Tom Holland Garners Empathy With A Strong, Emotional Leading Performance In Apple TV+’s ‘The Crowded Room’
Apple TV+’s latest thriller, The Crowded Room, is challenging to watch. It is not poorly made; instead, it is a series that deals with complex issues that can be difficult to manage. Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried give impeccable performances that anchor a decently made show, but the content is hard to consume. Consider this a trigger warning, as the series may require some research if you are disturbed by particular forms of violence.
The Crowded Room follows a young Danny Sullivan (Holland) in 1979 as he is on trial for a shooting at Rockefeller Center. The series unfolds with Sullivan probed by a Rya (Seyfried) as she is tasked with solving an unusual crime. The limited series walks us through the events that led to this violent outcome and how Sullivan got to where he is. The Crowded Room walks a very fine line between an honest portrayal of its core themes and unnecessary, even tasteless, retellings—sometimes favouring one side over the other. However, the series is not too dissimilar to Holland’s first time taking on the monster that is trauma. He previously starred in the Apple Original film Cherry, which dealt with a veteran self-medicating to overcome PTSD. It was a troubling story that raised awareness of the opioid epidemic and the reality that comes with being a veteran. Holland simply starred in the film, but here, Holland takes on the role of executive producer, solidifying his niche for amplifying sensitive but relevant issues.
The Crowded Room attempts to take some responsibility for the subjects it broaches. It takes inspiration from Daniel Keyes’s The Minds of Billy Milligan, which tells the story of the real-life Billy Milligan, who was accused of a myriad of crimes, resulting in a groundbreaking revelation in the justice system. The series from showrunner, writer and executive producer Akiva Goldsman, opts to borrow the outcome of the case of Billy Milligan and craft a nearly fictitious story around it. This allows the show to avoid the risk of sympathizing with the inspiration of the show. However, the show argues that any and all violence is learned behaviour and that victims trapped in cycles of violence often end up inflicting violence upon others. It also asserts that victims of abuse, through no fault of their own, tend to stay in abusive situations because it’s all they know. My heart broke for the fictional Danny Sullivan, but I don’t know if I can say the same for his real-life counterpart after discovering what he did to his victims. The show has us asking, “how can anybody sympathize with a victim of violence and condemn their violent actions at the same time?” Perhaps that’s just the complexity of human emotion.
Goldsman explains the decision to omit parts of Billy’s story by saying, “It was about really creating empathy — to create a character that you would really ally with.”
Empathy is easy to access for The Crowded Room when faced with such compelling performances. Danny Sullivan is arguably Holland’s most vulnerable role to date. It’s a total 180 from the web-slinging Spider-Man and grapplehook-yielding Nathan Drake. Where he was the confident hero in those roles, here, he is feeble and emotionally complex. His mannerisms and speech make Danny look and feel small: cowering at any sign of confrontation and keeping his gaze chronically low to play up the fragile boy caught up in the danger-filled big city. Holland’s commitment to his role is admirable, and he has spoken candidly about how seriously he took on this role.
Holland is relatively upfront with his mental health struggles. He has shared how social media and being a celebrity in the public eye gives him anxiety, and he has even used his Instagram to rally his fans to support stem4. This charity focuses on uplifting mentally ill youth. While playing such a character as Danny Sullivan can make the best of us feel a little off, you can only hope Holland follows his advice and invests in his overall well-being.
Holland works remarkably well opposite Seyfried, whose character is the personification of patience and perseverance in the face of adversity. Both give gut-wrenching performances that testify to the tragedy and triumph of the story.
There is triumph within the tragedy of this story. Addressing and healing from trauma is always a triumph that must be applauded. If you’re as sensitive as I am, you’ll cry tears of sorrow for Danny Sullivan in one episode and tears of joy with him in the other. The Crowded Room is a nuanced examination of the human condition thanks to Holland’s performance and writing. However, that does not negate the reality that some imagery could have been left out because the story’s seriousness is conveyed well in other ways.