Patrick Brice is back for his second turn at directing this season with Room 104 S3E3 “Itchy”, but this time around he’s paired off with his old running buddy Mark Duplass, who wrote this episode. Given that they were responsible for the psychological thriller/horror that was Creep and Creep 2, you’d expect something in that vein and while we kind of get that, it’s also got a very different feel.
The similarities start with it being more or less a found footage format just like Creep, but in “Itchy” it’s in the form of a series of video messages being sent from Craig (Arturo Castro) to his doctor, Dr. Blake (François Chau). The episode is entirely filmed on an iPhone, an increasingly popular route for budget-conscious filmmakers, and a method we’ve seen used before in Room 104 in Josephine Decker’s episode from Season 2, “The Man and the Baby and the Man”. Whilst the use of an iPhone can be limiting when making a regular movie—although less and less so with the latest phones and apps—its use in both of these Room 104 episodes entirely fits the scenario, given that they take the form of videos shot by the characters using a phone.
As I’ve talked about before, Room 104 is largely about the connections between the people (and animals!) temporarily inhabiting the room. In my opinion, many of the best episodes are those that focus in on two people, and the interaction between them. The reason they’re there, the conflict, or drama, is important to support the believability but it’s really the characters and their interactions that make an episode completely absorbing, moving, or horrifying. Room 104 lives or dies on its characters, which is why it is one of the best showcases currently on television for actors wanting to show off their acting chops, and probably why it’s able to draw so many great actors, despite its small budget.
“That’s part of the spirit of the show, is clearly people are not coming to do this for the money because there really is none,” Duplass said in an interview. “We just really want people who are excited to be there.”
“Itchy” then, is a bold episode told in a POV-style straight-to-camera series of monologues from Craig. The focus on one character for most of an episode could render it hard to keep a viewers attention, but—as was achieved with musical numbers in “Arnold” from Season 2—the POV-style makes the connection stronger between Craig and the viewer. Even though he’s recording messages to Dr. Blake, we feel as if he’s speaking directly to us, and it builds a sense of closeness rapidly that is hard to duplicate with regular filming techniques.
Craig, it becomes apparent, has been suffering from a skin complaint for eight years and nothing has helped despite years of specialists and treatments. Having returned to Dr. Blake, his family doctor since the age of five, they’ve decided—or Dr. Blake has suggested—that a 48-hour stay in a hotel room, wearing no clothes (apart from towels), no bad food, and no chemicals will be a good test to see if anything in his normal environment could be causing a reaction.
Initially, Craig seems overly positive, happy and energetic as he talks to Dr. Blake, giving him a video tour of the hotel room. It seems unusual for someone who’s been dealing with an ailment that affects their daily life, has no known cause and has resisted all attempts to treat. We witness slowly though throughout the episode that this is just how Craig has learned to deal with living with this condition. Forcing himself to be positive and to dismiss any sign of depression, emotion, or negativity is his way of keeping himself together. He seems to fear what would happen if he let those thoughts in, even for a moment; that his mental state is a house of cards and one stray thought could be the breeze that brings the whole thing down.
Having suffered from a long-term condition that affects everyday life—albeit not for eight years—I can empathise with this way of thinking. Dealing with something day after day that hampers your enjoyment of life in a significant way starts to have a huge effect on your mental health; you feel like your only recourse is to not allow any degree of depression in. The emotional toll builds up to such an extent that you fear allowing yourself to feel negativity will tip you down a slide into a dark hole that you may never recover from.
We also get the impression that Craig feels a closer than normal connection to Dr. Blake, even beyond what you would feel for an old family doctor. Seeing himself in the mirror of the Room he waves excitedly and exclaims, “Hello Uncle Blake!” The familial sense is compounded when, showing him the state of the rashes on his body, he takes a moment to thank Dr. Blake. “You’ve always been there for me, even more than my parents sometimes,” he says, before becoming uncomfortable with the expression of emotion, trying to laugh it off, unwilling to dwell on any negative thoughts or memories.
As Craig takes a bleach bath (this first one only with a tablespoon of bleach) he mentions how living with an ailment for so long makes you a little desperate for a cure. He shares with Dr. Blake how when he was seeing his third psychiatrist he had a bad feeling deep inside that something was really wrong with him, and that lately it’s been coming back. That maybe something happened to him when he was young, a deep physical or emotional wound that he’s suppressed and is coming back in the form of his skin condition. This isn’t the first time Room 104 has hinted at childhood trauma being responsible for the current problems of an adult, attempting to wrong-foot the viewer into leaping straight to child abuse as a cause, then it turning out to be something else entirely, as with “Mr. Mulvahill”.
He switches to dismissing the notion, not confident in his own theory, his logical mind pushing it away while you can see the idea is triggering an emotional reaction. He’s not sure whether his feelings are genuine or simply part of grasping for a reason for his suffering. Later that night as he relates the dream he just had, about the cave and the unseen creatures around him, you can see real fear on Craig’s face—an almost childlike panic that goes beyond the quickly dissipating fear that is normal when waking from a nightmare. He is a little boy in the dream, and you start to feel more strongly that this may well be a repressed memory. He felt like the creatures needed him, that he was part of some plan, but it takes them so long to get close, years even, because he started to grow up. He feels something opening up inside him.
The description of the dream, and the subsequent conversation with his mother over FaceTime where she states he was four or five when he disappeared on a camping trip for a while, then mysteriously returned, is where I started to make the connections and became convinced that Dr. Blake was involved somehow, and was probably responsible for the childhood abduction. I wasn’t sure if Craig’s subsequent conviction that aliens were responsible was true, but once that thought tripped in my mind, that was it: Dr. Blake was a wrong ‘un. However, Room 104 delights in playing with our expectations, and it had already been signposted in the episode regarding getting desperate for solutions. Were they leading us down the “Dr. Blake is an alien” garden path simply to whip the rug from underneath us, as they did in. “Mr. Mulvahill”?
Craig, of course, is exhilarated again. Feeling like he’s finally found the answer: that a suppressed memory of abduction working its way to the surface in the form of a skin condition makes sense to him, and he’s been suffering for so long that he really needs to have it make sense. He even starts to delude himself that it has already started to clear up, even though we can see it hasn’t; if anything it’s worse. We’re reminded of the strong connection Craig feels with Dr. Blake when he is doing his happy dance and calls him his partner, even though Dr. Blake has clearly done very little to actually help Craig up to this point.
His subsequent dejection when the rash gets worse during the night is understandable. Feeling real hope of escape from an illness after years of suffering, only to have it disappear again is crushing. Despite the dejection, he is still trying to find ways to be positive, to hang his hope on something. In his delirium, he latches onto bleach as the solution and dives into a bath of the stuff. When this naturally does nothing apart from cause agony he collapses and sobs, at breaking point. He has no hope left, and every thread of positivity he’s been clinging onto all these years have snapped, leaving him with nothing.
Back at the hotel after his outing to eat all the junk food he’s been avoiding and his planned suicide, stalled by not having his phone with him, he receives Dr. Blake’s message, whose voice is instantly recognisable as that of Pierre Chang from Lost. If nothing else convinced you that Dr. Blake was dodgy, then this surely would have done. Dr.
Chang Blake has stumbled across a cure for Craig, which after eight years of searching sounds even more suspicious than a hatch containing a machine that requires you to punch in a series of numbers every 108 minutes to avert disaster. (For non-Lost fans, that is pretty damned suspicious). Dr. Blake tells Craig that he needs to not give up hope, that his life has had a greater impact than he will ever know, and that he is very special. It would be a moving moment if you weren’t already suspecting—like I was—that something is very amiss with the good Doctor, and that Craig is special for different reasons than he is assuming. Remember Craig’s feeling that the creatures in his repressed memory dream had “plans” for him, and he sees himself grow up while they move closer to him?
My guess at this point was that Craig had been somehow given alien DNA by Dr. Blake that was gestating in his body, and at the critical point he would transform into an alien. I was somewhat upset at the thought that my plot-guessing genius had ruined the end of the episode for me, but thankfully, whilst I was correct that Dr. Blake was definitely involved in things, I had not anticipated the explosive final act, which definitely took me by surprise.
Cleaning up that mess probably used up at least half of the episode budget. As Dr. Blake retrieves the cosmic calamari from the messy shell of Craig, and places them in his case, he says gently to them, “Say bye-bye Daddy”, and the familial connection between Dr. Blake and Craig makes so much more sense. Craig is acting as the surrogate for Dr. Blake, and the care, love, and concern he has for him is what any proud potential parent would feel towards the person carrying their children, and keeping them healthy. Craig feels this warmth from the Doctor as a sense of parental love from him that he doesn’t necessarily feel from his own parents. There may also possibly be some kind of connection the little squidlings feel towards their own kind, that is welling up through Craig, and not just in the form of nasty rashes.
Last week we witnessed the special love a man can feel for a gorilla, and this week we see what we think is the love between a sick man and his trusted family doctor, but turns out to be the love between an alien and the weird squid fetuses he’s implanted inside a boy. It’s squid love. If anything, I think we’re getting a taste that Season 3 of Room 104 is going in weird and unusual directions, and I am definitely up for that.