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‘Room 104’: A Tribute to the HBO Show’s Imagination via 10 of Its Best Episodes

Four seasons of creativity are now yours to explore — if you haven't yet dove headfirst into this world, now's a great time to start.

Room 104

“Room 104”

Jordin Althaus/HBO

Room 104” comes to an end this week after a four-year run unlike any other in TV history. Its anthology framework wasn’t new, its roster of writers and directors included plenty of experienced TV vets, and many of these episodes had foundations in genres that have been on screens for decades.

Over 48 episodes, what this show did have was Room 104 itself, a drab four-wall set — and a blank canvas for anyone lucky enough to get the chance to play inside. Whether the storytellers that came through used that vague premise as an experiment, a challenge, or a chance to tell a story that could only exist within those confines, each new chapter was worth watching to see which path it took.

In fact, even though we’ve explained why we picked the 10 episodes below as some of the show’s best, it’s almost worth going in without any knowledge but the episode title. So much of the joy of “Room 104” comes from discovery, seeing how each episode veers away from the one before it. Whether or not you’re satisfied with the results, few shows in recent memory were as effective in challenging your assumptions and rewarding your patience.

What you won’t find in any of these episodes are human-android hybrids, a documentary look at father-and-son reconciliation, killer foam, dimension-hopping individuals, a reality-threatening sitcom, and the end of life on this planet. Have no fear: Those topics are all explored in the other three dozen entries (and plenty of them easily could be part of this collection, too).

If you’re just now diving into “Room 104,” there’s a chance these may end up being your favorites, too. They will show you what’s possible with a dining table, a couple of beds, a sink, a bathroom, a TV stand, and an unfettered imagination.

Room 104 Season 1 Episode 1 Melonie Diaz

Season 1, Episode 1, “Ralphie”
written by Mark Duplass
directed by Sarah Adina Smith
cast: Melonie Diaz, Ross Partridge, Ethan Kent, Gavin Kent

As one of the lucky few who got to see “Room 104” premiere at a packed theater filled with raucous ATX TV Festival patrons, I may be pre-disposed to liking the series’ pilot a bit more than others. Still, looking back now, “Ralphie” has all the traits of a very good TV pilot, even to an episodic anthology where you get new stories every week. With the simple set-up of a babysitter (Diaz) watching a young boy (the two Kents), the episode is concise (23 minutes), self-contained (with one helluva kicker), and establishes an eerie, anything-can-happen locale where human stories will be told. Duplass’ script is fiendishly clever, and his ending certainly makes you want to keep watching — not to see if Ralphie will return, but to see what else this “Room” can do. — Ben Travers

Room 104 Episode 3 Orlando Jones

Season 1, Episode 3, “The Knockandoo”
written by Carson Mell
directed by Sarah Adina Smith
cast: Orlando Jones, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris

If the show’s opening episode framed this unassuming motel room as a potential portal to an eerie dimension, this is the chapter that took that idea and proved such energy could flow in both directions. Rather than deal with the consequences of stumbling onto something unexplained, this small-scale chronicle of a mystic ritual goes in search of it. So many of the best “Room 104” episodes rely on a balanced build, going from an overall blandness to something far more unknowable. With the help of some DV tape stylizing and some subliminal messaging, this also becomes a thorough, unexpected processing of trauma that resolves in its own particular way. It’s still a great place to start any “Room 104” journey; after this, you’ll know there’s no limit to where it can end. — Steve Greene

Room 104 HBO Phillip Baker Hall, Ellen Geer

Season 1, Episode 12, “My Love”
written by Mark Duplass
directed by Marta Cunningham
cast: Philip Baker Hall, Ellen Geer

Simple elegance paired with great acting goes a long way, and “My Love” brings the first season of “Room 104” full circle. After starting with the wild thrills in “Ralphie,” the Duplass brothers’ experimental series stretches its creative muscles in order to illustrate the disparate range of stories it can fit in these same four walls. There are ghosts, science-fiction, and an episode told entirely through interpretive dance. But “My Love” goes the other way with it. Grounded and confessional, the Season 1 finale tells an end-of-life love story, where Charlie (Philip Baker Hall) and his wife Lorraine (Ellen Geer) revisit their honeymoon hotel for the latest (and last) anniversary. Cunningham lets the heavy emotions sit with the audience, reminding everyone that universal empathy can be just as moving as trips to another galaxy. — BT 

Room 104 HBO Season 2 Michael Shannon

Michael Shannon in “Room 104”

Tyler Golden / HBO

Season 2, Episode 3, “Swipe Right”
written by Liza Johnson
directed by Liza Johnson
cast: Judy Greer, Michael Shannon

When you start your episode with a marching band leading a Russian-voiced Michael Shannon into a cheap motel bathroom, odds are high you’ve already made an iconic piece of television. Johnson’s creation continues to trot out mesmerizing details about Nathan (Shannon), from his “high-level English language swearing” to his Canadian vodka served from a glass skull and, of course, his magnificent rapping. (It’s also one of the few episodes that shoots outside of “Room 104,” showing us the entry door from the other side — wow!) But those outlandish moments are just part of the ruse, or, if you’re as forgiving as Darla (Greer), a defense mechanism triggered by a damaged soul. “Swipe Right” soon becomes a living allegory for the perils and problems of internet dating, where what should be a simple conversation to test a connection gets hijacked by increasingly elaborate deceptions. — BT

Room 104 Season 2 Ginger Gonzaga Brian Tyree Henry

Ginger Gonzaga and Brian Tyree Henry in “Room 104”

Tyler Golden / HBO

Season 2, Episode 6, “Arnold”
written by Mark Duplass and Julian Wass
directed by Julian Wass
cast: Brian Tyree Henry

“Room 104” dabbled in just about every genre you can imagine, and this musical episode emphasized the production team’s creativity as well as Brian Tyree Henry’s range of talents. Playing the eponymous Arnold, Henry’s delicate performance helps make this journey indelible, as Arnold wakes up in a hotel room and tries to piece together what happened the previous evening. Part mystery, part character study, and a full-on musical spectacular, composer, co-writer, and director Julian Wass serves up a lasting story of overcoming fear for the right reasons, even if they don’t guarantee a happy ending. “Arnold” stands as one of “Room 104’s” most ambitious swings, and so many elements come together to make it sing. — BT

Room 104 Season 2 Onur Tukel, Josephine Decker

Onur Tukel and Josephine Decker in “Room 104”

Tyler Golden / HBO

Season 2, Episode 10, “The Man and the Baby and the Man”
written by Josephine Decker and Onur Tukel
directed by Josephine Decker
cast: Josephine Decker and Onur Tukel

It’s a testament to the sturdiness of the “Room 104” foundation that few, if any, of these episode-by-episode variations feel like gimmicks. Using the physical limitations of the room was an invite for plenty of filmmakers to keep going, to build their time inside this space on further obstructions. In this case, it means filming one couple’s single-night journey on a handheld device. As the evening ebbs and flows, it becomes a microcosm of two people’s understanding of their commitment to each other and how much of their intimate lives they want to preserve for the next generation of their family (if that’s something they even both want at all). It’s a storytelling method that doesn’t work without a clear vision from Decker, with synchronicity and patience on her and Tukel’s parts, too. The idea that they filmed everything in sequence in only two days is a feat unto itself. — SG

Arturo Castro Room 104

Season 3, Episode 3, “Itchy”
written by Mark Duplass
directed by Patrick Brice
cast: Arturo Castro

There were a few times when “Room 104” went to the horror well, but this half-hour of one man coming to terms with his body’s inexplicable changes is even more terrifying in how it unfolds. The slow move through denial brings so much more complexity to Castro’s performance, especially as he’s delivering so many of his emotions straight to camera. With each forward jump in time, as Craig’s skin condition spreads — just incredible work from the makeup department here, by the way — the desperation takes hold, too. Forging ahead in the face of an inescapable crisis has become a commonplace part of life: Brice, Duplass, and Castro bottled up all of that energy of uncertainty to make something that still rings true even if you’ve never taken a bath quite like the one here. — SG

Room 104 Season 3 June Squibb

“Room 104”

Tyler Golden/HBO

Season 3, Episode 11, “Crossroads”
written by Sam Bain
directed by Patrick Brice
cast: June Squibb, Paul F. Tompkins

As much as what stayed hidden on this show could be terrifying, episodes like this one also showed what the audience couldn’t see was sometimes the best joke of all. When a young woman makes a pact to sell her soul to the devil, the scene that plays out decades later involves her older self (Squibb) being confronted with the eternal doom that now faces her. Tompkins is the ideal straight man for this philosophical dance of morality and obligation and the relative worth of pursuing earthly pleasures. The two-hander is maybe where “Room 104” thrived best. To have Lucifer’s emissary in a verbal showdown with someone who’s absorbed pretty much everything this world has to offer? That, my friend, is where magic happens. — SG

Room 104 Season 3 Forest

“Room 104”

Tyler Golden/HBO

Season 3, Episode 12, “The Specimen Collector”
written by Mel Eslyn
directed by Mel Eslyn
cast: Cobie Smulders, Aasif Mandvi

“Room 104” often embraced being hyper-focused on every moment, showing all the steps between where any of these episodes started and where they ended up. A lot of the time, there were nods to people and events happening in some other location. What Eslyn manages to do in “The Specimen Collector” is use Room 104 as a bridge where those two ideas can coexist. So often, when the inhabitants of this space are confounded by what they discover, they get defensive or frightened or aggressive. To see Smulders play someone in genuine awe of a living ecosystem literally flowering before her eyes is a true treat. As both of the main figures in this episode learn quickly, it casts a spell that’s incredibly hard to break. — SG

Room 104 HBO Melissa Fumero

Season 4, Episode 4, “Bangs” 
written by Jenée LaMarque and Lauren Parks
directed by Jenée LaMarque
cast: Melissa Fumero, Vivian Bang

Along with “Star Time” and “Fur,” “Bangs” forms a thematic set of Season 4 episodes that focus on characters’ self-fulfillment by taking control of their bodies. Here, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” Melissa Fumero uses a magic pair of scissors to alter her appearance, not knowing that in doing so she invites ghosts from the past who want to question her prior decisions. Each cut forces her to defend herself, or acknowledge a better path forward, and soon she accelerates through missed opportunities, misunderstandings, and misconceptions until she arrives at a healthier conception of herself. Episodes like “Bangs” are zippy, fun, and inventive, while still pushing their characters (and thus the audience watching) to reevaluate their own perceptions of the world (and the people in it). Like most experimental TV, “Room 104” was always a means to see the world a little differently, and in doing so, it made the world a better place. — BT

All four seasons of “Room 104” are available to stream on HBO Max.

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