In the new documentary Roadrunner, about the life and death of Anthony Bourdain, a clip plays from a 2011 episode of Bourdain’s show No Reservations. In it, Josh Homme—Bourdain’s close friend and lead singer of the band Queens of the Stone Age—says of the “bittersweet curse” of travel, “Nothing feels better than going home, and nothing feels better than leaving home.” At first, it seemed like the vacationers in The White Lotus might agree with the latter part of that statement, and might be indulging in the joy of being away from the familiar and living it up in the new. But now we’re on the second day of life in paradise, and in “New Day,” we see how rapidly fortunes can change—figuratively, of course! Sure, we know someone dies at the end of this week in Hawaii. Lose their money, though? Ee gads! Would Mike White really be so cruel?
“New Day” is a whirlwind of an episode, so packed with plot and character development and so interspersed with wry asides and satirical moments that I had to stop my normal process of writing recaps, which is to take notes during an episode and then go back through them, highlighting in various colors different elements of the episode I want to discuss. When I was midway through reviewing my notes and practically every line of notes was already highlighted, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. There is just so much greatness here: the flippant self-absorption of Olivia and Paula while they worry about getting bored on an all-expenses-paid vacation on a beautiful island and then console each other by pulling out more and more drugs. The aghast look the resort employees share when they see how Shane attacks the breakfast buffet like a man starved rather than what he really is, which is a cheapskate simply trying to eat as much as he can to spite the hotel. How lost for words Rachel is when Nicole transforms in one second from a blandly women-supporting-women feminist to an aiming-for-the-jugular, precisely cruel megalomaniac. And Steve Zahn and Connie Britton’s mirrored looks of absolute flabbergast when Mark learns from his uncle how his father really died! Testicular cancer? Not so much.
The White Lotus pulls off masterclasses in tonal balance in each scene of “New Day,” and also effectively moves each subplot forward. “Arrivals” was devoted to character introductions, relationship setups, and introducing the tension between the resort’s guests and employees. “New Day” digs in deeper, probing at the jagged, out-of-sync ways these two groups communicate within and without each other. Mark learns he’s cancer-free—and everyone’s reactions seem muted. Nicole is pleased, but treats processing the news like she’s checking off a box on a to-do list, while Olivia, Paula, and Quinn barely bat an eye. Shane and Rachel have the whole “newlywed sex frenzy” thing down, but he could not respect her career any less. “It’s just clickbait gussied up as some, like, high-minded, trendy, woke bullshit,” Shane says (in the true spirit of every man whose crappy comments appear in my hidden replies on Twitter!), and that self-involved line isn’t even the worst one to come out of his mouth in that little speech. That honor goes to “Welcome to the rest of your wonderful life”—is this really what Rachel wants?
It’s a little late for second thoughts, and yet moments of doubt permeate throughout “New Day.” The episode begins somewhat hopefully, with Mark’s no-cancer diagnosis encouraging him to say “I have, like, a new lease on life” and commit to scuba diving with Quinn; Tanya still lounging in the glow of Belinda’s holistic health treatment; and Rachel thinking that she might score an interview with Nicole, whom she had previously written about in a listicle. But White doesn’t allow his characters to linger in optimism—to fantasize within it—very long.
Mark gets the most grace, with “New Day” spent in a sunny glow (“We have no problems. We’ve got food to eat, family, we’re healthy and alive”) before his sense of identity and masculinity is shattered by the reveal that the father he idolized as a pillar of heterosexual strength was gay, lived a double life, and died of AIDS. Rachel, thinking she can prove Shane wrong by scoring an interview with Nicole, instead kicks a hornet’s nest by learning that the article she wrote—which she assumed no one read—was actually consumed and loathed by Nicole. Her husband tells her that her job is a joke, and a woman she admires tells her she sucks at said crap job. Alexandra Daddario might be the most pleasantly surprising member of this ensemble cast so far, not because she’s ever been bad in anything (her supporting role in the first season of True Detective was believably seething, and she brings genuinely unsettling faith to the ‘80s-homage horror-comedy We Summon The Darkness) but because the Rachel role offers so many opaque, mystifying layers. Does Rachel actually like her job, or think she’s good at it, or think it’s worthwhile? Would quitting working be bad because of the principle of giving up her independence, or because of the reality that she would be giving up her independence for Shane? She looked positively shellshocked staggering away from that chat with Nicole, and the words “Have a nice vacation” felt like a curse.
I’ve covered the resort guests, but “New Day” also spends enough time on Armond that it’s clear his sobriety, his war with Shane, and his up-until-now close relationship with Belinda are all going to be central story elements. The self-doubt that plagues Armond after he realizes of Lani, “I was criticizing her all day, and she was in fucking labor,” didn’t immediately make me think Armond would break his five-year sobriety, but as soon as Olivia and Paula’s backpack of drugs arrived in his office, the writing was on the wall. Murray Bartlett does great work when Armond doesn’t think anyone is watching him, like his pinched face while he walks away from Shane, who complains again about the Pineapple Suite and gets his mother’s travel agent Lorenzo on the case. But the pill he takes after lying to Olivia and Paula about their missing stash feels like the first step on a very bad path—and I must admit that I am also wary about whatever relationship is developing between Belinda and Tanya, too.
I don’t doubt that Tanya genuinely appreciates how Belinda has helped her or that her invitation to have dinner with Belinda was truly well-intentioned, nor do I think that her gushing over Belinda during the meal was insincere. But unlike all the hotel guests, who whether sober or high can avoid the clearly-going-through-it Tanya, Belinda doesn’t have that ability. She can’t turn down a guest’s invitation at the risk of offending them. And once Tanya offers to invest in Belinda, Belinda also can’t turn down further appointments or events together. Money is a lure, and everyone at the White Lotus needs it, and it’s twisting and affecting every single interaction they have. Except, again, for Quinn, who retains his purity in this episode, too. Is his time sleeping on the beach breaking through his screen haze? His wondrous “What the fuck” at seeing that breaching orca was a lovely reminder of the natural world this resort is housed in, and which so many of the guests seem to ignore. Quinn’s not just fapping out there, girls—he’s realizing that maybe his belief that nothing would feel better than going home is wrong.
- Great editing during that final scene, with Belinda’s admission of “With the clientele here, it’s mostly rich white people. And to be honest, I struggle with that,” and our cycling through the Mossbachers, the Pattons, and their petty disagreements.
- Yes, Olivia and Paula are absolutely nightmarish, but “We’re just doing witchcraft” and “Making offerings to Hecate” made me laugh very much, as did “We weren’t being lesbians, Dad” and “We were being sea hags.” These two speak their own language, and it both frightens and amuses me—as I’m sure it does Mark and Nicole, as we saw when Paula dared to say the word “colonialism.”
- “Just some busboy”? You don’t cast Kekoa Kekumano, young Aquaman, to play just a busboy! I’m assuming whoever this White Lotus employee is, he’s going to come between Olivia and Paula (friends, lovers, whatever they are) in upcoming episodes.
- This is not the last we see of Armond searching through Olivia and Paula’s backpack drug stash, right? Reminder of what’s in there: weed, Adderall, Ambien, Xanax, Klonopin, and ketamine.
- A nightmare I never could have expected: the possibilities suggested in the line “Who’s her physician, Lena Dunham?”
- Oh, and another one: “Will our clits explode?”
- I guess I will think this every episode, but: Did Shane and Rachel just never discuss the practicalities of what their lives would be like after they got married? Shane shares his expectation that Rachel would stop working so casually (“Now you just do what you want to do, whatever that is”) that it’s clear he just assumed she would devote the rest of her life to being his wife. I’m going to go with “controlling” rather than “altruistic” for that.
- This week’s best line-reading awards go to Connie Britton, who walks a fine line between bemused and spiteful with her “That was a fucked-up piece” to Rachel, and Steve Zahn, whose irritated “Liv, your mother is not Putin” was truly perfect comedic timing. Good job, Mossbachers!
- Speaking of Zahn, Mark’s line “You’re always being born into life” is very similar to what Belinda told Tanya in the first episode: “Every moment, I am being born into this life.” Is that just a dialogue overlap from White, or did Mark see Belinda as well in an off-screen scene?