[Editor’s Note: The below interview and analysis includes spoilers for “Room 104,” Episode 1, “Ralphie.”]
“Room 104” welcomed guests with an absolutely wild first episode, setting a high bar for the season to come (but one they do meet).
In “Ralphie,” a single father (Ross Partridge) leaves his adolescent son, Ralph (Ethan Kent), with a babysitter, Meg (Melonie Diaz), while he goes out on a date. The job seems simple enough: Feed the kid, get him in bed at a reasonable hour, and expect the dad to return relatively early. Granted, Meg wasn’t explicitly instructed not to strangle Ralph to death, but she also wasn’t warned of an evil, identical twin brother named Ralphie who terrorizes them both.
…if that’s what happened. Thanks to a few well-placed clues as to Meg’s mental state, including a lack of references, as well as the creepy vibes of the room itself, it’s plausible she might have imagined the whole thing. Ralph could have been a cute kid with a few inappropriate questions about sex, and she’s the maniacal babysitter who dreamt up a reason to attack him.
Or, if you take the events at face value, there’s something magical about Ralph. He’s been plaguing his parents, and Meg was just his latest victim: What really happened to his mom, and why was his dad so sad when Meg arrived? Were Ralphie and Ralph both real, and did they both overwhelm their parents until the father snapped? Maybe he left them with a babysitter in the hopes she’d do what he, as their parent, could not.
These are the questions invited from the audience, and either answer they arrive upon carries its own exciting backstory. And either way, it’s a hell of a debut for “Room 104.”
Written by co-creator Mark Duplass, “Ralphie” was directed by Sarah Adina Smith, whose previous work includes the indie films “The Midnight Swim” and “Buster’s Mal Heart.” Though she’s (wisely) not telling what she believes the ending to be, Smith did have an idea in mind while shooting.
“I think it’s pretty important as a filmmaker to make a decision in terms of what you think the ‘correct’ narrative will be,” Smith said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I tend to work backwards when storytelling, so unless I know what’s going on in the end, it’s hard for me to make clear choices leading up to that end. It’s important for me to have a grounded idea of what I think is going on.”
With that in mind, Smith saw great value in the ambiguous ending. (Coincidentally, she’s currently watching “The Leftovers,” a series well-versed in providing closure without telling its audience what to think.)
“But to the same token, just because I have my idea of what’s going on, it doesn’t mean that’s actually right or correct. […] I think it’s important, to whatever extent you can, to try and protect that so other people have their opportunity to have their interpretation,” she said.
Smith didn’t choose the episode so much as it was pitched to her, but she said her brother terrorized her when they were kids by chasing her around in a cape — much like Ralphie does to Meg. It happened so often that Smith’s sister would hold wrestling matches for her two warring siblings.
Smith was a big fan of the episode as written, calling it “one of the rare chances I’ve gotten to read a perfect script,” and the key to portraying it visually was in the unseen.
“The bathroom was everything in that episode,” Smith said. “When I’m directing, I ask, ‘What’s the gravity?’ What’s the thing that everything else is in response to in this story? And to me, it was the bathroom door. What is going on inside that bathroom?”
Additionally, Smith was excited that this was the first episode anyone would see of “Room 104.” The anthology series offers new stories every week — Smith also directed Episode 3, “The Knockadoo,” starring Orlando Jones — and she felt this was the perfect way to introduce the many different directions each new episode could take.
“I liked allowing for the possibility that maybe there’s more to this room than we realize,” she said. “I think that’s a fun way to open this series where the room is a character. We’re being given a window into all these different stories and all these different lives, and I like the idea that the room itself can affect these stories.”
“Room 104” airs new episodes at 11:30 p.m. ET on HBO.