[NOTE: This piece features spoilers for the full season of The Crowded Room.]
It’s been quite the year for Tom Holland.
After the twin mammoth successes of Spider-Man: No Way Home and Uncharted, Holland unveiled his latest project, The Crowded Room. The Apple TV+ series, co-starring Amanda Seyfriend and Emmy Rossum, is a stark departure from his last two blockbusters. Holland plays Danny Sullivan, a troubled young man charged with attempted murder after a shooting in Manhattan in the ‘70s. The series peels back the layers of Danny’s life to discover the truth about the shooting and whether he’s mentally competent to stand trial. Critics overwhelmingly rejected The Crowded Room, calling it “unwatchable,” “convoluted,” and “gimmicky,” among other things. Even more generous reviews noted the series required significant patience to get through.
The Crowded Room’s critical failure seemed like another example of Holland missing the mark on what projects make him successful. He has played against type in the similarly gritty and coolly received The Devil All the Time and Cherry. In these projects, Holland sheds the youthful vigor of Peter Parker and even Nathan Drake. In return, he loses the charisma that makes him such an inviting presence. To his credit, Holland has taken The Crowded Room’s negative reception in stride. In a recent podcast interview, he expressed his disappointment but still planned to continue promoting the series. (Holland’s grace would serve some other actors who recently experienced similar disappointments well.) That steadfast but realistic optimism makes Holland easy to root for and, interestingly enough, shines through in his best performances.
The Crowded Room’s critical reception is fair. The series’ first half is turgid and lifeless, disengaging to the point that completing the pilot is a chore. The performances are captivating in their own right, but the puzzle-piece plotting almost subsumes them. If you push past the first five episodes, though, the series reaches a point where everything suddenly clicks into place. In the sixth episode, Danny’s psychologist Rya (Seyfried) discovers that he may have multiple personality disorder, known today as dissociative identity disorder, or DID. Danny’s splintered identity is due to the severe childhood trauma of witnessing his deceased brother Adam’s sexual abuse by their stepfather.
The narrative clarity does wonders for The Crowded Room and Holland’s performance. The series soon reveals that every person Danny appears closest to in the first five episodes is an alternate personality. With five alters to portray, Holland has several more notes to play besides Danny’s quiet detachment. As the “gatekeeper” personality Jack, Holland must convey a sophisticated, arrogant superiority. (He also finally gets to use his natural English accent.) Yitzhak is barely-contained fury, Mike is athletic and ruthlessly charismatic, and Jonny is a crafty, fluid-moving, flirty drug addict. Ariana, Danny’s best friend, who he initially believes is the Rockefeller Center shooter, is aloof, sexually adventurous, and cripplingly sad.
Portraying DID appropriately on-screen is notoriously tricky, even as we learn more about the illness’ functions. The most lauded and respected example may be Erika Slezak’s portrayal of Viki Lord Davidson on the American soap opera One Life to Live. Viki, the soap’s centralizing character, struggled with DID for decades before the writers explored the illness’ root cause. In 1995, during a fight with her longtime rival Dorian Lord (Robin Strasser), Viki learns her father, Victor, sexually abused her as a child and she developed alters to block the trauma. Viki suffered a nervous breakdown, allowing her alters to emerge: Jean Randolph, Niki Smith, Princess, Tori, Tommy, and Victor Lord. Over the next two years, Viki fought to gain control of her mind, eventually triumphing and becoming fully integrated. Slezak’s extraordinary performance won her two consecutive Daytime Emmys in 1995 and 1996.
Holland’s work in The Crowded Room has glimmers of Slezak’s intricate, thoughtful character detailing. Beyond inhabiting Danny’s vastly different personae, Holland must also play them as they impersonate Danny to protect him or themselves. Through deliberate but subtle affectations in voice and movement, he communicates how each alter perceives Danny and reflects that back to the world around them. Seeing Jack pretend to be Danny, knowing through his stilted word delivery that he’s getting away with sabotaging his case, is profoundly affecting. Holland’s transitions between Danny’s alters are also impressive. Without One Life to Live’s ominous sound effects, the series relies on Holland’s tiny shifts in expression – a relaxing eyebrow, a quivering lip – to signal changes in control. The choices are subtle but precise, a powerful marker of controlled performance made sharper by Danny’s utter lack of control.
Even outside of the alter-shifting paradigm, Holland’s work is compelling. In the series-best eighth episode, Danny unpacks the experiences and purposes of his alters, most notably Ariana (Sasha Lane). Ariana moves and speaks with disaffected confidence and sexual abandon, and Holland does a great job mirroring Lane’s distinct presence. Danny’s recollections of Ariana coincide with the arrival of Jerome, Ariana’s lover, at the prison to meet and offer support. Their conversations are remarkable, not only because they explore the complexities of gender, sexuality, and physicality. Jerome gives Danny a path towards friendship, healing, and hope, things he never had, which also produces deep emotional stakes for the series. Holland uses the sharpest tools in his arsenal to convey Danny’s unease and relief at genuine connection: his bright eyes, shy but toothy smile, and self-effacing chuckle. It’s a powerful use of his easy strengths in achieving the series’ emotional objectives.
Holland’s best work comes in the season finale after Danny survives a suicide attempt after his mother Candy’s (Rossum) testimony. The incident allows Jack to surface for the trial’s closing arguments and verdict. As a final Hail Mary effort to save him from prison, Danny’s lawyer Stan (Christopher Abbott) puts Jack-as-Danny on the stand. Stan relentlessly questions him about Danny’s brother Adam while displaying evidence that he might not exist. Stan and Rya’s reasoning is that the irrefutable proof of Adam’s non-existence will force Danny to face the whole truth: Adam is an alter that Danny created to deal with his stepfather’s abuse of him.
Their plan works, and in front of a stunned courtroom, Danny accepts that his stepfather raped him repeatedly. With soul-shattering and child-like clarity, Holland verbalizes the series’ horrible secret and delivers one of the year’s most harrowing television moments. The scene is the culmination of Holland’s work throughout the series. His face carries raw, unvarnished anguish that clutches your chest. Beneath that pain is faint but present relief of finally knowing and speaking the truth which eluded Danny for so long. Holland’s ability to convey such complex emotions simultaneously in one setting is extraordinary. It is, by and large, his finest performance to date.
Were The Crowded Room a sharper, tighter series, Tom Holland would be a shoo-in for an Emmy nomination next year. (Last year’s Limited Series Lead Actor category had no less than four Marvel alums, including Andrew Garfield and Sebastian Stan.) It’s not an impossible feat, but Apple may not stage the hefty campaign needed for him given the series’ low profile. It’s a shame because The Crowded Room is not only Holland’s best work but also a solid path for his career’s next phase. At its best, the series works with, not against, his acting strengths to examine childhood trauma’s shattering effects. It exposes the darker shades of his lithe physicality and charisma, demonstrating how the right project could expand his repertoire.
I can’t say I look forward to seeing Holland pursue more roles like Danny Sullivan for the sake of his well-being. (He has discussed The Crowded Room’s emotional drain and how he’s taking a yearlong break to recover.) However, as one of the few proven bankable actors of his and even the preceding generation, Holland’s willingness to challenge himself and take risks is promising. With sharper discernment, Holland could prove that the movie star isn’t quite dead.