So, here we are already. The Season 3 finale of Room 104: “The Specimen Collector” is upon us, and unlike the darker more disturbing tale we were left with at the end of Season 2 (“Josie & Me”) Room 104 S3E12 is a much lighter, more wondrous piece that looks at both the tenacity of nature, but also of our connection with it and our endless fascination with it (even as we perversely try to destroy it).
Before I get too far into this episode, I need to address a grievous failure on my part to impart how much I enjoyed last week’s episode “Crossroads“. Possibly I got too carried away describing the shenanigans and thus neglected to mention, but it was probably the funniest episode of the season so far, which is hardly surprising given the comedic experience of both Bain and Brice. Peep Show and The Overnight occupy well-deserved places on my list of amazing funny things that I’ve had the good fortune to watch in recent years (full disclosure, I don’t actually have such a list, but if I did they would definitely be on it).
So, apologies over, let’s talk about “The Specimen Collector.” Having already co-written one of my favourite episodes of the season (“A New Song”), Mel Eslyn both writes and directs this finale. Having worked with the Duplass Brothers and those in their orbit for many years as an AD and producer, she now runs their company and is an executive producer on Room 104. Speaking with 25YL recently, another of the show’s executive producers, Sydney Fleischmann, told us how the episode came about as “an idea that Mel came up with and we immediately fell in love with. We’re always trying to push the limitations of the space and turning the room into a jungle was really exciting to us. In addition to having a writer’s and producer’s brain, Mel has a director’s brain and was clearly the person to bring the world of this story to life.”
The episode has guest star appearances from both Cobie Smulders and Aasif Mandvi, but the real star of the show here and what really sells the story is the set. The combination of excellent set dressing, lighting, and editing really makes the transformation believable, and for a show on a tight time and financial budget it’s doubly impressive. According to Fleischmann, there were many discussions about how to achieve the effect they were aiming for without blowing the budget, and she credits their talented production designer, Jonah Markowitz, who “worked with construction, a greens team, and the art department to fill the space with live plants, lots of dirt, and an assortment of fake plants. Because of our budget constraints and fast shooting schedule, they had from the time we wrapped the previous episode on a Friday night until Monday morning to completely transform the room. It was quite a feat.”
Marianne (Cobie Smulders)—a botanist we presume, and collector for a museum—is on a layover on her way back from a specimen collecting trip, and some pollen-like substance caught on a cuff is blown off by a gust of wind from an open window and lands in the carpet of Room 104.
When Marianne awakes the room is literally filled with…nature. Foliage of every kind: trees, bushes, ferns, moss. At first, shocked and a little frightened, Marianne, realising she’s not in some strange dream, begins to comprehend delightedly that she is witnessing a botanical miracle. Her first reaction is to extend her stay by a week. It’s the instinctive reaction of a scientist. She doesn’t think about anything else, or anyone else (particularly her partner Andy), she simply knows she needs to study this phenomenon.
In a happy delirium, Marianne begins to document the micro-ecosystem that has appeared fully formed in her room. She is in botanist heaven and doesn’t have time to answer pesky calls from Andy. Her obsession is such that she even resorts to stripping bark from a branch to eat rather than leave the room.
She’s been in the room for a few days when a suspicious motel manager—tipped off by the maid—demands entry, but their argument is interrupted by a call from Marianne’s colleague at the museum, Joe. He tells her that the species she’s documenting in the room are actually long extinct and that the ecosystem is unique. Obviously this sends Marianne’s obsessiveness into a totally new gear, and almost in tears, she begs the motel manager, who it seems acquiesces almost out of confusion and concern for her than any other reason, to let her keep the room.
Learning from Joe that the pollen she sent to the lab didn’t survive, Marianne begins to fear that the room is the only place the species are safe and refuses to leave or remove anything, determined only to stay, to study and document everything. By the end of the week, Marianne has become a botanical Peter Pan, treating the room like a beloved child. Joe, however, concerned for Marianne, has reported the find to the government, who send out the NIASDI (National Invasive Alien Species Department of the Interior) stormtroopers to deal with the ecological threat they fear the ecosystem could be. Reacting to this like any mother when her child is threatened, Marianne refuses to comply.
Called in as a mediator, Dr. Eugene Hill (Aasif Mandvi) arrives. He seems to appreciate the enormity of what is happening in the room, and the need to protect it somehow. Marianne details to Eugene how the ecosystem is developing, becoming self-sufficient, and adapting to become more efficient, but at a much more rapid pace than is usual. Trying to reason with Marianne that she may not know everything about the room, and what is in it, Eugene tries to convince her that they can argue for the importance of the ecosystem, prove that it isn’t a threat and try to provide somewhere that the species can flourish outside the room. Having a healthy dose of rationality landed on her after her week of losing herself in her obsessions, Marianne decides to call Andy, trying to explain herself.
Convincing Marianne to drink the water he’s brought in, Eugene starts thanking her for allowing him to see the wonder that is the room, but of course, they then both fall unconscious, because, as we all know, you can’t trust The Man. As the Plant Feds enter the room, and the story ends, we’re left not knowing the fate of the room and the primal ecosystem it contains. Sadly, my best guess is that samples will be taken, and then everything will be destroyed—nothing will survive.
While it might seem like just a fun and simple little story, what Mel Eslyn has done here is bring to life a compact vignette highlighting alternate primal aspects of the human psyche; a struggle between our quest for knowledge (Science) and our fear of the unknown (The Government). It also highlights the feminine urge to protect and nurture, and the masculine urge to attack. You could also view the room and its developing ecosystem as being representative of our planet and its current fragility, and the fight to defend it by a lone scientist against the thoughtless forces of corporations and government. I won’t veer too much into the politics there, but it’s an impressive debut from Mel Eslyn, expertly encompassing the Room 104 ethos of packing big ideas into a small story and one very small room.
Sadly that’s the end of Season 3 of Room 104 but I’ll be back shortly with a roundup of the season and an interview with Executive Producer Sydney Fleischmann. We know Season 4 of Room 104 is already filmed, so we just have to wait patiently to find out what awaits us when we open the door again.