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A ballet set in a hotel room forms the center of the week's best TV episode

Two women dance an evocative pas de deux in Room 104's most unusual installment yet.

Room 104
Dendrie Taylor (left) and Sarah Hay star in Room 104’s “Voyeurs.”
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for August 27 through September 2 is “Voyeurs,” the sixth episode of the first season of HBO’s Room 104.

If you look back at much of the writing published around the dawn of television, you’ll find a streak of utopian thinking that the development of the TV industry didn’t ultimately bear out.

Educational programming for all ages would be available in the home! Americans would have instant access to all corners of the globe! The news would be sober-minded and thoughtful! And most of all, Americans who lived far from either coast would be able to engage with the performing arts. Opera, ballet, theater, classical music — they’d all be available on the magic box in your living room.

None of that really came to pass. Sure, there are good examples of all of the above somewhere on your TV right now, but they’re largely shunted off to extreme niches. The pessimists in those early days of TV — the ones who thought this new invention would become its crassest self, despite all its promise — were eventually proved right.

And yet I watch an episode of TV like “Voyeurs,” an almost wordless half-hour installment of HBO’s anthology series Room 104 told largely through dance, and it’s not hard to feel the dim echo of all of that promise. A major network bankrolled this! Maybe the era of Peak TV really will allow television to live up to its best self (unlikely though that may be).

“Voyeurs” plays out as a gorgeous fever dream

Room 104
Sarah Hay leaps through the air.

The best thing about “Voyeurs” is the way it avoids the challenges it would face if it were told through a medium other than dance. Its story is very simple, but also dream-like and elusive. Told in more straightforward fashion, it might leave you wondering why it required almost 30 minutes to unspool. But told as a dance, it artistically evokes the gap that lies in all of us between the person we once were and the person we become.

By and large, the episode plays out as a duet between Dendrie Taylor, as the housekeeper cleaning Room 104’s titular hotel room, where every episode of the series is set, and Sarah Hay, as the woman whose left-behind traces (a lipstick-lined cigarette here; a piece of mail there) lead the housekeeper to speculate as to who she is. Slowly, the housekeeper’s imaginings cross over into something more “real,” as she and the young woman swirl about the room in tandem, using the beds and bathroom counter and other hotel room accoutrements to full, choreographed advantage.

Fairly early on, however, you might start to realize that the reverie inspired by the objects left behind in the room isn’t really about the woman who’d just stayed there, but the housekeeper’s own history. Both dancers are the same woman, separated by years and by hope. The young woman doesn’t know she’ll someday become a hotel housekeeper; the housekeeper doesn’t know how she ended up here anyway.

The method that writer/director (and choreographer) Dayna Hanson uses to reveal the two dancers’ connection is so graceful that it’s compelling even though most viewers will have already guessed the “twist.” They lay down on a bed beside each other, wrists tilted up to show they bear the same tattoo, and then the younger woman fades from existence.

The obviousness of the reveal also plays into the episode’s dance roots. Most dance performances include information in the program summarizing the story of the piece, and the fun is in watching the characters themselves only gradually come to let themselves acknowledge the truths at the heart of that story. Thus, “Voyeurs” feels like a dream that you can’t quite shake after waking, and it’s almost as though time is collapsing in on itself — as though both women are here and not here and the audience can peer through the dimensions to watch their brief pas de deux.

Or maybe it’s not two women at all, right? It’s just the same woman, separated by all those years. This is the kind of elemental human emotion that can feel sort of silly if you have a character sit around and talk about it, yet can feel strange and beautiful when you see it depicted by two human bodies in motion.

It doesn’t hurt that the two performers in “Voyeurs” are so terrific. Hay was the lead of Starz’s short-lived Flesh and Bone, and freed from having to play a disjointed, inconsistent character (and from having to deliver dialogue), she’s terrific, charismatic and warm while conveying a sense of tragedy. And Taylor, who’s played a number of TV guest roles (most notably, for me, as Beverleen the Wiccan on True Blood) carries the soul of the piece. You’re not meant to be sad about her fate, not exactly. But her performance does carry an air of regret, of what might have been, and she keeps it from being overbearing.

There is, of course, essentially no way that “Voyeurs” inspires every other show on television to suddenly do a dream ballet episode. And in some ways, the episode feels more like a proof of concept — look what Room 104 can do! — than a fully cohesive narrative on its own.

When asked about this versatility at the 2017 Television Critics Association summer press tour, series co-creator Mark Duplass embraced the idea of “Voyeurs” as a chance to explore a different kind of storytelling via a show that allows for such a thing, thanks to having no recurring characters other than its set. Duplass said:

We honestly had fear going into the first season of this show like this may be 12 episodes and done. It’s a 400-square-foot box. But the more we talk about it and the more we cracked ideas, it actually tends to expand and bubble over. Like we saw “Voyeurs” click with people, and then we were like, “Well, we will make a musical episode next season.” ... HBO enabling us to sort of make this weird stuff, and being this odd Friday-night show, unapologetically, it kind of doesn’t really have a ceiling on it, at least yet.

So while “Voyeurs” might not singlehandedly turn TV into a place where the best of modern dance is available all of the time to everyone, it does feel like peeking into an alternate world where the early promise and optimism of television really was realized, a world where the competition isn’t to produce the next Game of Thrones but the next Room 104. We don’t live in that world, but I like that I can open a door to it every Friday night.

Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30 pm Eastern on HBO. Previous episodes are available on HBO Go.