A definite change of pace this week, as Room 104 S3E8 “No Hospital” takes us back to a more traditional story-driven premise after the previous two Duplass-driven episodes: “A New Song” and “Jimmy & Gianni“. Written and directed by Miguel Arteta, lately of the Ali Shawkat-starring Duck Butter (also a Duplass Brothers Production), this episode, whilst delivering a solid story and good performances from the cast, nonetheless suffers to my mind from following the more experimental and absorbing episodes that preceded it. No doubt other viewers who were pining for the old-school Room 104 stories would disagree.
Arteta’s movies have tended towards the comedy realm, be they dark comedy or comedy-drama, but “No Hospital” is more or less a straight family drama, with a veneer of the supernatural and mysticism, as befits its Halloween period airing. The actors are all excellent, the script builds well; revealing its secrets gradually, like most good Room 104 episodes, but somehow I found the supernatural elements—especially the special effects—ultimately distracting from a story that had a solid core of a tragic tale about a family torn apart by the single-minded vision of the patriarch.
An ailing old man, Mr. Bracamonte (Tony Plana), who we learn is a practitioner of magic arts, is dying and has decided to change his will to favour his daughter, Dolores (Angie Cepeda). The son (played by Julian Acosta, but who goes unnamed so I’ll refer to him as Junior) it seems, has gone down a dark path that Bracamonte doesn’t approve of. Either that, or, as we begin to glean as events progress, he is simply angry that he cannot control him, and that he doesn’t receive the respect from him he feels he deserves.
The first hint we see that this is no ordinary dying old lawyer is when the young notary Brandon (Timm Sharp), who Bracamonte has summoned to complete the will change, spots a hypodermic on the sideboard that Bracamonte intends Dolores to use to end his life. Just next to it however, for the eagle-eyed occult-spotters amongst you, is a framed photo of Aleister Crowley (The Beast 666 himself). Bracamonte’s magical practice is confirmed when having completed his paperwork Brandon gets up to leave but then starts to comment on the strangeness of the request. Bracamonte is suspicious and starts to do ‘something’ with his hand. Dolores, recognising what is going to happen, tells Brandon to just go. He continues talking though, and starts to choke in the manner of someone who has had their faith found wanting by Darth Vader. Bracamonte’s hand gestures are somewhat less impressive, being similar to someone making a duck shadow puppet.
Bracamonte, granted, is dealing with his impending death, but the callousness he displays in casually choking Brandon simply for (possibly) trying to get a little extra cash gives us the first real insight into his character, and tying that with the knowledge that Dolores felt he gave her no love, presumably as a child, we start to build a picture that this guy is a bit of a bastard. More details of Bracamonte’s parenting style are evident when Dolores states that he hated both of them and that he didn’t want children, but disciples. Also, he has a framed photo of Crowley and can choke you by doing duck hands. Someone to steer clear of obviously.
We’ve also by this point got the sense that Junior is feared by Dolores. The repercussions from the change of will could draw his ire, and she wants nothing to do with that. Bracamonte is dismissive of this, reassuring Dolores that the money the will provides will help keep her and her two children safe from him. This, at face value, seems wildly optimistic, but as we learn that Bracamonte’s underlying goal here is to use his death to bring Dolores into the family practice finally—something she has resisted thus far—it’s clear that he doesn’t really think that the money will be necessary. So what is the goal of changing the will? Is it a simple formality, a way to get Dolores to his deathbed to make a last-ditch effort to convert her to the practice, or, knowing that Junior will learn of it, is he trying to force a confrontation between the children that kills two birds with one stone?
It seems that Bracamonte needs Dolores to deliver the lethal injection in order for him to transcend and be able to defeat Junior. How this works isn’t made clear, and Dolores doesn’t seem to grasp the intimation because she is still shocked when Junior makes Bracamonte’s intent for Dolores to be the one to kill him clear later on. Bracamonte is critical of Dolores’ tendency to want to see the good in everything and assigns blame to her for the brothers slide, while Dolores sees the blame resting solely with him, for pushing the brother, mistreating him and punishing him when he didn’t get things right. She blames Bracamonte for her taking away her light and allowing the brother to abuse her, to experiment on her, doing nothing to stop him. Dolores is firm that she won’t practice, and that she’d rather die.
It’s clear that underneath the magical elements here, there is an all-too-common family drama. The father had a grand vision of how he wanted his children’s lives to be, and pushed them mercilessly, disregarding their needs, or their individual natures. It could be argued, as Bracamonte and many domineering fathers would, that there is love in attempting to drive his children to their limits, to achieve their potential and the vision that he has seen for them and for the family. Ultimately it is simply selfishness though. There is no love for the children here, more a love for an abstract ideal, an intellectual goal with children used as pawns to achieve it. Understandably Bracamonte’s tyrannical child rearing methods have utterly failed, driving Dolores completely away from the practice and turning Junior into a messed up, angry, abusive monster, equally if not more callous than his father.
When Junior finally arrives at the room, looking for all the world like a young Jeffery Tambor, he mentions that he ran into a man with a shitty suit on the way, trying mail some envelopes. Dolores’s face says all we need to know about the likely fate of poor Brandon, who on balance may have considered a light choking getting off easy.
He reveals to Dolores that Bracamonte wanted her to kill him, which she hadn’t realised, being a little slow on the uptake. Junior chastises her for forgetting that it is written in the Great Book of the Law that Bracamonte cannot kill himself, and that someone else has to do it. Dolores is who Bracamonte has chosen. He is making one last effort to get her to take on the family business, by partaking in ending his life. He cannot die naturally either, as he says, his soul won’t enter its orbit.
The brother continues to whine menacingly, like a cartoon villain who can’t stop talking about his own genius, but amidst his prattling does reveal that when Dolores used to go to her father to tell on her brother, Bracamonte would always believe her, so perhaps he wasn’t as neglectful as she has believed. The mention here of Dolores going to her father once their mother wasn’t there anymore is the sole reference to the mother aside from the ending, and this is perhaps where the story is lacking somewhat. We’re not given any indication of the role the mother played in their childhood, or in Bracamonte’s role in driving Junior to hatred and anger. Were the children’s lives better before she left (died?). Was the mother’s death perhaps a trigger for Bracamonte’s insane drive to push the children towards his goal for the family? We can guess perhaps, but it seems that a few more hints here and there would enrich the story a lot.
The brother is perhaps the closest to the truth thus far when he says: “Such a hateful family. He has a kind of hate for you and another kind for me. You hate me and I hate you and on and on it goes.”
Bracamonte and Junior engage in a little magic “glowhands” battle, of which the less said the better. Junior appears to be defeated, and scuttles out of the room. This seems however to be a temporary victory as Bracamonte says “he’ll be back, to do it his way”.
Bracamonte recounts the day when Dolores was a child and declared she wanted to be Wing Scout and would want to fly until the day she died. Dolores reminds him that he just laughed at her, and asks him what kind of dad does that? He’s not bringing this up to apologise for past misdeeds as a father though, he’s using it as a parable to persuade her that she still has this fire in her, the urge to fly, but she believes that he is just being manipulative. This may be the case, but Brocamonte genuinely seems to believe that he knows what is best for Dolores and that she is denying her heritage.
Bracamonte somehow wins Dolores around by singing her a song. Why this works we don’t know. Perhaps he used to sing it to her as a child but it certainly has the desired result. However, when she goes to the sideboard to fetch the syringe it is gone. Turning, she sees her father frozen, and the voice of the brother is heard from the bathroom signing the same song “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”.
Freezing Dolores with the same power, the brother begins to taunt Bracamonte. Pulling off his belt, he reminds Dolores of the beatings their father used to deliver, and begins to beat him with the belt. Mentioning that his father never uses his name, he begins to resemble more and more just an angry bitter little boy, who having never received the love he desired as a child has grown into the exact thing his father was trying to mould him into, only, without the control Brocamonte desired.
Bracamonte falls to the floor, and the brother injects the syringe into Dolores’s neck. Either Junior released her from his grip before the drugs have time to take effect or the anger from witnessing her fathers death has released the latent power in her to override them. Sshe manages to thrust the ritual knife into him and as her eyes glow green, and Junior recognises what has happened. Dolores has joined the family practice.
Following a fair amount of screaming, and ripping off of her dress, presumably a combination of grief, anger, and a sudden overwhelming rush of magical energy, the lights crackle, and Dolores turns to see an elderly woman smiling at her—her mother we presume—who appears to be wearing an old-style flight jacket and scarf. It appears that Dolores is going to fly after all.
As I said at the beginning, I feel as if there is a really touching family tragedy at the heart of “No Hospital” and the directing and acting is all excellent, but some of the magical elements are perhaps handled a little clumsily for me and I feel it would have been more effective if the magic had been a little less visible (and certainly less glowy), and perhaps left in doubt as to whether they actually had magical abilities at all, leaving us wondering if everything was all part of their father’s deranged drive to create a great family of magicians; a self-created mythology, much like Crowley himself.
That said, if I ignore these distractions and desires for a slightly more ambiguous and layered story, “No Hospital” is a great story, and I would probably have enjoyed it a lot more if we hadn’t just come off the back of two episodes that I not only really loved, but really stretched the Room 104 format to new arenas. No doubt other viewers will have the opposite opinion, which is definitely one of the features of the show. You’re never far from an episode that you’ll really love, and rarely encounter an episode that you actually dislike.