As with last week’s episode, “Star Time,” the reality of events is very much in question in Room 104 S4E3 “Avalanche” (directed by Ross Partridge and written by Mark Duplass). I’m something of a sucker for this kind of narrative—particularly when there is a mystery centered around issues with memory—so at least from my point of view Season 4 has gotten off to a very strong start.
To say that everything is in Doug’s (Dave Bautista) head would be an oversimplification, which is what makes S4E3 as interesting as it is. It is clear that what we see is colored by his perspective but it is not clear what is real and what isn’t if we’re thinking from an objective point of view.
For example, is Doug in Room 104 throughout the episode? Is he there at the end as he seems to be? Is he talking to Tamara (Natalie Woolams-Torres) in some other location? Where might that be, given that their scenes together are presented on a black background? Or is she a voice in his head ultimately, given her absence when Doug calls out for her at the end of our story? And what about all of the stuff with the action figures?
You Said the Details Were Important
First of all, let me say how much I love the use of action figures in Room 104 S4E3. There is something uncanny about hearing Doug’s voice while the camera is focused on the face of the Raw Dawg Avalanche figure. The appearance of Doctor Destruction (who is shown standing, by the way, right after Doug blamed the construction of his own figure for the fact that he couldn’t get it to stand) is somehow more striking than it would be if we had flesh and blood actors in the frame. And the use of these toys throughout the narrative of “Avalanche” lends to the irreality of the whole thing in a way that strikes me as genius.
It would make sense for Doug to be engaged in doll therapy if he has CTE, and I posit that he does. Of course, chronic traumatic encephalopathy cannot be diagnosed while a person is living, but all of the symptoms seem to be present when it comes to our friend Doug, from confusion to memory loss, impulsive behavior, and trouble walking. The disease results from repeated blows to the head, which Doug himself notes is something that occurred to him through his wrestling career. Whether it is morally acceptable for such professions in the entertainment industry to continue to exist despite the risk of CTE, along with the meaningful lack of treatment, diagnostic, and preventative measures, is a question that I think is worth pondering but one that I will merely mention here.
If we presume that the stuff with the action figures is a part of therapy Doug is engaged in with Tamara, however, that still does not fully resolve the issue when it comes to interpreting the reality of these scenes. For one thing, the setting of the room is questionable. Perhaps it isn’t from the perspective of where S4E3 ends up, with Doug connecting to what his father did to him in Room 104, but it certainly is in terms of the initial wrestling action that occurs, and seems like something Doug should be more suspicious of from the get-go.
Further, and more importantly in terms of the question of the reality of events, the action figures change in ways that do not align with the laws of physics. For example, at various points the hair of the boy figure is absent, while at others it is present. And at the end of “Avalanche” we see Doug himself in Room 104 along with life-sized figures that then disappear.
We’re seeing things from Doug’s perspective, which accounts for the confusion between the boy (Evan Girard-Sun) and the doctor. It also accounts for how he appears as Raw Dawg Avalanche during the scene in the bar. Presumably he was not actually dressed that way as he sat there drinking, but the doctor’s remarks set him off such that the wrestler persona appears, which represents the violent impulses within him.
I’m led to wonder further about the Doctor Destruction action figure. Does it truly look like what we are shown, or is that a part of Doug’s projection? Think about when Tamara uses the figure to stand in for the boy’s father and Doug questions him being dressed as a pro wrestler. Maybe that is not the case (objectively), and this is instead the doctor wearing a stethoscope we see later on.
There is No Doctor Destruction
If Doug is confusing various events there are nonetheless some that are harder to parse out than others when it comes to trying to determine what “really happened.” Perhaps the biggest in my mind is the scene where he (as Raw Dawg Avalanche) lifts the boy (who I take to be a younger Doug) into the air and ends up dropping his head on a table in Room 104.
Read at a symbolic level, I suppose this could be taken to represent the harm that Doug has done to himself in light of the harm that was done to him by his father when he was a child. The sticking point for me is the gurney and the question of who is under it, since I am confident that Doug’s father sexually abused him, as opposed to giving him a vertical suplex.
So we have to take the confusion further. It is between Doug, young Doug, his father (who was a doctor), the doctor in the bar, and Doctor Destruction (who does not exist). These distinctions have become muddled in Doug’s mind, as we see when he tells the story of how Doctor Destruction defeated him to win the championship, only to learn that the previous week he had told Tamara that he had won the match.
The events are there, but their directionality is fuzzy, leaving Doug with a feeling with regards to their meaning but not a real understanding of it. It is as though everything is tied up in one ball of affect and one point of the therapy seems to be to disentangle things to get them in the right place.
Sigmund Freud posited that working through repressed memories requires re-experiencing the event in question with full affect. That is, one needs to not only remember what happened but to—as it were—live it over again, and only then is the door open to coming to terms with it. And this is what Doug seems to do at the end of Room 104 S4E3. The fact that Tamara is suddenly absent at the end of the episode signifies that he has completed the process (though it may also make us wonder whether she was ever really there outside of his mind).
However, given Doug’s issues with memory (which, again, I put down to CTE and thus an underlying physiological condition as opposed to a strictly psychological one), I can’t help but wonder about how lasting the effect of this breakthrough will be for him. Perhaps he and Tamara do this every week and then it slips away from him again. Perhaps this is why the action figures are placed in a model of Room 104, because she already knows everything. This isn’t about her learning (it isn’t an investigation), it’s about Doug remembering (which she basically says at one point). She can’t tell him what happened for the process to work; he needs to live it again for himself to bring it back into his consciousness—to find himself. It is true that she intervenes at one point to tell him that there is no Doctor Destruction, but that is merely to guide him away from a path where he risked falling back into out-and-out confusion.
If this therapy is a weekly ritual, as opposed to a one-time process that ends with Doug recollecting and coming to terms with his past, you might start to wonder about the point of it. If the results slip away, is this worth doing? Maybe Doug would be happier living in his state of confusion, where he doesn’t remember the harm that he’s inflicted, or the harm that has been done to him.
But this would be to miss the parallels between his situation and each of ours. It is true that “Avalanche” presents us with a sort of limit instance—with the name of the episode also indicating the way that Doug is overcome by emotion—but each of our lives can be thought of as a process of struggling to find ourselves and remain ourselves, even if the “loss of self” is not as severe. The human condition is Sisyphean. Our identities are at constant risk of slipping away like a boulder down a mountain, pushed along by trauma and/or other external forces.
Cognitive disorders like CTE in fact show the extent to which our perception of reality is an achievement, both in terms of ourselves and the world. There is no brute reality we can access; it is always filtered through our perceptual mechanisms, including our brains. And memory is not like a hard drive you save files to, but something far messier than that.
Doug reconnects and incorporates what he has done and what has been done to him at the end of Room 104 S4E3. This doesn’t bring him happiness, but something more valuable—himself. The most harrowing thing about neurodegenerative diseases like CTE or Alzheimer’s is the loss of self that they entail. One might like to believe that each of us has a soul that makes us the same over the course of our lives and perhaps even beyond them, but if there is it must be susceptible to withdrawing or folding in upon itself, as in any number of cases it begins to truly seem that the person you knew is gone. And of course if there is no soul, they are. And of course this could happen to me or to you too.
In the Hall of the Mountain King
The music that plays during the bar scene in which Raw Dawg Avalanche suplexes the doctor who had been making fun of him is “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which was composed by Edvard Grieg in 1875 and used as incidental music in Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, where it is given the following lyrics (English translation):
Slay him! The Christian man’s son has seduced
the fairest maid of the Mountain King!
Slay him! Slay him!
May I hack him on the fingers?
May I tug him by the hair?
Hu, hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
Shall he be boiled into broth and bree to me
Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
Ice to your blood, friends!
I don’t have a way to connect those lyrics to Room 104 S4E3 that would give some kind of direct insight, but they do feel fitting in terms of the themes of “Avalanche” and reminiscent of pro wrestling. The song itself is, of course, presented in an instrumental version, with distorted guitars in lieu of an orchestra. This does perhaps increases its effect in giving a sense of the way that Doug is spiraling out of control in that scene, while at the same time providing an effective soundtrack to the montage that depicts the way in which he is bringing various events together in his mind and the anguish that this causes him to feel.
Julian Wass always does a great job with the music in Room 104, and that in “Avalanche” is no exception. When you think about this scene in particular, with its accompanying music, the meaning of this title really comes out in a deeper register than one might have thought of before. It’s not just that Doug Avalon’s wrestling name was Raw Dawg Avalanche; the climax of the episode is an avalanche of emotion as he is overtaken by the flood of affects attached to the traumatic events in his life.
At least to some extent, his confusion protects him, or rather whatever story he is telling himself this week about Doctor Destruction. But it’s precarious, like snow that may come crashing down upon him and reveal the stark mountain underneath (cf. the imagery of the bald head as opposed to that with hair). Is he the champion (the king), or the son at risk of being tortured and slain?
The power of Room 104 E4E3 is that it presents him as both. But this does not feel like a contradiction. It feels instead like being human.