What is Going on in Room 104? Mormons and Mainstream Perceptions


Screenshot of Room 104 Missionary Episode
Room 104 is a series from HBO created in 2017 by Jay and Mark Duplass. The series centres on a motel room, with each episode exploring the titular room’s new occupant(s). With a background in Mormon Studies and an interest in religion and popular culture, I was hooked when I heard that an episode (“The Missionaries”) was set to focus on two missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.[i]

Mormons are an often-ignored, overlooked, and misunderstood group. By exploring the struggles of faith faced by two Mormons, this episode invites viewers to not only think about this group, but also to think alongside them. In the episode, two missionaries enter the room and vent their frustrations over their thus-far unsuccessful mission. Complaints turn to irritation with the Church more generally, including the inability to ignore sexual urges, or wanting to indulge their curiosity and have a sip of coffee. Idle talk turns to real indiscretions, including buying a six-pack of beer, masturbating to pornography, and partying through the night.

Encapsulating the tone of the evening is one scene in which the boys initially display shock and horror at the heterosexual pornography that ‘miraculously’ appears on their TV, but eventually express curiosity. As they wrestle with whether to give into their various urges, they refer to St. Augustine, arguing that his faith was made stronger because he committed sins. They agree that by ‘letting go’ for one night, they can potentially deepen their faith commitment, and put their continuous doubts behind them. After a night of partying, (and a morning of slight regret), the episode ambiguously suggests that they will also explore a budding sexual interest in each other. It is unclear if their actions – lunging forward to one another before the screen cuts to black – represents a total break from the Church, a temporary Rumspringa-type pause from their commitments, or whether they intend to hide this relationship from their family and elders and remain active Mormons. This ambiguity, I believe, is part of the power of this episode.
 

Mormons in Popular Culture

I found this episode ground-breaking for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is rare to see a show depicting Mormons at all. Secondly, it is rare for those shows which do show Mormons to avoid common tropes such as polygamy. Room 104 explores the curiosity and doubt which many (Mormon or otherwise) face during the transformative years of adolescence. Mormons have desires, urges, and interests just like any other young adult.

It is not simply that Mormons are depicted, but more so the context in which they appear. Non-LDS Mormons have appeared on HBO before in the form of Big Love, which featured a polygamist family living in Utah. TLC’s Sister Wives similarly focuses on a family practicing plural marriage. Neither program documents members of the largest body of Mormons, but both play upon people’s popular perceptions of the group.

In regard to the LDS Church proper, the Tony-winning sensation Book of Mormon put the group firmly in the spotlight. Though the play offers a redemptive story for Mormons, it relies on songs, jokes, and other elements of camp to get its point across. Mormons may get the last laugh, but only after a long period of mockery.

Room 104 differs by offering a more serious look at issues with which many Mormons struggle. The missionary experience itself, (during which Mormons leave their homes for two years, are sent to any location in the world, and paired with companions with whom they spend 24-hours a day), is one which thousands of Mormons have endured.[ii] Nights spent in unfamiliar places, separation from family, failure to gain converts, or annoyance with one’s companion are issues to which Mormons can relate.
 

The Issues Explored

At a deeper level, the issues surrounding sexuality that the episode explores are also indicative of an undercurrent within the Church. Homosexual acts are explicitly forbidden by the Church and constitute grounds for excommunication. The website “Mormon and Gay,” (sponsored by the Church), is devoted to offering advice and sharing stories for those who wish to remain committed to their faith, yet are ‘struggling’ with ‘same-sex attraction’. The current official stance of the Church has been a ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ approach, encouraging those in the LGBTQ+ community to fight off their ‘impure’ thoughts and attempt to remain within the Church.

This proclamation has not dissuaded a number of what are termed ‘jack Mormons’ – those who consider themselves Mormon while existing outside the institutional Church. Andrew Evans, a gay Mormon, offers the analogy: “being Mormon is a lot like being Jewish…It is your heritage, your cultural identity.”[iii] For some, excommunication does not necessarily mean leaving the faith, but it is nonetheless a distressing experience which can mean losing friends and family. Perhaps the largest and most noteworthy organization for supporting such individuals is “Affirmation,” which offers stories and resources for LGBTQ+ Mormons. This online community points to an emerging community within Mormonism, who contest the dictates of their church and wish for their faith and their sexuality to co-exist.

The tension regarding how LGBTQ+ members should be seen in relation to the institutional LDS Church (particularly for those members who struggle with these conflicting identities) is at the heart of this episode. Unlike Big Love or Sister Wives, Mormon relationships in popular culture are no longer limited to polygamy but include relationships that fit into mainstream American ideals. Chase Burns, writing for The Stranger (a non-Mormon website), heralds this episode as “the best coming out story in recent television.”[iv] The episode recognizes Mormons as a community with beliefs, values, and struggles like any other in America. Mormonism is unique in terms of the standards which it demands of members, but universal in that members go through the same trials as others. The fact that the episode ends ambiguously demonstrates the range of responses among Mormons. Will this be a temporary fling that the missionaries later put behind them, or will a continued relationship result in their excommunication? Will they follow the path set out by ‘Mormon and Gay’ or that of ‘Affirmation’?


Mormons Enter the Mainstream

The show still plays upon stereotypes, squeezing Mormon characters into a narrow box (missionaries being perhaps the second buzz-word that comes to mind upon hearing ‘Mormons’ – after polygamy of course). Judging from online blogs, some Mormon viewers complained that the show ‘got it wrong.’ However, the fact that a Mormon perspective was included at all is a big leap in moving towards the mainstream. Rather than send two missionaries on an over-the-top musical journey, the pair confront their issues head-on, through simple dialogue. The characters emulate concerns that many missionaries, Mormons, (and others) confront. This is done in a way that takes these anxieties seriously, while still acknowledging the importance of the characters’ faith.

Consider also the wider backdrop of Room 104. The program was created by non-Mormons but examines Mormon issues in a serious manner. It must be contrasted to examples of Mormon-centric productions produced by both insiders and outsiders. Those made by outsiders tend to mock the tradition. Mormon-made productions on the other hand, (though they employ a healthy dose of self-mockery), use references so deeply rooted within the Mormon subculture that, as Terryl Givens notes, they “may be lost on non-Mormon audiences.”[v] Room 104 is intended for an array of viewers, and makes an array of characters its focus. The missionaries are just one vignette within a broader tapestry.

That there are inaccuracies in portraying the Mormon experience should not be entirely overlooked. Mark Duplass acknowledges that as a straight, white, Catholic male, he is “twice removed from being an authority on these subjects.”[vi] The choice to include Mormons, and the way that they are depicted however, represents an important shift. That Mormons can serve as a vehicle for important conversations – especially those concerning LGBTQ+ issues in faith communities –  represents a shift away from stories that boil Mormons down to a set of stereotypes for mockery and welcomes them as firmly ensconced members of mainstream society.

Note:

Chris Miller is a PhD candidate in the joint Laurier-Waterloo PhD in Religious Studies. 
To read more about Chris, please see our PhD Student Profiles


[i] A brief note regarding nomenclature. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (commonly shortened to LDS Church) is the largest corporate body of what are traditionally referred to as Mormons. As will be discussed later, Mormonism is a diverse faith community, with followers belonging to many different groups. For example, some continue the practice of plural marriage as a religious rite and refer to themselves as Mormons, while the LDS Church has officially renounced this practice since the 1890s. Throughout this paper, use of the term ‘Mormons’ will be used to refer to members of the LDS Church. All non-LDS Mormons will be referred to as such.
[ii] It is estimated that at any given time, there are approximately 70,000 missionaries serving missions worldwide (“Missionary Program” Mormon Newsroom https://www.mormonnewsroom.org/topic/missionary-program).
[iii] Elizabeth Perry “Gay Mormons share stories on eve of conference” Washington Blade October 5, 2007.
[iv] Chase Burns “Room 104’s ‘The Missionaries’ Is the Best Coming Out Story in Recent TV” Slog – The Stranger September 17, 2017 https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2017/09/17/25419256/room-104s-the-missionaries-is-the-best-coming-out-story-in-recent-tv
[v] Terryl L. Givens People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford University Press: New York, 2007): 273.
[vi] Jude Dry “’Room 104’: Straight Guy Mark Duplass Wrote the Year’s Sweetest Gay Love Story” IndieWire September 15, 2017 https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/mark-duplass-room-104-lgbt-best-gay-1201876596/