When we first see Michael Imperioli in the season two premiere of The White Lotus, he is leaning on the railing on the back of a boat in Sicily. He looks hotter than ever (not that this matters, but it should be stated and maybe this is because everyone looks hotter on a boat?). He’s wearing chic rectangular sunglasses, a black tee, and a jacket, so he’s just as moody as ever. His hair has grayed but it’s still as lush as it was when The Sopranos premiered in 1999.
Imperioli, playing Dominic Di Grasso, is on a special vacation at The White Lotus in Sicily with his father and son. Seeing him back on HBO is as refreshing as a 7-day luxurious trip to Italy (not that I would know). Imperioli has an excited look on his face, which makes sense within the context of the show: most people look forward to vacations, particularly ones like this. But it also works as a meta moment. Imperioli is as excited to be back on HBO as we are to see him on HBO. Imperioli has changed since The Sopranos days. He’s older, presumably wiser, years past his days as Christopher Moltisanti. But his gift for making impulsive, selfish wrecks irresistible and funny remains the same.
Between The Sopranos, which ended in 2007, and season two of The White Lotus, Imperioli has appeared in films and various television shows (including The Office, Californication, and Lucifer). He has even returned to HBO in a 2012 episode of Girls and, more recently, in a small role in the limited series Watchmen. But his role on The White Lotus feels more major than anything he’s done since The Sopranos. Christopher Molisanti, a loyal but careless younger generation mobster struggling with addiction was destructive, but he was infuriatingly sympathetic thanks to Imperoli’s performance, which won him two Golden Globes and an Emmy. Imperioli captured a desperation, sadness, and fear you could feel and occasionally laugh at (Moltisanti’s screenplay era and his intervention resulted in some of the best comedy the world has ever seen). By the end of the series, Moltisanti, despite being pretty annoying, was the emotional center of the series and as a result, his death in the final season remains one of the most gut-wrenching in storytelling history.
On The White Lotus, Imperioli is playing someone completely different than Moltisanti, but using his same brilliant tricks to pull you into his psyche. Straight away, something about the Di Grasso family trip to visit their homeland isn’t quite right, a dynamic communicated in the dialogue as well as Imperoli’s body language. Dominic is the kind of guy who, normally, probably holds himself quite confidently, but there’s something solemn, tense, and lonely about him, particularly when he’s around his son, Albie, played by Adam DiMarco. In contrast, he has incredible chemistry with F. Murray Abraham, who plays his flatulent and flirtatious father. After a strange, rather empty encounter with Albie in the hotel hallway, Dominic (still in that perfect black tee) goes into his room and calls his wife who wants nothing to do with him. His daughter also doesn’t want to talk to him, either.
During the phone call, Imperoli barely moves. Instead, he lets his eyes – which can shift from puppy-like to menacing in between blinks – do all the work. Imperioli is apologizing to his wife, longing for her forgiveness, but his eyes and his eyebrows, which are absolute units, tell the real story: he knows he’ll never get it. By the end of the episode, Lucia (Simona Tabasco), an Italian sex worker, comes into Dominic’s room, revealing that he’s the client who contacted her online.
In season two of The White Lotus, Michael Imperioli brings a heaviness, an intriguing emotional weight that makes you want to be his big spoon despite how disgusting his behavior is, just like he did with Moltisanti over two decades ago. It is so, so good to have Michael Imperioli back on television.