[The following article contains spoilers for “Room 104” Season 2, Episode 6, “Arnold.”]
Between all the flashing lights, choreographed dances, and live performances, the crux of “Arnold” — Brian Tyree Henry’s musical episode of “Room 104” — came down to a man staring at his phone.
“At the core of it, we always zeroed in on this moment when he looks at his phone and realizes what the word ‘falling’ meant,” writer and director Julian Wass told IndieWire. “It’s this fatalistic view of ‘falling’ — of course it wasn’t falling in love, it was falling off a building.”
“Falling” is the third word uttered by Arnold (Henry) as he stumbles, wet and confused, out of Room 104’s bathroom. He doesn’t know where he is, why he’s there, or how he ended up in a hotel, but Arnold starts singing “the yellow jacket… Kiki Alvarez… falling” — and he starts to remember more.
“That’s sort of the beginning of the memory, and each of the three songs are all represented by one of those words,’ Wass said. “Each one of those is a piece of a future song.”
Wass, who also wrote and composed the episode’s original music, said he and co-writer and series creator Mark Duplass came up with the setup while brainstorming ideas for a musical episode. Soon, they became fixated on a man who uses music to remember what happened to him and how he ended up in the eponymous, nondescript, and sometimes magical hotel room. Thus, “Arnold” was born: with Duplass and his longtime composer singing and dancing around an attic, imagining a story with one wild twist: Arnold didn’t fall for a girl and take her to Room 104 — he fell off a building trying to protect her.
“A big thing was understanding the tone — it’s really sad,” Wass said. “We like sad stuff, and we’re both obsessed with melancholy and nostalgia. We wanted it to have a particular feel.”
They also wanted a particular actor. “Arnold” was written for Henry, who’s best known for his Emmy-nominated work in “Atlanta,” but he’s Emmy-nominated for singing in NBC’s “This Is Us” and part of the original “Book of Mormon” cast. Despite all this, Henry doesn’t think of himself as a singer.
“I love to sing, singing is great, but I really don’t consider myself a singer,” he said. “The discipline for singing is something I have yet to commit to; I feel like acting is my lane and I don’t want to step on any singers’ toes. But if people want me to sing, I’m going to give them my all.”
Henry, while intimidated by the challenge, answered the call from “Room 104.”
“It was incredibly terrifying to do — to commit to being the only person in this room, singing to yourself or singing to a pillow or singing to a plunger,” Henry said. “You’re in this room, on this set that is this room, where walls can break away and become this, closets can open and do this, lights can come on and show this — your imagination can do whatever you want to do, and Julian’s imagination in this episode was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.”
The role demanded absolute dedication. Arnold is the sole character for most of the episode (he’s eventually joined by Ginger Gonzaga as Vicki), and he’s singing for most of it, as well. But he’s also reenacting events from the night prior, imagining walking through a crowded bar, meeting Vicki, and going with her on a wild booze- and drug-fueled adventure.
“I think there’s one scene where I’m not singing, but at the same time I’m smoking a bong, doing a keg stand, crowd surfing off the bed — this is crazy. There’s no way to prepare for that, it’s just something you have to do on site,” Henry said.
Wass agreed, giving his actor full credit for performing the final stunt — belly flopping from the bed to floor — while also noting he performed the song leading up to that sequence live, on set, with no dialogue added in later. He sang every note, live – and that’s not even the only irreplaceable talent he offered.
Tyler Golden / HBO
“He’s got a beautiful voice, [but] honestly, his face — his face and his expressiveness,” Wass said. “He has an entire universe in each facial movement. That was huge to have on ‘Arnold.’ A lot of it is him reacting to his memories or lack of memories, and it’s just him. To not only have his dialogue, but also his reactions was really helpful. [He has] a watchability factor. Brian definitely has that.”
“Mind you, I’m also wet the entire time,” Henry added. “God bless everyone who’s on this crew, who had to cover me in water and glycerine.”
Henry spent two days learning the music and three days shooting the episode. Many of the vocals you hear were recorded live, in part because Henry had to sing them to make sure the rest of his performance rang true.
“For me, singing is all about being in the moment,” Henry said. “You have to be present. You have to tell the story right then and there. […] You can have a click track, you can have the music playing, but in order to really capture the essence of what that person is going through, you kind of gotta be in it. That was so exciting and difficult about ‘Arnold’ — I didn’t want to manufacture anything about his journey. He’s finding his road map to who he is, and if I just listen to the track or lip-sync it, it won’t be the same.”
Arnold’s journey was what mattered most. Henry understood the melancholy tone of the piece, including its tragic end, and Wass, who’d never directed before this episode, realized he had to step behind the camera to make sure the music, imagination, and human drama all came together as planned. Together, they created an episode of television unlike any other via an experience unlike any other.
“Arnold, I just really cared about him,” Henry said. “The openness of how he saw the world and the longing he had for the world […] I just wanted to give him a bit of heart and, yeah, some soul in there, too. He’s singing through this whole thing, trying to find out how he got there and where he is, and at the end of the day, you realize he can’t go anywhere — he’s not even there.”
Both are hesitant to say anything more about the episode’s final scene: As Vicki hangs up the phone, Arnold sings to her — and she looks up. Does she see him? Is she really there, in the room? Is he?
“I wouldn’t even say whether she sees him or not,” Wass said. “I’m completely agnostic about that. She heard something, though.”
“I don’t [have an opinion]. And I don’t want to give it anything,” Henry said. “At the end of the day, it’s about what you take from it. It’s what’s said and what’s unsaid.”
Brian Tyree Henry is eligible for “Room 104” in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series category. “Room 104” Seasons 1 and 2 are available now on HBO, and Season 3 is expected in 2019.