This week in S3E4: “Rogue” we get a new-to-Room 104 director in the form of Jenée LaMarque (The Pretty One). The episode was co-written by Jenée and her husband Julian Wass. Julian is a regular guest in Room 104, albeit in the world of sound, having scored most of Season 1 and co-written and directed the inventive musical Season 2 episode, “Arnold”.
After the iPhone-filmed POV episode “Itchy” last week, we’re in more conventional territory here production-wise, but the story takes a leap into the future—a first for Room 104 I believe, which usually keeps its guests tales rooted in the present or the not-too-distant past.
Okay…elephant in the room. This was probably my least favourite episode of this season so far. That’s not the same thing as saying it was bad, but some things just didn’t quite gel for me and I wasn’t drawn in quite as much to either the stories or the characters as I have been. Any anthology series—especially one as adventurous and experimental as this one—tends to have episodes that some people like and some people don’t. One of the things I love about Room 104 is its boldness, and lack of fear in just trying different directions and playing with ideas. It has a lot more in common with The Twilight Zone in that respect over any of the current crop of anthology shows. Ask a motel room full of people which episodes they like and which they don’t like and you’ll very likely get widely disparate answers.
So, “Rogue” is set at some point in the future; the not-too-distant future because the technology we can observe is basically the same, but definitely in the future. A future where electricity is basically free thanks to the “weird” tech billionaire Malek Riley (I had no subtitles so I’m guessing at the spelling). As Zohara (Iyana Halley) enters the room seeking refuge we can see that it has definitely seen better days. Unkempt, dirty, clutter everywhere; the room has obviously been a refuge for a group of people recently. The impromptu blanket bed in the closet and the cat carrier hint that it was possibly a family.
Clutching a bloody hammer, Zohara hides out in the closet after we hear shots and an explosion of some sort outside, and a suited figure enters the room. Any horror aficionado knows that is literally the worst place to hide. Especially one of those louvered door closets that psychopathic killers always make a beeline for. She’s not a killer, but the besuited Maria (Catalina Sandino Moreno) spots her anyway and cajoles her out, calming the obviously frightened girl. As Zohara starts to relax, and they talk, it becomes apparent that she has been in a bunker with her dad for weeks since the incident happened which caused violent earthquakes. She doesn’t know anything about what’s happened or the severity of it. Given what we learn later on, and the behaviour of her dad, we can’t be sure that this is simply normal over-protectiveness.
Maria tries to explain what happened to Zohara with a canned goods model of the solar system. A rogue planet came close to Earth and knocked it out of its orbit, and it has just left the solar system, which is why it’s so dark and cold even though it is midsummer. I must admit, the science behind this plot distracted me for a while as I was convinced that at the edge of the solar system the temperature would be pretty quickly at a point that everyone without heating would freeze to death. I’ve since read some things that state that the heat of the Earth would make this happen more slowly, so people could survive for a few weeks to a few months if they were careful. Nonetheless, I was distracted, so this may not have helped how involved or not I was in this story.
Maria doesn’t really explain that everyone is going to gradually freeze to death but rather focuses on the lack of a sun meaning an end to photosynthesis, thus the eventual end of all life on Earth. Zohara—who Maria had advised to go home—gets visibly angry, no doubt scared and distraught by this new-to-her news of the apocalypse, wondering what the point of going home is if everyone is going to die. “To be with your family” states Maria calmly. Thus, we get to what I think is the core of this episode. It’s not overtly stated or pushed on you too hard, but there are threads throughout this episode of the bonds of family; how family can hurt you, imprison you, or just die on you, and sometimes how you find real family outside of the normal bounds of blood ties.
Maria, pregnant, came into Room 104 to ransack it for parts to make an incubator using the filter from the AC unit, some wiring, and an electric blanket thermostat. She tells the incredulous Zohara that she’s always known that the catastrophe would happen, and that she foresaw it. Zohara doesn’t believe her, so Maria tells her that her mother used to squeeze her hand three times. Zohara stops, jolted by this.
“Your mother. 1…2…3. I…love…you. And now she’s gone.”
This is by far one of the most powerful moments of the episode, expertly cramming a lot of emotion and story into one short scene. The small, ritualistic exchanges between a mother and a daughter, those coded messages we use to communicate love for each other, a shared secret language that somehow grows to mean so much more than simply the words could convey. It also adds a lot of backstory and depth to Zohara’s character that less proficient writers and directors would need a far lengthier and probably clumsier dialogue to expose.
The average Room 104 episode is 25 minutes. The only way to put any depth at all into characters in that timeframe is these moments that attempt to mainline character depth right into the jugular using a shorthand form of images and words. Room 104 achieves this more often than not, and not least because the production team seems to have an unerring knack of picking directors and writers who they know can grasp this concept and utilise it in their stories.
Maria opens up to Zohara about her abilities, and her visions of the catastrophe she’d had since childhood that made everyone, including her, believe she was crazy. That was until she met Malek Riley, the aforementioned weird billionaire. Everyone assumed he too was losing it when he started to talk about the end of the world, but he was actually seeing the same things as Maria, and when they met, he gave her the co-ordinates to the habitat he was building. That’s where Maria was going. Again, I got a little distracted here, wondering about the logic of building a habitat within reasonable driving distance of a motel on a highway. Surely a tech billionaire would build a habitat somewhere people were less likely to stumble upon it, somewhere near natural geothermal vents: a geyser, or under the sea? Not important, but, definitely made took me out of the narrative for a moment. Seriously, I’m not usually a plot-quibbler, it’s just that some things pull you out of the story a little.
Maria shows Zohara her notebook, and the birthmark she’s seen on him when she visualises her baby. They’re swimming together and she feels power in it, that people will know him by it, that he will be important to the new world. She mentions that her whole family has weird birthmarks, and shows hers to Zohara. This doesn’t seem important at the time, but at the end of the episode, when we witness her injury leaving Zohara with a wound in the shape of the birthmark Maria saw on her baby, it’s not only a sign that perhaps this power to be a force in the new world has passed to Zohara, but also a sign that in choosing Maria over her father, Zohara has become part of Maria’s family, willfully cutting her ties with her father, by whacking him in the head with a hammer to try and save Maria.
As Maria starts to work on the incubator, Zohara tries to get her to take her with her. Maria refuses until Zohara reveals what happened with her dad and that she can’t go back. Only when Maria realises that Zohara doesn’t have a family to go back to, or worth going back to, does she start to understand how alone and lost Zohara is. As they work together on the incubator and start to make a suit for Zohara you see a bond start to form between them. Their interactions become less like those of strangers and a little closer to the casual comfort of a mother and daughter working together, something Zohara hasn’t felt presumably since her mother died, leaving her only with her strict, paranoid, and increasingly delusional father.
It took her father pulling her by her hair, handcuffing her to a bed for a week and calling her by the wrong name for her to break the familial bonds to try to escape, violently. It seems what the writers are trying to point at in this episode is that sometimes it can take a catastrophe to knock us from our normal orbits. Even if we’re aware—which is often the case in unhappy family situations and especially in abusive situations—that we would be better off getting away from our families it is often hard to actually do it. While the bonds of family are warm and comfortable to some, for others they become like a prison. You may want to escape, but somehow something keeps you there. The known unhappiness of your regular orbit feels somehow safer than the unknowable reaches of deep space.
As the tragic ending of Room 104 S3E4 “Rogue” plays out, and Zohara fails to save Maria and her baby, she looks into the mirror, to see the bloody mark left by the wound, that of Maria’s vision of her child. Hitting her father again, in an attempt to save Maria, Zohara has violently set herself on a new trajectory, and can leave his orbit for good. As she prepares to set out, hopefully to find the habitat and embark on a new life in this new world, she leaves a final note for her father, who is proving remarkably resistant to hammer blows to the head:
“Sorry, I have to go.”