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Room 104 S4E2: “Star Time”

Photograph by Tyler Golden/HBO

Room 104 S4E2 “Star Time” (written by Mark Duplass and directed by Karan Soni) opens with Sam (Jillian Bell) eating chips while lying on the bed of the titular room. Then a talking hamster (Jon Bass) appears on the other bed and asks her if she is ready. She seems and claims to not know what he is talking about. He says something about how she will do it because she wants to and then disappears in a poof of smoke. Oh, and there is a mosquito on Sam’s arm that appears twice. The first time, she slaps at it. The second time (after her interaction with Hamster), she instead squeezes the muscle of her forearm and closes her eyes.

It would seem that very little in Room 104 S4E2 is what it appears to be. We are in Sam’s mind for the most part (I’m confident she actually is in Room 104, for example), but the reality of things and events is very much in question throughout “Star Time.” As such, what follows is my interpretation of the episode, and I have to admit that there is room for debate on this one even at the level of what happens.

The mosquito I read as the needle that we ultimately see in Sam’s arm. The slap would be as she preps for injection, while the second appearance of the mosquito represents the moment when she truly pushes it in. Hamster appears between these two moments. He is, it would seem, a figment of her imagination, or perhaps a representation of something like her conscience, though the question of his reality or lack thereof is complicated by certain moments in “Star Time” (more on that later).

Star Time

The term “star time” itself is one that Sam uses to refer to a certain kind of experience along the lines of a high. Its use in Room 104 S4E2 does not seem to be inspired by either the James Brown box set or the 1992 horror film, unless I am missing something. Neither does it straightforwardly refer to the high experienced through drug use, as it becomes clear that Sam has been able to achieve star time through other means, such as exercise, or getting the crap beaten out of her.

As such, this would seem to be more about feeling alive, or the extremes of sensation, than it is directly about drug addiction. Or, well, it is about drug addiction, but “Star Time” gets at the way in which the addiction itself stems from an attempt at self-medication, or breaking from the mundane world into more interesting or exciting experiences.

And these do not have to be pleasurable, which is where I am suggesting Room 104 S4E2 broadens the scope of a thought about addiction to include more than drugs. Sam chases the “high” induced through physical exertion, and the intensity felt in being beaten up, not just the euphoria stemming from something like heroin.

But this is in general an appeal of intoxication—it’s not just about pleasure, but a breaking away from the banal. This what Charles Baudelaire was getting at when he wrote “Be Drunk”:

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Sams looks up smiling as she rides in a toy car in Room 104 "Star Time"
Photograph by Tyler Golden/HBO

Most of Room 104 S4E2 is taken up by what would seem to be flashbacks, but certain details indicate that we aren’t seeing anything like an objective version of events. For example, when the young Sam brings medicine into class for show and tell, her teacher is a hamster. When she pushes herself too hard on the treadmill, Hamster is there, and it is Hamster we see beating her up. When she tries to chase star time through meditation, this is disturbed by a collision with Hamster, but they are both in small cars and not on the road. So we are left to wonder about what really happened in all of these instances. If what we are seeing is a confabulation of Sam’s memory, what does the Hamster represent? Can we work from what we are shown to construct what truly occurred? Is it as simple, for instance, as positing that she was masturbating when we see Hamster go down on her? In some of these instances it feels as though Hamster (or a hamster) simply must be standing in for another person.

Of particular interest is the scene where Sam exchanges gifts with her roommate Justin (Bernard David Jones). The reality of these events seems fairly straightforward, except that we ultimately see Justin’s hand resembling Hamster’s.

Sam and Justin sit on a bed exchanging gifts
Photograph by Tyler Golden/HBO

He gives her a syringe of Serenity and she gives him one of Pain. Apparently these are manufactured by the same company in the world of Room 104 E4E2, as Sam and Justin note that they’ve given each other the same gift despite the fact that the named emotion on each syringe is different. This makes concrete the idea that star time is perhaps approachable through virtually any emotion.

Thus, if we assume that it is a version of this drug that Sam has injected as she lies on the bed in Room 104, the obvious question is what emotion she has used. The first appearance of the needle made me think of heroin of course, but the scene with Justin suggests otherwise. And this may be the key to interpreting what is going on in S4E2.

Don’t Fear the Hamster

I suggested before that Hamster might represent something like Sam’s conscience. But if conscience brings to mind the notion of guilt, this ultimately strikes me as being not quite right. We feel guilty about what we have done; guilt is tied to the act itself, and usually its effects on another. Sam’s story in Room 104 S4E2 isn’t about guilt. It is about shame, which is tied less to negative feelings about past actions and more to negative feelings about oneself. If we feel guilty about what we have done, we feel shame about who we are, and this is the through-line of “Star Time”: the shame of having brought drugs to class as a child; of pushing so hard on a treadmill as to injure herself and become incapable of continuing to compete at track; of spacing out while driving and getting into an accident; of having wanted to be beaten up just to feel something; and of making a move on her friend Justin that may well have wrecked things between them.

He wanted to talk about it, but she didn’t. She insisted it wasn’t a big deal, but he knew that it was. That’s the kind of thing that can taint a relationship. Perhaps if they’d talked it through it wouldn’t have had to, but Sam felt too much shame to talk about it, and then shame at the shame that made her unable to deal with the situation in a mature way. This is the thing about shame—it can spiral out and there is no apologizing for it, because it is mostly felt as a wrong one has done to oneself.

A hamster brings to mind childhood, both because it is a common pet for children and because it is small and cute like an infant. It hides underground during the day to avoid predators, and has poor eyesight, meaning that the hamster often has difficulty knowing where it stands in relation to the world. Yet there is an adventurous streak in the hamster, despite the fact that it is a solitary animal.

All of these things apply to Sam, however metaphorically. She is emotionally underdeveloped and struggles to cope with life. She hides herself and struggles to comprehend how others, like Justin, see her. She is alone, and yet in search of excitement.

Sam stands on the bed, alone in the room
Photograph by Tyler Golden/HBO

She finds this through drug use, and if it has been established that what she calls star time is accessible through various injectable emotions, then I posit that what she has injected in Room 104 is Shame. She’s never done this before, thus the Hamster (who is her) asks her if she is ready for it, while also noting that she will do it because she wants to. She wants to experience the limits of this emotion as she has others. She wants to push that boundary to the stars. But while she briefly basks in her own debauchery—taking that pleasure one can feel through embracing the notion that one is an irredeemable reprobate (represented by the dancing on the bed and the cunnilingus)—the limits of shame push her in the direction of suicide.

Because amongst other things, Sam is of course ashamed of her drug use. She’s tried to chase star time through other means, but nothing has worked. It’s too hard to get clean, and she doesn’t want to live like that: without excitement, without star time. But she can’t help but feel shame at the fact that she doesn’t want to live without that high—that the thrill of drug use is all she can point to as a reason for living. Thus the temptation to go all the way, to push that needle in and drown in her own shame.

But then there is the Hamster, who is a certain lifeline to the world. On the one hand he is the source of shame, but on the other he represents Sam’s desire to be better. She can’t really see that possibility—in fact, getting clean would seem to feel impossible to her— but enough remains for her to decide to pull the needle out instead of pushing it all the way in.

“Star Time” is not a salvation story. This isn’t Sam deciding to kick drugs and turn her life around. Room 104 S4E2 takes the risk of showing us an addict who doesn’t get better, but doesn’t die either—she simply decides to go on. The episode certainly doesn’t endorse or glamorize addiction, but it displays an empathy towards the human impulses that can lead in this direction.

At the same time, “Star Time” gets at something broader about the human experience, which lies in our desire for meaning and connection, and the ways we might try to fill the hole when it is lacking. We seek after star time—those moments when we feel titillated and alive—and that pursuit can all too easily become unhealthy.

We aren’t rationally self-interested as economists suppose. We may be more interested in excitement, even when it harms us. Perhaps to truly be OK in the world is to be OK without star time—to find pleasure in the small things, rather than chasing after the thrills of the extremes. But that’s hard. Is it too hard? Is it enough?

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Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain studies philosophy and is a writer and head of the TV department at 25YL. He is also one half of Drink Full and Descend, a podcast that started in relation to Twin Peaks, but has now moved beyond it, and has begun to explore Surrealism. He lives in Brooklyn and has a cat.

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