Halfway through the season now, and while the title of Room 104 S3E6: “A New Song” very simply and succinctly outlines the basic plot driver, it in no way encompasses the emotional depth and complexity of this story. Before I get into it, I’ll just say that I’ve watched this episode four times now and I’m still not quite sure exactly what is happening. Quite a departure from last week’s episode, “Drywall Guys” which I felt was deliberately to-the-point and transparent, delivered as it was like a parable. But, much as Room 104 peeks into the lives of its inhabitants, it also reveals that we as viewers are all quite different. Everyone seems to like (or dislike) different episodes of the show, and some people connect easily with some episodes, parsing the secrets within, whilst other viewers are left confused, clutching at wisps of sense. That is a lot like how I felt this week, and in my mission to find answers—or to at least try to sound like I am making sense in these articles—I kept rewatching, trying to feel my way through the ethereal folds of “A New Song”.
It makes sense then, that Mark Duplass is heavily involved with this episode, co-writing and directing. Many of my favourite episodes seem to feature Mr. Duplass lurking in the background, pulling the strings, and for me at least he’s outdone himself here, weaving a complex emotional tapestry that doesn’t give easy answers, and in fact can confuse if you try to look at it too closely, but leaves you feeling that you witnessed something beautiful—a sense of peace. His co-conspirator in my confusion is Mel Eslyn, who’s worked closely with the Duplass Brothers, as a producer mainly, for several years, and now heads up Duplass Brothers Productions. She’s described them as her ‘big brothers’, and has been an integral part of many of the Duplass Brothers’ TV shows and films. What part she played in crafting this piece is unknown, but there definitely seems to be a guiding femininity to the story and the way it is told, even though Duplass is very skilled at writing for his female characters.
The central thread of the story this week is told via animation. While trying to craft new music, Nina (played by Julianna Barwick, who creates this sort of music in real life) sees her memories and emotions projected onto the wall of Room 104 in the form of animation. It seems that she only sees these images when her emotion is strong: either when she is hitting the right spot with her music, or when something else triggers her emotions. Nina is having a hard time accessing her memories and emotions, one of the reasons she hasn’t put out any new music for three years since Tethered, the album she knocked out in 48 hours as the radio interviewer points out, to her annoyance. Initially pointing out that sometimes it doesn’t come so easily, Nina then mentions the shadow that has been following her around that she’s been resisting, but she knows she has to deal with. She is scared of the shadow, of what’s in there.
After my first watch, I had a simpler take on this story. That the shadow was Nina’s anxiety and depression over her failed relationship, and in order to make new music she would have to dive into these feelings she’d been avoiding. It seems that Nina’s music comes from her emotions, so she can’t just whip out some jazzy little ditty about lost love, she needs to feel that loss and pain in order to create. She’s scared to go there.
To some extent this take still holds true. She is scared of dealing with these emotions, but I missed the key detail that the animations are showing Nina at different times in her life. This is where it gets more complicated. We see in the first animated scene what appears to be Nina as a young girl, looking up a hill, at a bright sun. She’s smiling. The Shadow appears on the hill, a hooded figure obscured by shadow. The girl loses her smile and she herself becomes somewhat shrouded in shadow. I can only guess at the significance of this, but given that it’s the first place Nina’s mind goes to when trying to confront her shadow we can assume that she is tying the emergence of her shadow to childhood. We don’t know if the Shadow in this scene is supposed to represent a particular person, or just signifying that childhood is when it started. Does Nina’s need to create such emotionally-linked music imply that possibly as a child she could suffer from anxiety or depression, and this caused a cloud to appear in her life and take away her childlike happiness?
In the second animation she appears older, possibly a teenager. The Shadow here seems to represent a parent, resentful and annoyed that Nina spends so much time with headphones on, making music. It throws a plate of food on the table, and Nina flips it off, much like many an angry rebellious teenager would. The Shadow takes the headphones off Nina and sits across from them, appearing to be giving a lecture, and pointing accusingly at her.
Throughout, there are times when the animation stops, and Nina seems to be struggling to produce the music that evokes the emotions she’s looking for. The animation is a representation of Nina’s connection to her memories, her emotions and when it’s right, these scenes play out as a projection for her. Even though they seem to be mostly unhappy memories, she is happy when she feels she is evoking them correctly with the music.
After being distracted again by her phone, the projection focuses on the headphones, and a shadow obscures them. I feel like this is important, but for the life of me, I don’t know what it means.
Nina sits, watching another scene. Maybe the distractions from her ex are triggering strong emotions because she doesn’t need the music to observe this memory. I’m guessing that this is Nina and her ex (who I’m going to call Atsuko, after the actress Atsuko Okatsuka playing her, because she’s not named in the episode) in bed, arguing. Atsuko is shrouded like the previous Shadows, there’s no way to be sure. What is interesting is that we’re starting to see that the shadow is not one person, but rather how that person is affecting Nina. Maybe? Could it be that anyone who makes her unhappy or anxious she sees as a shadow? Is the Shadow her own anxiety that makes her unable to see anything in the other person apart from the darkness they are bringing to her life?
The couple in bed stand up, the Shadow points at Nina, in the same way as the parent Shadow did, and this time Nina points back and begins to scream. Her own face seems to be devoured in shadow now, and then the bedsheet floats up. I have no idea what that represents either. The animation becomes more frantic, indicating things getting even more heated, and then, the bedsheet floats over and seems to squash down the shadow. Pulling a blank on that too. It seems likely that what Nina is evoking here is the last argument she had with her Atsuko, and possibly even the last time they saw each other. As becomes clearer later when they have their conversation, Atsuko had become resentful about her success with music. They met three years ago, so either just before or just after Tethered was released. It was before Nina became successful at least because Nina mentions that when she did become successful, Atsuko began to change.
The hooded “shadow” figure that bursts into the room is another mystery. Initially, given that immediately afterward Nina and Atsuko are sitting on the beds, I thought it was a scene that played out in Nina’s mind when Atsuko turned up at the room, and her shock and fear created the momentary belief that she was going to do something aggressive, like setting fire to her keyboard, as we see unfold. Add to this the fact that Nina’s ex is wearing a hoodie, that she folds down the hood of just like the figure does in the “imaginary” scene. When the Shadow reveals her face she is heavily made up, with stylised hair, so it’s difficult to tell exactly who it is. I was fairly sure it wasn’t Nina, but the general face shape was similar enough to Atsuko that it seemed to fit the bill.
I was fairly content with that take, but then when checking the credits for the episode in IMDb I saw that aside from the two actresses playing Nina and Atsuko (listed simply as “Woman”), there is also Kristina Harrison listed as “Mother”. One of the photos in IMDb shows her made up in a similar way with similar hair, so now we have something else to ponder on. As the scene plays out we see the shadow move the microphone from Nina, stop Nina using her laptop, move her hands from the keyboard, remove the headphones. This is all intercut with scenes from the animation of events happening in her childhood. The shadow leans in and seems to whisper something in her ear, and the child figure dwindles to nothing in the animation. Are we witnessing here Nina remembering all the ways in which her mother tried to stop her making music, her lack of encouragement, and maybe even saying things that made Nina doubt herself, that made her feel small? Did her childhood experiences cause her to portray anyone—particularly someone she cared for like Atsuko—as a shadow, someone trying to stop her doing what she loves?
As with much of this episode, it’s somewhat ambivalent, which is both frustrating and intriguing at the same time.
The hand-holding ritual seems to be some kind of method Nina and Atsuko have used in the past—either on their own or in therapy—to facilitate communication. It’s not something I’ve seen before but I can certainly imagine a therapist coming up with something like that. I’m not sure if they’re holding their pulses when they are holding the arm, so they can literally feel each other’s lifeblood in order to feel a better connection. Possibly.
Atsuko also seems to see images from the past, scenes playing out that she can’t get away from. She equates it with being haunted by Nina. Nina and Atsuko were in love, talking about marriage and having a family, and then their relationship went sour, destroyed by jealousy and anger. For Nina, assuming my theories are correct, this also raised the specters of her youth, the lack of support, and possibly aggression from her mother. To have the person you love the most in the world start to turn into what you fear the most—the shadow that makes you doubt and hate yourself—would be devastating.
Even though the relationship ended, neither of them has really dealt with the void and trauma it left behind. Nina has so far been unable to make any more music. She either can’t access the emotions, or is too scared to delve into it, and as her music is so intrinsically tied to her emotion she’s stuck until she does deal with it. Atsuko at least has been trying to deal with it, trying to get in touch with Nina, but Nina has simply been blocking her out, not wanting to deal with the anxieties of her childhood being raised again.
Ignoring someone who has hurt you is how children try to deal with things, and Nina has reverted to this. Both are stuck, and neither has known how to get past the pain and the memories, but now seeing each other and telling each other openly about how they felt helps them start to move forward. Atsuko knows her actions were wrong, and wants to see if things can be fixed, but for Nina what they had is destroyed. But she now forgives Atsuko and that forgiveness will hopefully lead to them both starting to heal and exorcise the ghosts that have been haunting them. For Nina, possibly, forgiving Atsuko will also help her deal with the ghosts of her childhood, and we get a sense of this in the final scene as Nina starts working on the music again. She seems to be getting somewhere finally, and no memory projections are playing. Possibly in tackling her shadow she has broken the emotional disconnect that her anger and pain had caused, and perhaps the shadow that has been with her since childhood has finally lifted from her.
Slightly annoying as it is to have to try and write about something you don’t fully understand, “A New Song” is the best Room 104 of this season so far for me and probably one I’ll be rewatching many times in an effort to unlock all its secrets. Or, you know, if you have it figured out, pop it in the comments and put me out of my misery!