Vacation means many different things to different people: a chance to escape, to get away from life as usual, an opportunity to live a different life temporarily. To the characters that populate the ensemble of HBO’s satirical miniseries The White Lotus, this couldn’t be more true. All privileged and rich in the extreme, the wealthy vacationers all seem to arrive at the titular Hawaiian resort carrying baggage both literally and more figuratively. Last week, we met this cast of vacationers and established their relationships and dynamics, and with “New Day,” the ensemble deepens in complexity. From the opening minutes of the pilot episode, “Arrivals,” we know one of these characters will end up dead by the series’ end. While we aren’t any closer to learning the victim’s identity, “New Day” does manage to pull the audience in with intriguing characters and some sharp writing.
While “Arrivals” felt like a disappointment, a fitfully entertaining but ultimately exasperating exercise in dry satire, “New Day” feels much more interesting, developing characters that seemed to border on caricature into more three-dimensional human beings. In fact, compared to “Arrivals,” “New Day” feels particularly eventful, as things at the Hawaiian resort pick up immensely. Creator and writer Mike White demonstrates his stellar command of character and subtle abilities with plot development, not to mention his penchant for dark, bone-dry comedy. Witty one-liners pepper the episode, with each actor clearly relishing the opportunity to deliver this sharp dialogue.
With grace and deceptive ease, “New Day” manages to explore every character in the extensive ensemble, giving each character their time to shine. A show very much about class divisions, this episode delves even deeper into the unusual, off-kilter ways the employees and vacationers at The White Lotus interact with each other. We spend a lot of time with the vacationers and their outsized egos and petty conflicts. Mark (Steve Zahn), previously dreading a cancer diagnosis, finds he is cancer-free, and the news is met with indifference from his family. Newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy) see a wedge driven into their new life as husband and wife: Rachel’s career. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) grows increasingly devoted to Belinda’s (Natasha Rothwell) holistic health treatments, to absurd degrees. All of these plot lines are allowed to grow and intersect, giving each cast member the chance to really inhabit their admittedly caustic and self-absorbed roles.
While the cast of vacationers remain the central focus of the show, the employees of The White Lotus manage to provide interesting counterpoints to the other characters, effectively intersecting with the other plotlines while intriguing in their own rights. In particular, resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) continues to hold his position as the show’s most fascinating character. We see Armond handle the guest’s petty issues, and clearly see the toll the job takes on his mental state. Certainly not helping the situation is the fact he is in recovery for his past substance abuse. When a backpack full of drugs shows up, we immediately know where it will take Armond and his sobriety. A kind of Chekhov’s gun, the bag of drugs threatens to throw the resort into chaos, and unfolding we are sure to see in the coming weeks.
Also deepened this episode is The White Lotus’ aesthetic, as the creative team seems more in-tune with Mike White’s writing this episode. Perhaps all it took was the flowering of the character’s and their dynamics, because the editing is particularly sharp this week. Bouncing from character to character, maintaining clarity as multiple storylines as they unfold in shared spaces is no easy task, but “New Day” bears several sequences serving as editing masterclasses. The series’ visuals seem much more inspired this week as well, the cinematography significantly less muddy and more thoughtful in visual intent.
While “New Day” is a step up from the disappointment and general apathy of “Arrivals,” the series is still far from consistent. The overwhelming feeling of the show is bitter, White’s distaste for the characters driving the show. The White Lotus is cynical, and while it is sharp in its satire, it is also a bit dull. If Mike White hates these characters, why should we care about them as an audience? He spends so much time making these characters reprehensible that they lose any sense of dimension, becoming reduced to mere caricatures. With a cast as talented as White has gathered for The White Lotus, they generally feel a bit wasted by his script. While the characters are becoming more fleshed out, it does start to feel like a situation of too little too late. After all, we only have 6 weeks with these characters, so time is of the essence. White invites us on a vacation with these people, but doesn’t give us a reason to care about what happens to them. In the end, The White Lotus is starting to feel like a vacation few audiences will want to embark on.
The White Lotus airs on Sundays 9:00 p.m. EST on HBO and also on HBOMax.