[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
There are few things more cloaked in doom than a person in a found footage story turning a camera on themselves and feeling optimistic. It comes with the genre territory that there’s a reason we’re watching whatever this will become, and that reason is something other than “this person continued to have a good time.” Such is the case with the “Room 104” episode “Itchy,” Episode 3 of the HBO series’ Season 3, which originally aired in 2019.
Arturo Castro stars as Craig, a patient waiting out a week inside Room 104 to see if his persistent skin irritation manages to improve. The episode cuts together video messages he’s sending to his dermatologist, including updates on how his condition is progressing. One of the early hints that this is going to be more than the usual parade of watching things go from bad to worse is the way Castro wrings some positivity and appreciation from Craig’s unenviable situation. Even if the next half-hour didn’t include Craig detailing how his condition has been something of a lifelong mystery, you can feel both the exhaustion and the hope that this will finally be the thing that helps his unexplained rash go away.
So if “Itchy” is particularly unsettling for reasons that have nothing to do with Craig’s physical changes (or the fact that he’s sleeping on a motel mattress with the sheets and covers all taken off), it’s that Castro so effectively holds both those competing emotions at the same time. Craig is excited and grateful and terrified and gutted with each new turn of the page. Not only is Castro able to handle the extended single-take portions of series co-creator Mark Duplass’ script (dotted with the tiniest of key details that are very easy to glance over on a first viewing), director Patrick Brice finds enough of a way to switch up the hotel room lighting to reflect (or contradict) what each new day brings for Craig.
The four-season run of “Room 104” is filled with these kinds of performances that make you forget how pared down the scope of the show actually is. With just one performer, often on only one or two sets, you can project a lifetime of disappointments and close calls and fraught relationships. (“Itchy” was on our list of series highlights, but there are plenty more cases of the show using one person’s story as a gateway to another world.) Yet Castro’s scene partners are essentially video screens, making this an even harder feat to pull off. As Craig’s desperation gradually starts to set in, Castro somehow keeps a smile. It’s not a linear story of descent: Even up until the episode’s final shot, Craig keeps a glimmer of hope that the next solution will be the one that finally clicks. (That said, it’s worth noting that “Itchy” does contain a discussion of suicidal thoughts.)
Brice and Duplass are working in tandem here, a combination that produced its share of unnerving moments in 2014’s “Creep.” (From somehow drawing a double dose of terror and comedy from a guy in a costume animal head gyrating in front of a doorway to that nightmarish ending, that’s one that’ll linger for a while.) Special credit also goes to makeup department head Elle Favorule and the team for coming up with a way to show Craig’s worsening condition in a way that doesn’t tip the episode’s final hand. With each new time he flips on the camera to show the changes from the last few hours, the physical measures he takes don’t seem overly drastic.
In the scheme of the overall episode, it’s easy to overlook, but there’s one moment in “Itchy” that’s may be the saddest. Craig gets a piece of potentially monumental good news and has an impromptu bedside dance party. In true “Room 104” fashion, he’s isolated. All he can do to share his temporary joy is record a video and hope that a doctor will watch it sooner rather than later. He’s fighting this giant mystery, basically all by himself. That’s about as horrifying as it gets.
Pair It With: Baseball is great, but this year’s World Series matchup is… really testing that idea. For a reminder of how and why baseball can be fun and further proof that Castro thrives in pretty much any environment, here’s a sketch from “Alternatino with Arturo Castro” about a pitcher pep talk gone wrong. (And if anyone at Paramount+ is reading, let’s get that whole season on streaming, please and thank you.)