‘Room 104’ Ends Its Intriguing Storytelling Experiment With A Genre-Bending Final Season [Review]

That’s all, folks: The Brothers Duplass, Mark and Jay, are shuttering the motel. For the last few years, the siblings’ lo-fi, idiosyncratic HBO anthology series “Room 104,” set within the four walls of a multivalent room at an anonymous roadhouse, has served as a stage for filmmakers like Sarah Adina Smith, Josephine Decker, Ross Partridge, Lila Neugbauer, and Macon Blair; each story, naturally, is unique from the others, embracing such a range of aesthetics, approaches, and genres that taken as a whole, the show could and maybe should be identified as a kooky lab experiment conducted for an audience. 

The results vary from entry to entry, as is the essence of “Room 104.” Season 4 doesn’t improve consistency in outcomes, but even a failed experiment is at least interesting courtesy of the limitations imposed on the Duplass’ collaborators. Occasionally those limitations are pushed; Julian Wass’ “The Last Man” opens on mesas and plains as the warrior Kyran (Kevin McKidd) belts an aria, crosses swords with his archnemesis, Durkon (Desean Terry), and nearly felled until spared through the intervention of his mentor, Granada (Suzanne Nichols), before the plot time warps over 100,000 years into the future and unceremoniously plops Kyran smack into the motel. (Think “Versussans zombies and with 100% more musical numbers.) Other times, the limitations are negotiated.

Partridge’s new contribution, “Avalanche,” a heartbreaker centered on a moving lead performance from David Bautista, only exits the space through memory, as Bautista’s character, retired pro wrestler Raw Dog Avalanche, tries to recall a violent incident that left another person crippled and scrambled Raw Dog’s brain. And on the opposite end of the spectrum there’s “The Murderer,” Mark Duplass’ sole directorial credit here (but just one of his many screenwriting credits), a toned-down, gentler take on his work in Patrick Brice’s “Creep” films: four 20-something dudes (Logan Miller, Pablo Castelblanco, Kenton Chen, and Michael Sturgis) and one 20-something girl (Hari Nef) gather for a private performance by reclusive musician Graham Husker (Duplass himself), who isn’t, per his own admission, a musician at all. He’s a murderer. His songs are just his confession.

Why not? The room, after all, is a confession booth in many ways. “The Murderer” lays out that motivating theme for “Room 104’s” ultimate outing, then carries it forward with “Avalanche,” “Bangs,” “The Night Babby Died,” “The Hikers,” “The Last Man,” and on it goes. In “Bangs,” Melissa Fumero plays a divorcée-to-be confronting her relationship inertia; in “The Hikers,” Shannon Purser and Kendra Carelli play friends laying out feelings of jealousy and resentment toward one another; in “Avalanche,” Raw Dog uses a handful of therapeutic dolls to reconcile yesterday’s trauma with today’s transgressions. Perhaps Room 104 simply brings out its guests’ desperate need to unburden themselves of their guilt, grief, or grudges, or perhaps that quality applies to all middle-of-nowhere motels. Either way, the room brings out the worst in people, or more accurately it brings out people’s worst, whatever that may be.

What’s remarkable is that every episode is distinguished by approach despite mining the same motif. “The Murderer” is stealth hilarious, Nef’s character being made aware of the truth by Graham himself, and the rest of the cast blissfully ignorant as they sit awestruck by Graham’s songcraft. They think he’s “authentic,” but their praise is self-regarding and cheap; they’re pretentious bozos chasing the high of bragging rights. Seeing them hold back tears as Graham sings about the night he hatcheted his mother into pieces is pitch black comedy as much as the conclusion of “Avalanche” is lonesome, sobering tragedy. The gap between the show’s full-on genre exercises (best embodied by “The Murderer” and “Foam Party,” Natalie Morales’ ode to ’80s-era consumer horror films a’la “The Stuff”) and its talky emo indie dramas is both a brick wall and a boon. Given no specific marching orders, participants can make “Room 104” whatever they want. But whatever they want doesn’t necessarily provide essential unifying cohesion. 

“Room 104” consequentially functions as an Etch A Sketch, or rather a chalkboard wall. The effect is wildly uneven but not altogether displeasing. Watching filmmakers imagine a room as something so much more than a room is, and always has been, the best reason to watch “Room 104” in the first place, and this season keeps up with that conceit even if the conceit still doesn’t justify itself as something more substantial than gimmickry. The gimmick, at least, is intriguing, but maybe asking each writer and director to tailor their work around a single idea would’ve given “Room 104” a purpose. (A single idea like, say, confession, which plays such a prominent role in so many episodes that episodes warped around a different idea just feel out of place.)

Still, 20 minutes and change isn’t an overwhelming time investment from one tale to the next, and “The Last Man” in particular is such a wonder of disciplinary cross-pollination and rules fudging that it practically validates the season by itself. But the Duplass Brothers’ point has been made, and if this is the note on which “Room 104” ends, then at least they can say they succeeded in what they set out to do. [B]

Season 4 of “Room 104” premieres on HBO on July 24.