Photo: Michael Desmond/ Hulu/ HULU
Not to be dramatic or anything, but cruises are actual hell on earth. Like, Cruise People, what are you doing with your lives? Paying money to have someone send you off to the middle of the ocean — its own separate hellscape of unknown mysteries — on an unnaturally large boat with thousands of strangers where you are forced to play bingo and manhandle food from shared buffets and listen to the same playlist of music over and over and over again no matter what “club” you go to that night? All while you are just floating out in the middle of the sea? I was almost stuck on a cruise ship once because of bad weather, and when I tell you I contemplated hurling myself into the ocean because that would be the better option, I mean it. Honestly, the only thing that could make cruises worse than they already are is murder. Speaking of, welcome to the S.S. Varuna! The luxury ocean liner we’ll be spending time on for the next ten episodes of Death and Other Details and where the unwitting (or, perhaps, quite witting) passengers will be holed up for ten days while TV’s latest murder mystery plays out. People will die! Red herrings will infuriate us! And we will get to watch Mandy Patinkin play the gruff-but-kindly bearded detective he was always meant to play. Sounds like it could be a fun, albeit deadly, time, right? Regardless, I hope you’ve packed your sea legs, people, because we are off.
The first two episodes of Death and Other Details are stuffed with so much information and so many characters they could sink the Varuna before it even sets sail on the Mediterranean. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that more people get killed off just so I don’t have to keep track of them anymore. Sorry if that’s callous, but that’s cruise life, baby. We’re talking big exposition dumps by way of maître d’ Teddy’s staff meeting and an entire episode that is basically a string of interrogations of characters revealing important details that might come in handy later. All of that info plus time-jumps all over the place and your head may be spinning already, but let’s start with the basics, shall we?
All of our soon-to-be murder suspects and victims have gathered on this gorgeous ship (no, seriously, the sets may be reason enough to watch this show) for the retirement send-off of one very powerful and rich man, Lawrence Collier of the Collier Mills textile empire. Lawrence and his wife, Katherine, have chartered the boat and filled it with guests to celebrate and, as many suspect, to announce that his daughter, Anna, will be taking over as the new Collier Mills CEO. But as we come to learn, there’s another reason for this ten-day vacation: The Colliers are using it to close a $3 billion-dollar deal with the Chun family, who own a fast-fashion empire, a deal the Colliers desperately need since, surprise — the company is bankrupt. The Chuns are all onboard (the ship, not the deal — at least not yet), including matriarch Celia and her granddaughter Eleanor, who, as it turns out, had a torrid affair with Anna in business school. The lingering feelings these two women obviously have for each other may make things awkward since Anna’s wife, the wildly paranoid “retired clickbait journalist” Leila, is also on the boat. It’s all very complicated!
Some other VIPs you should know about: the eldest Collier sibling, Tripp, whom Teddy perfectly sums up when she says that while he has failed at almost everything, “what he has succeeded at is cocaine”; the governor of Washington and former assistant U.S. Attorney Alexandra, who is into B-12 infusions, partaking in lavish vacations paid for by a big-time donor, and, if you can believe it, Tripp Collier; the Collier family lawyer, Llewellyn, who seems to be a necessary annoyance; Father Toby Briggs, a priest and “political kingmaker” who has brought his TikTok-star son, Derrick, along; and Keith Trubitsky, a boorish would-be investor in one of Tripp’s latest schemes. That’s a whole lot of people to keep track of, and that doesn’t even include the staff. That’s right, friends! On top of this rival-family-business-tension setup, there’s a whole upstairs-downstairs element to the proceedings, which very much includes handsome “boat owner” (yeah, he doesn’t like that terminology either) Sunil, also handsome but very mysterious head of security Jules, and terrible waitress Winnie, who happens to be Teddy’s sister (actually, most of the staff is related to Teddy). Do we need all of these characters? Who’s to say? Do you see why I said that thing about needing to kill a few off? I bet you do. So can we start killing a few off? Geez, we’ll get to it! Now who’s callous?
But first, we should get to the most important introduction of all: Ms. Imogene Scott. Our protagonist and Anna’s best friend was taken in by the Colliers when she was around 11 years old, after her mother, a secretary at Collier Mills and close friend of the family, was killed in a mysterious accident. She might be as good as family to the Colliers, but she’s still stuck in an assistant position at the company and loves to engage in some petty theft. (For those clothes? I’ll allow it!) Imogene would be thrilled to be on this vacation if not for one minor inconvenience: The man she hates most in this world is also here. That man would be one Mr. Rufus Cotesworth. He was at one time heralded as “the world’s greatest detective” but has taken a bit of a tumble from the top and is currently serving on the Chuns’ security team, gathering intel against the Colliers. This is a job he should be pretty good at since Cotesworth is very familiar with that family. When Imogene’s mother died 18 years ago, the Colliers, at Imogene’s insistence, hired Cotesworth to investigate her murder when no one else could solve it — and he failed spectacularly.
Death and Other Details — at least in these first two episodes — spends a lot of time toggling back and forth between what’s happening on the boat in the present day and Imogene’s and Rufus’s memories of what happened 18 years ago. While the show is obviously a murder mystery all hyped up about clues and little details you should pay attention to, it is clearly also fixated on how memory works. Look no further than the opening credits, which, yes, play with illusion but also with the idea that memories aren’t to be trusted. Was that shoe you remember black or red? Was the car small or big? Was it actually white? All of this is to say that as we spend time in various people’s memories, it would probably serve us well to remember that memory is not always reliable. We’re not dealing with completely reliable narrators here. And whether that’s on purpose or done subconsciously, well, perhaps time will tell! At this point, though, we can deal only with what’s presented to us.
Here’s what we know about what happened to Imogene, her mother, and Rufus 18 years before the Varuna sets sail: The day her mother died, Imogene remembers, it was raining; clad in the scarf her mother gave her, she got into the passenger seat of her mother’s car outside the Collier mansion, and her mother noticed Imogene had a little bar-cart figurine she must have stolen from the giant dollhouse inside. Imogene realized the toy had a secret compartment because it was a replica of the bar cart in the study, which also had a secret compartment. Her mother appreciated Imogene’s cleverness but, regardless, told Imogene to return the cart. When she got out of the car and her mother turned on the engine, the car exploded right in front of little Imogene. It’s tragic! The Colliers took Imogene in as their own and told Rufus he had every resource available to solve this case. Imogene knew who Rufus was. She read his books and immediately put her trust in him. Rufus took a liking to Imogene, too — he saw how smart she was and couldn’t believe how quickly she broke the code in his messages. He desperately wanted to solve this case for her. We learn, though, that after three months, the only piece of evidence he could uncover was the name of the person who bought the explosive found in the car: Viktor Sams. According to Imogene, after that, the Colliers stopped funding Rufus and she never heard from him again. He abandoned her.
And then he shows up on this fucking boat. When Imogene overhears Rufus regaling people with stories of his great detective days, she can hardly stand it. And when he acts as if he doesn’t have any recollection of who she is, well, she throws a very expensive glass at his head. But as much as Imogene says she hates him and wants nothing to do with him, we all spy that dog-eared copy of Rufus’s book she keeps in her cabin, wrapped up in her mother’s scarf.
This is not the only time Imogene lashes out in anger. The glass-to-the-head incident happens the first night of the cruise at the big welcome party (in which Lawrence does not announce Anna as his CEO, much to her dismay). The next day, when she watches Keith scream at Winnie after she accidentally spills a drink on his $50,000 watch, she declares that “only assholes punch down” and decides to ream him out in his cute li’l poolside cabana. It doesn’t bother Keith at all, but it does give Imogene the perfect opportunity to steal the key card to his room. That evening, around 2 a.m., after getting railed by hot security guard Jules for the second night in a row, Imogene sneaks into Keith’s room while he sleeps, smashes that fancy watch with her heel, and then takes some cash for good measure. It would all be well and good — a little well-dressed Robin Hood action, if you will — except that housekeeping walks into Keith’s room around 9 a.m. to find the guy dead: harpooned against the wall.
Imogene rightly freaks out. She knows that the security cameras in the hallway caught her coming out of Keith’s room and that she will look insanely guilty. Thanks to the time she and Jules hooked up in the security office, she knows the key code to get inside and immediately heads there to delete the footage of her extracurricular nighttime activities. Unfortunately, she finds someone has already beaten her to the punch: Rufus Cotesworth.
Rufus, like Imogene, knows that if Interpol — which will be arriving in 24 hours — sees this footage, she will be the one and only suspect. And while she may waffle over whether she wants to get involved with Rufus again, he not only wants to help her but wants her help to investigate what’s going on. If Imogene questions Rufus’s intentions, she mostly trusts him once we get to the big reveal at the end of episode one: Keith was not at all who we were led to believe. The blowhard was actually a very nice man named Danny who, as it turns out, was Rufus’s dear friend and assistant. They were on the Varuna to solve a case — and not just any case. They were there to finally figure out what happened to Imogene’s mother. It was Danny who convinced Rufus to give it one last go, and he did it by reminding Rufus how much he wanted to deliver on his promise to Imogene. It turns out Rufus never really gave up on her.
The deal between the Colliers and the Chuns would have given Rufus and Danny the perfect opportunity to get a closer look at the Colliers’ books, which, they believed, would help them tie the Colliers to Viktor Sams (yep, they had a hunch Lawrence Collier knows about Sams). So what happened to Danny? Was he getting close enough to solving the case that someone put an end to him, or was his murder motivated by something else? As Keith, he certainly pissed a lot of people off: Tripp threatened him in broad daylight when his “investment” didn’t come through, Winnie surely wasn’t a fan, and we learn Sunil caught him trying to break into his office, which isn’t the most welcome of activities, you know?
Once Imogene agrees to take on the role of Rufus’s assistant, the two set about examining the crime scene and interrogating all the key suspects. We know that whoever killed Danny got into his room by hiding inside the bar cart, which means this person was already in the room when Imogene was there smashing watches. According to Winnie, the cart was ordered from Tripp’s room by a woman with an American accent. Rufus deduces that the woman must be Tripp’s hookup, Alexandra. The speargun used to kill Danny was already in his room thanks to a fishing trip he went on earlier in the day, though no one understands why he was allowed to bring it back in.
While Imogene and Rufus work on their case (or cases since they are now attempting to solve two murders), someone I’m especially interested in, even though she hasn’t yet come into play, is Anna’s wife, Leila. Everyone seems to dismiss her as psychotically paranoid. Apparently, her temperament changed not too long ago after a horrible car accident. Since then, she has been under the impression that someone is following her. She thinks every room she’s in is bugged — she has to check for recording devices everywhere she goes — and has pretty much sequestered herself in her cabin out of fear. While most people, including Anna, attribute it all to a brain injury, Leila shouldn’t be so easily dismissed. By the end of episode two, we learn she is in fact right about her room being surveilled — we get a quick shot of someone watching Leila and Anna in bed together. But Leila is also the only person who realized Keith was not who he said he was. She had two encounters with him: one in the dining room, where she catches him taking a picture of the Colliers, and another in a hallway, where she claims to have seen him following her not just on this boat but in Sydney and New York as well. Leila’s instincts are very, very good. And I’m sorry, but no one would willingly describe themselves as a writer of “clickbait.” There’s got to be much more to Leila’s story.
Imogene and Rufus’s investigation is beginning to make some headway, and Rufus is right when he says his interrogations, while providing some great intel, are more valuable after they’re over. The suspects — er, passengers — get rattled, and when people are rattled, they start to make mistakes. It’s perfect timing, then, for Interpol’s “best man” to arrive onboard. That’s right, episode two ends with the introduction of a new character: Linda Emond with a wild “Scandinavian accent” as Agent Hilde Eriksen. She looks like she has no time for nonsense, so that should be a fun wrench to toss into the mix!
• The cruise isn’t even halfway through its voyage and our little Imogene has found herself in the middle of a love triangle. She’s hooking up with Jules, yes, but she’s also hard-core flirting with Sunil. A murder mystery and juggling hot men’s feelings? Imogene is spreading herself thin, I fear!
• Everyone has a secret on this boat: Sunil has a second, extra-hidden safe in his office; Jules is in possession of several different passports; Katherine is signing documents with her husband’s name; and Teddy and Llewellyn suspiciously exchange a briefcase. Trust no one, baby!
• Some information we glean from Rufus’s interrogations: Llewellyn has strange bruises on his wrists that may or may not be linked to his apparent BDSM activities and may or may not have been done by whoever has him tied up in his own closet at episode two’s end.
• Did everyone catch that other interesting interaction on the security cameras? I spied Katherine getting cozy with Father Toby in the chapel. How about you?
• Have Tripp and Alexandra been hooking up since before the cruise? And when Alexandra dumps him after the interrogations, will it really stick?
• Can we just note all the blue we’re seeing: the blue scarf Imogene’s mother gave her before she died, her mother’s blue car that blew up. And what in the hell is up with those bright-blue smoothies we always see Lawrence drinking?
• Truth be told, river cruises can get it. But my opinions on ocean cruises will stand the test of time.