The opening credits of HBO’s Emmy-winning The White Lotus are immediately memorable: lush and colorful wallpaper-like depictions of monkeys, birds, fruit, and other tropical images that immediately convey a sense of decadence, set to a soundtrack of animal sounds, discordant flutes, and steadily escalating percussion. But the longer you watch them, the more it becomes apparent that they’re also deceptively sinister, with rotting fruit, dying fish, and blood splattered amongst the tropical imagery, in much the same way that the series’ high-end setting initially obscures the corrosive aspects of high-end tourism and its pointed skewering of the wealthy and privileged elite.
And that’s on purpose, according to creators Katrina Crawford and Mark Bashore. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power fans will likely recognize the duo and their work, as their Seattle-based studio Plains of Yonder was also responsible for that intricate title sequence full of swirling sand and shifting symbols. But while their work on The White Lotus may look very different, those opening credits are just as full of hidden meaning.
“There are different themes within the show, and we’re riffing off those show themes,” Crawford tells Den of Geek. “Colonization is part of it. People who are caught and who can’t untangle the situation they’re in. There’s a bunch of different things you can read into it and you can interpret it several ways.”
The sequence also ties into the show’s primary mystery angle, in which an unidentified body in a coffin is being sent home from the resort.
“There’s also good old-fashioned impending death,” Bashore says, pointing out how many objects are in varying states of decay. “Right in the midst of paradise.”
The Plains of Yonder team was very deliberate in the way they put the series’ opening credits together, considering each character’s individual story and how their particular title card might subtly reflect that journey.
“It’s not just a whole bunch of actors’ names,” he explains. “Every actor’s character is revealed in some way. I don’t know that this has ever been done quite like this. [But] we took the actor and whatever character they’re playing and put that character’s traits on that actor’s [title] card.”
Not every connection is immediately obvious, however, and there are no red flags that will immediately alert viewers to who dies at the end. Instead, many of the connections are more subtle and thematic, such as the “traditional rowers confronting an insurmountable wave” which is meant to reflect the series’ themes of colonialism and its encroaching sense of dread.
“It’s a lot of work and it’s thought through pretty hard,” he says. “You have to really read the scripts and think—why would Syndey Sweeney be a snake??”
According to Bashore, working on The White Lotus ultimately helped inform their approach to The Rings of Power, particularly when they saw the reaction to the various hints hidden within the credits.
“I think we learned a lot from The White Lotus and how much people responded to [those images],” he says. “People were writing about them, they were certain [they knew]—it’s a whodunit, somebody dies at the beginning, and you don’t find out who it is until the end. But people watched the titles, and they were certain based on the titles who it was because something was bleeding or something was this.”
“It makes sense. We’re pattern seekers as humans,” Crawford adds. “So we’re trying to find the pattern [here], we’re trying to figure things out. So it’s really fun to do that.”
Perhaps the most obvious example of this connection is Steve Zahn’s title card, which features two giant fruit that look uncomfortably like male genitalia. In The White Lotus, Zahn’s character initially believes he has testicular cancer, but it’s only after he discovers he doesn’t that his life begins to fully unravel, despite the fact that he ostensibly got the thing he wanted most.
“We even coined new terms for it,” Crawford says. “ ‘Testicular rot’ became a thing [for us] because we have this fungal bleeding through the wallpaper that’s like the rot from underneath paradise.”
Main characters within the world of the series weren’t the only creative names to which meaning was attached in the credits either.
“We even tried to put some story into the people that aren’t actors,” Bashore says. “The editor credit has little caterpillars chewing away at the leaves—editing and cutting away at the leaves. I thought that was… I still think I’m the only one who actually geeks out about that one.”
With Season 2 of The White Lotus on the horizon, fans can look forward to a completely different show on several levels. The series is an anthology, which means its second outing will feature an all-new setting (Sicily) and a mostly all-new cast (although Emmy winner Jennifer Coolidge will return). That also means a new opening credits sequence, which will more directly tie into the second season’s themes and story, while still feeling recognizably similar to what we saw in its first.
“When we created the titles for Season 1, it was assumed this was a single limited series,” Crawford says.” So when we tackled Season 2, we knew we had to keep some stylistic ties to Season 1, but not repeat ourselves. So we made some “White Lotus Rules” for ourselves, a lexicon to represent the [show’s] world. Using this, we aimed to establish a familiarity between the two seasons that have different locations and different characters.”
But some of the images in the Season 2 titles may be a bit more out there than some viewers expect.
“We definitely pushed it a bit further this year on a number of fronts,” she says. “There are some scenes that might wedge audiences between a wince and a smile.”
At the end of the day, however, both Crawford and Bashore view their work as extensions of or additions to the primary material that is whatever series they’re working on.
“We try to stay tangential. We’re not trying to recreate the show. There’s a whole show for that,” Crawford says. “We live in this funny world of making little, small, tiny films. And we appreciate when people watch them and get something out of them.”
The White Lotus season 2 premieres Sunday, Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and HBO Max.