy feat, but the Duplass brothers are up to the task. Patrick only works as a character if the person he’s dispensing wisdom to reflects that decades-long emotional fraughtness. In front of the camera, Jay Duplass finds a potent blend of sadness and desperation, making this reconnection with Patrick more than just a magical dead friend adventure. Mark Duplass’ script doesn’t concern itself with too many details about Patrick’s passing, zeroing instead on the universal kind of grief that comes with a fateful missed opportunity.
“Room 104” has hewed closer to a sense of being a series of short films, but “I Knew You Weren’t Dead” feels closer to a piece of short fiction from a literary anthology. When Patrick returns as an older man, we don’t see him right away. Instead we filter that reappearance through Daniel’s understanding. Staying firmly in Daniel’s viewpoint gives the episode a stronger first-person feel that avoids a treacly angel story in favor of a more simple, unvarnished bit of catharsis.
After arriving at various levels of despair and disorientation and previous episodes to season, “I Knew You Weren’t Dead” ends on a slightly more hopeful note. “Room 104” can be effective in pulling the rug out from under viewers, but it was nice to see an episode that relies on a farewell sensation that isn’t disorientation. That final moment isn’t necessarily a triumphant one for Daniel, but it’s the show’s first hint that for some occupants, life outside of this hotel room might be better than it was before the occupant arrived. In a TV world recently overrun with bleakness, that’s a gift in itself.
“Room 104” airs Fridays on HBO, and is streaming now on HBO Go and HBO Now.