In the season-six premiere of Mad Men, the two-part episode “The Doorway,” Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is working on an ad campaign for Royal Hawaiian Hotel. After a trip to the hotel that mixed business research with a vacation for himself and his wife Megan (Jessica Pare), and after watching their New York City building doorman nearly die before being resuscitated, all of Don’s latent self-loathing and barely hidden desire to disappear rushes forward into his proposed ad. The idea, which Don sees as a fresh start, reads to everyone else as suicidal ideation: “Hawaii. The jumping-off point.” A business suit and shoes lie discarded on a beach, and footsteps in the sand lead toward the water. “The jumping-off point”: maybe the beginning, and maybe the end. And the space in between is where The White Lotus begins.
Forgive me for discussing another show in this premiere recap, but, Hawaii has long carried with it a certain kind of baggage for the tourists, vacationers, and interlopers who project so much onto the island. Other TV shows and movies like Hawaii Five-0, The Descendants, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall have all probed at the disconnect between the (often wealthy) people treating Hawaii as a transitory vacation destination, an island defined by its resorts and its hotels, and the (often working-class) people who actually work at said resorts and hotels—the temporary vs. the permanent. The White Lotus jumps immediately into the deep end of that conversation with premiere episode “Arrivals,” which gives us a glimpse into the bitingly acerbic tone Mike White (of Enlightened) is going to cultivate over the miniseries’ six episodes.
There are a fair amount of LOL moments in this first hour, but I’m not sure I felt good after them. Whatever amusement The White Lotus provided on a scene-to-scene basis in “Arrivals” was followed immediately by a kind of lingering bitterness—the way you feel an ache in your jaw after eating something very sour or very tart. Think of the opening credits, and how the idyllic tropical images in the wallpaper revealed hidden threats: snakes among the fruit, insects among the leaves, jellyfish in the water, a swelling wave threatening to overwhelm a small boat. What danger lurks at the White Lotus? The vapidity and pettiness of the guests. The simmering irritation of the staff. With its high price tag and its obedient workers, this place is supposed to provide happiness. “You have to treat these people like sensitive children. They always say it’s about the money, but it’s not. It’s not even about the room. They just need to feel seen. They want to be the only child,” resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) says to new employee Lani (Jolene Purdy). Maybe that’s worked for Armond in the past. But with this new group of guests? Are they the kind of people who will be appeased by this somewhat-coddling, somewhat-punishing approach?
We begin “Arrivals” a week in the future. At an airport, waiting for a flight leaving Hawaii, we learn through that phenomenally awkward conversation between newlywed Shane (Jake Lacy) and that nosy/friendly couple that someone died at the White Lotus. Was it Shane’s wife? He avoids answering where she is. He goes to the airport window to watch the box of human remains being loaded on the plane. Perhaps this is too obvious a misdirect. But I think the fact that we’re seeing Shane alone here is an important point—especially given what else we learn about him, and his relationship with new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), over the course of the next hour. We then jump back a week, onto the boat taking guests to the White Lotus. No, I didn’t assume that the sarcastic, nihilistic descriptions of the other guests by college student vacationers Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) were accurate down to every detail. But rich people are good at sizing up other rich people, and whatever casually cruel jabs Olivia throws out at her fellow vacationers seem to come from a place of simultaneous knowledge and judgment.
The same could be said for Armond, who waits alongside Lani and spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) to greet the White Lotus guests as they arrive. As he tells Lani in that later lobby scene, he has a general idea of the people who can afford these multi-thousand-dollar stays, and he knows the image the staff has to present: smiling, accommodating, pleasant, and immemorable. “Self-disclosure is discouraged. You want to be more generic…. It’s tropical kabuki.” The “overall impression of vagueness” Armond told Lani to cultivate comes up when Shane and Rachel walk together arm in arm, and she spins into an existential crisis when referred to as “Mrs. Patton,” and Armond and Lani politely ignore her brief meltdown and point the newlyweds to the Palm Suite. It comes up when the wealthy, kooky Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) totters up to the staff “in desperate need of a massage,” and no, she’s not picky, but also, she won’t do reiki, and also, did they not understand when she said right now? Does Tanya know that she’s a lot, and not care? Or does she think she’s not a lot, and utterly lacks self-awareness? Coolidge is always in on the joke with her characters, and I’m looking forward to how pointed and precise she gets with this performance.
And Olivia and Paula, who were judging everyone on the boat? They’re part of the Mossbacher family, traveling alongside tech CEO matriarch Nicole (Connie Britton), her husband Mark (Steve Zahn), who is awaiting some medical test results, and 16-year-old son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), who the two young women relentlessly bully. Olivia, the Mossbacher daughter, brought a friend in Paula, and the two of them are maybe lovers? Trying to navigate the complexities of this relationship is making me feel ancient, and I don’t think we’re supposed to see these characters as audience surrogates, even if they provided the first impressions of their fellow vacationers. I think we’re supposed to level a certain amount of skepticism toward this pair, with all their lofty statements about classism, feminism, sexism, and capitalism, as we do toward Olivia’s busybody-ish mom Nicole, and her stereotypically midlife-crisis-y dad Mark.
Of all these people, it’s Quinn who has not yet shown himself to be either self-involved, à la the guests, or in survival mode, à la the staff. Unlike Shane, who is ruining his honeymoon by obsessing over whether he’s in the right suite, and pushing away his wife with his demands that they get what they paid for in the Pineapple Suite—even though, as Rachel points out, “technically, we’re not paying for anything; your parents are.” (Daddario’s face when Lacy’s Shane asked “Maybe I should call my mother?” was fantastic.) Unlike Quinn’s sister Olivia and her friend Paula, who are so casually cruel to Rachel when she tries to make small-talk at the pool, either making fun of her to her face or ignoring her questions about themselves. (Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s animal-noise-heavy score was perfectly used during this scene, especially when Rachel disrobed and shut the college sophomores up with her body in that white bikini.) Unlike Tanya, who we learn is in Hawaii to spread her mother’s ashes (legitimately sad!) and who immediately gloms onto Belinda as a sort of holistic wellness guide (potentially manipulative!). Rothwell and Coolidge were on a different level in that scene, from Coolidge’s heartbreaking emoting in “I can’t get rid of this, like, really empty feeling. I want someone to figure it out for me” to Rothwell’s sureness in leading that Hindu chant, and bemusement at Coolidge’s very inaccurate repetition of it. Unlike Quinn’s father Mark, who is so convinced that he has cancer, and so afraid of dying as his own father did, that he is sliding into a kind of conservatism—“The modern world today is just so emasculating”—which turns Quinn off from spending time with him. (The Zahn casting here is so cleverly against type that I might need to rewatch Reality Bites to make sure I’m watching the same actor now parroting Jordan Peterson thought experiments about who men are in today’s society, blah blah blah.)
And finally, Quinn’s blank-slate quality is unlike Armond, who makes two major mistakes this episode that I think will shape the series to come. First is his double booking of the Pineapple Suite, which probably is something that could have been smoothed over with someone who isn’t as obsessive, and as convinced that he’s been wronged, as Shane. And second is his complete ignorance of Lani being pregnant. No, she didn’t divulge it on her application to the White Lotus, because she needed the job and needed the money. But has Armond so internalized the demands of this job, and the self-diminishment asked of the staff, that he’s doing it to other people, too? Did he not see what Lani was going through because he legitimately missed it? Or because he treated her like a guest would have treated her—like she was nothing, and no one? Armond seems legitimately shook by this, and maybe he’s wondering about himself what Mark had said to Quinn: “Every kid growing up wants to be the hero of the story, and in the end… you’re just happy you’re not the villain.” Maybe no one at the White Lotus has revealed themselves as a straight villain yet. But heroes? I don’t know how many of those there are at that hotel, either.
- Olivia and Paula are obviously Red Scare listeners.
- However, I must admit that I liked Paula’s “LOST HOPE” shirt. I’m sorry!
- Vacation reads spotted this episode: Olivia and Paula read Nietzsche and Freud poolside.
- Everything Coolidge is doing on this show is incredible, but her “Two syllables, but the second part is one syllable” description of how to pronounce last name “McQuoid” was transcendent.
- I don’t think Britton has had much to do yet, but the rapid-fire difference in her line deliveries of the uncomfortably genuine “You do have a beautiful body, Paula” and the sincerely irritated “You have a beautiful body too, Olivia!” made me grin.
- “Why are rich people always the cheapest? In this TED talk about Jake Lacy’s fantastic performance as the man-child Shane Patton, I will…”
- Seriously, though: Did Shane and Rachel have any real, substantive conversations before getting married? She didn’t think about whether to change her name. He’s negging her with statements like “You haven’t traveled that much,” using her as a justification for his dissatisfaction (“I just want it to be perfect for you”), and then pivoting seamlessly into sex demands (“Maybe a blowjob first?”). They don’t seem to be on the same page about much.
- We’re never seeing Lani again, right?