Aloha and welcome to paradise, provided your idea of paradise is a weak mai tai to wash down a diffuse sense of festering despondency. In the premiere episode of his HBO miniseries The White Lotus, Mike White manages the full-body cringe of a comedy of manners, the tension of an Agatha Christie mystery, Nora Ephron’s eye for rich-people things, plus an unrelenting class consciousness that drives the plot and most of the punch lines. Jean-Paul Sartre complained that his play No Exit, in which three dead people eventually realize the room they’re stuck in isn’t the anteroom to hell but hell itself, was misinterpreted; his point wasn’t that the company of others is torture but that seeing yourself through the eyes of others can be. White gets it. At the White Lotus Resort on tropical Maui, strangers while away the hours snorkeling, sunbathing, and judging one another’s poolside reading. Hell is other people on your vacation.
But before White delves into matters ontological, he Tarantinos The White Lotus timeline. Jake Lacy’s Shane mopes at the airline gate, his fingers worrying his wedding ring. Someone died on his honeymoon, and the remains are sharing his flight home. Shane’s wife isn’t present, suggesting she’s in the cargo hold, but we’ve all watched enough TV to know that when one and one equals two this early on, we’re probably supposed to do more complicated math. Still, someone is dead; maybe someone else is at fault? That’s all we learn before White rewinds the tape to a week earlier. So do we catch up to sad, ornery Lacy at the end of the premiere episode? (No, it turns out.) At the end of the series? Who knows. But every character we meet from this point forward is potentially seven days from death. The suspense vaults from a two to a ten, though luckily for our nervous systems, it doesn’t stay there. Once the VIP castaways are introduced, it’s easy to find a few hotel guests who wouldn’t be missed for long.
As someone who used to live in Hawaii, I’ve always thought you could tell a lot about tourists by what they wear. Shane Patton shows up in a pastel polo shirt, leather loafers, and the kind of Ray-Bans that look more like Oakleys — business vacation casual. What’s more embarrassing is that he’s throwing shakas from the resort ferry before he even checks in. His new wife, Mrs. Rachel Between-Last-Names (Alexandra Daddario), is wearing sailor shorts. On a boat. I’m not sure we can trust someone so obvious.
Jennifer Coolidge is perfect as Tanya, who has packed every long, flowing, gauzy floral robe anyone has ever owned. Tanya neeeeeds a massage.
Mr. and Mrs. Mossbacher — played by Steve Zahn, who became a 53-year-old man while no one was looking, and Connie Britton, who manages to even apply moisturizer in character — understand the dress code of the tropically wealthy. She’s in her funkiest pearls; he’s wearing rubber-soled shoes. Do they wear these items on the mainland? Sometimes in the Hamptons. Mark and Nicole are not dressing for Maui; they’re dressing for their expensive resort, which they will absolutely not be leaving.
Only the three kids — college students Olivia Mossbacher (Sydney Sweeney) and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and high-school son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) — arrive dressed as themselves, which is perhaps the point. The adults have come for the fantasy of Hawaii, a one-week reprieve from whoever they are in the actual world. The kids are here because their parents bought the tickets.
They’ll all be doted on by the White Lotus’ manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett), and spa director, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who are tasked with delivering the fantasy. Of course their attempts are futile. The swell is too big for Jet Skis, and the suites, while palatial, are too small. And even the most remote place on earth isn’t far away enough for the guests to escape themselves. Nicole on the mainland is a high-powered tech exec; Nicole on vacation is tidying the room and cruise-directing her family’s R&R. Entitled Shane, who stands to inherit the family real-estate biz, suggests calling his mom when he realizes he has been cheated out of the honeymoon suite. Mrs. Shane is stupefied, second-guessing the marriage before her lei even begins to wilt. Armond and Belinda really can’t help these people, though Armond is savvy enough to pretend and Belinda is kind enough to try.
When Belinda can’t accommodate Tanya’s yen for a massage on arrival, for example, she guides her through a spa consultation that becomes an affirmation session. Tanya is alone on Maui to scatter her mother’s ashes, but she’s also there for the same reason so many loose ends find themselves drawn to the promise of Hawaii: Maybe it’s a place to find perspective, or to start over, or to take a break. She seems shocked that her sadness tailed her across the ocean, and she attaches herself like a barnacle to Belinda, who offers her a short break from being by herself.
The Mossbachers, on the other hand, are struggling to hit vacation mode. Nicole can’t quit micromanaging things, like how the kids divvy up their room or how much time Quinn spends playing video games. She even coaches Mark on how to feel as he waits for the doctor to call regarding a cancer scare. Olivia and Paula alternate between laughing at the other guests and performing their wokeness for Nicole’s benefit. The generational divide is loud, but it’s not real. Nicole loves Hillary Clinton; Olivia calls her a neocon. Whatever the difference in their politics, they’re both sitting at the same lobster bake, surrounded by the same opulence. Nicole, it seems, has raised two different kinds of brats: a daughter who takes for granted what she has and a son displeased with everything no matter what.
At least they’re happier than the Pattons, whose newlywed glow is fading faster than a spray tan. Rachel is a 30-something journalist finding it hard to swallow the fact that she’s not more successful. Shane wears a version of the same outfit he’s been wearing his whole life, permanently ready for a round of golf or a frat party — whichever presents itself first. They’re staying in the Palm Suite, but Shane is pretty sure his mom booked him into the Pineapple Suite. This is not a guy who can quietly remove the hair from his entrée and move on. Shane is no longer on his honeymoon. He’s on a campaign to see the inside of that pineapple-themed room, never mind the fact that his bride seems to be in a constant cycle of convincing herself that she should like her new rich husband.
Armond tells Lani, a new trainee, that the White Lotus experience is nothing more than “tropical Kabuki,” with the staff serving as “pleasant interchangeable players.” When she spills a dollop of mayo on her top, he directs her to hold a tray of hand towels across her chest like a censor bar — even a clothing stain is too identifying a detail. But for all his pontificating about how to work the guests — “They just need to feel seen,” he says — Armond cannot figure out how to handle Shane, who by dinner changes into one of the most atrocious aloha shirts I’ve ever seen. He promised Rachel he’d drop the room thing, but the next time he sees Armond, it’s his raison d’être again. Pineapple Suite or bust. What do we want? Pineapple Suite. When do we want it? PINEAPPLE SUITE.
The White Lotus is set on Maui, but so far it could be any tropical location where rich people vacation on land that used to belong to native islanders but is now owned by other rich people who likely live far away. Lani’s arrival at the hotel is a counterpoint to the arrival of the VIP guest boat and an excuse for Armond to explain how much effort it takes to keep the guests, who aren’t happy at all, happy. But when she goes into labor on her first day, we get the smallest glimpse into the reality of a competitive tourism economy. Lani didn’t tell Armond about her pregnancy because she needed the work; he doesn’t notice his colleague having a literal baby because he’s busy catering to the made-up needs of people who don’t need much.
On the ferry to the resort, Paula and Olivia people-watch, inventing elaborate, bitchy backstories for the other guests. Later, they laugh at Rachel — who dares to say hello — just because they’re beautiful and cynical and everyone who is older than them is preposterous and anyone younger, like Quinn, is an infant. They’re an endless and indiscriminate fire hose of judgments, and they’d be easy to hate if White didn’t manage to put the viewer in an identical mode. When I saw them reading Freud and Nietzsche by the pool, I laughed at their poor, posturing infant souls. But when Shane was reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in bed, I laughed harder. The show’s jokes only work if the viewer is as vicious as the cast, which is to say as vicious as White suspects we are.
As the episode ends, Shane and Rachel are declaring their love in the Palm Suite (not the Pineapple), and we’re left again to wonder who won’t make it out of the White Lotus alive. It’s difficult to classify this show, which straddles comedy and drama, without knowing who dies. Tanya is too pitiable to die in a comedy; Mark is too vapid to go in a drama. I’m not convinced the series really needs its opening in medias res device at all. The premiere’s menacing momentum is maintained less by the specter of death than by Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s urgent, percussive score and White’s ominous shots of the rolling sea. Even if we didn’t know someone died, death would feel nearby. But still, the cardboard coffin can’t be unseen.
Please let it be anyone but Belinda’s.