What stories lie behind the doors of a motel room? What aching hearts, screams of joy, broken dreams, and fresh new starts wait just past that threshold? In HBO’s anthology series Room 104, each episode can be about, well… anything, as long as it follows one simple rule: The stories have to take place inside the titular motel room.
It’s clear from these episodes, which span time periods and maybe realities, that the motel has seen some strange guests.
Season one’s The Missionaries follows two young Mormon missionaries as they take a break from trying to convert non-believers. While resting up in Room 104, they ask for a sign from their god, promptly receive what they think is said sign, then slowly begin to test the limits of their faith and spirituality. As these naive young men push at their own philosophical, theological, and personal boundaries, big questions emerge and demand answers — from the existence of God to their burgeoning sexual impulses.
In Voyeurs, written and directed by dancer, performance artist, and choreographer Danya Hanson, a motel maid snoops through the detritus left behind from a previous motel guest, and in the process gets in touch with her former self. She, and the younger version of herself, dance and move through complicated feelings of self-loathing, self-love, and acceptance. This episode, which features almost no dialogue, relies heavily on movements and demonstrates just how successful the anthology form is when dealing with a variety of storytelling techniques.
Rainn Wilson plays a former student in search of his third-grade teacher in Mr. Mulvahill. When the two meet and begin to relive the old days, Wilson’s character Jim seems intent on digging up an incident that happened some 30 years prior. But allusions to sinister misconduct from the teacher are quickly subverted into the bizarre, as Jim seems hellbent on proving that something supernatural occurred the last time they met.
In the season two episode Artificial, a reporter comes to the motel room to meet a woman who claims to be a “hybrid,” a combination of a human and artificial intelligence. But the blurred and ambiguous nature of her claims keep the viewer in a constant state of conflict: Is she a robot or just deluded? Through engrossing performances, both the reporter and the hybrid engage in a philosophical game of chess, asking, answering, and obscuring questions of reality, personhood, and intelligent life.
The penultimate episode of season two, Shark (written and directed by series co-creator Mark Duplass), stars Mahershala Ali and James Earl as two cousins trying to hustle their way across the country. Bouncing from pool hall to pool hall, the two spend a night in room 104. While there, a conversation about money turns into an argument about the filching of a little cash, which then turns into a rowdy brawl. Bathed in the harsh light of a television, scenes from Shark take a deep look at the kind of pettiness that can drive apart even extremely close family members.
With a show as full of strange characters as Room 104, there’s no time like the present to jump in and watch, as each episode tells its own, self-contained story. Check it out on Fridays at 11:30pm EST on HBO.
Giaco Furino is a Senior Writer for Studio@Gizmodo.