Someone is dead. Who is it? Who did it? We have to take a trip to the White Lotus to find out.
With a host of complex characters The White Lotus skewers the white, rich members of the US elite with its satirical examination of privilege and the lasting impact of imperialism in North America. Flashing back from the opening scene, where we see human remains being loaded onto a plane back to Honolulu, we follow seven holiday-makers to an idyllic Hawaiian resort called the White Lotus; newly-weds Shane and Rachel Patton (Jake Lacy and Alexandra Daddario), high-powered businesswoman Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton) and her family and troubled “rich, white lady” Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge). The guests are fervently welcomed at the resort by Hotel Manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) and his staff as they’re whipped into the lap of luxury.
Written by Tresca Mallon
Shane Patton and his mother represent the upper class and inherited wealth. In the Great Gatsby they are the Buchanans. Pomp and circumstance are the order of the day, the red carpet is expected and disappointment will not be tolerated. Lacy is supremely good at portraying a privileged man-baby. His consistent obnoxiousness and entitled behaviour are dually nauseating and infuriating. However, his mother Kitty Patton, who crashes her son’s honeymoon midway through the season, is on another level. Molly Shannon cements her guest star Emmy nomination as the aggressively flamboyant and gratingly pedantic mother-in-law from hell.
Rachel Patton comes from more humble origins. Swept up in the glamour of Shane’s extravagant life, she accepted his proposal after a short courtship and got married after an even shorter engagement. It seems as though she had not fully grasped the totality of her new social position until arriving at the White Lotus. Rachel is a wannabe journalist, but seemingly mediocre writer. She is stuck between the romanticised notion of the struggling artist and the convenience of her new position in the upper echelons. Daddario stuns as a woman in crisis as her world is irrevocably changed and yet our sympathy for Rachel is relatively limited due to her problems being relatively self-involved and inaccessible. Does she actually care or does she just think she should?
The Mossbacher’s are quite different to the Pattons. They are members of the liberal elite, so there’s an absence of the overt grandiose expected by their counterparts. However, their faux-enlightenment is almost more infuriating than the Patton’s ignorance. Their position can be summed up in by father, Mark Mossbacher (Steve Zahn) who laments that he used to be the good guy for his lack of overt discrimination as a straight, white man. He later flippantly remarks “Obviously imperialism was bad and you shouldn’t kill people and steal their land and make them dance. Everybody knows that. But it’s humanity. Welcome to history.Welcome to America… We are all just trying to win the game of life” This myth is often peddled by the so-called “self-made” that we live in a meritocracy. They made their money, so why can’t you? This ignores the stratified and unequal society we have all been born into and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the “game of life” is rigged from the start.
Connie Britton is wonderful at playing scarily and unflinchingly relatable women. Nicole is never completely villainous nor wholly unlikable and therein lies the dilemma in our relationship with her distasteful comments and actions. She encapsulates the outdated second-wave feminist ideal of centring powerful women over all else. Zahn provides a contrast to Britton’s powerful presence in his subtle portrayal as Nicole’s husband, who’s social position is just that. To combat the impotence he obviously feels in this relationship, he seeks other means to feel powerful. Unlike their parents, the Mossbacher children were born into wealth and despite the weak attempts to instil humility, they are incredibly spoiled. Sydney Sweeney is absolutely terrifying as the dead-pan Olivia, a college kid who rattles off wrote learnt rhetoric about topics like colonisation and #MeToo like ordering from a menu. She uses her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady), a black woman, as a prop in the rebellion against her parents. Tokenized by her friend and demeaned by her host parents, Paula’s position on this holiday is unbelievably uncomfortable. However, I would have appreciated more depth and insight into Paula’s character and background to understand her motivations. Olivia’s brother Quinn (Fred Hechinger) is the most likeable of the guests. There are allusions to Quinn’s neurodivergence and it seems as though this gives him the inability to fake emotions in the way the rest of his family can. He is also the only white character who interacts with Hawaiians not in service to them.
Jennifer Coolidge has built a career on playing kooky and hilarious characters, however, Tanya McQuoid has a depth rarely seen in her previous roles. While certainly adding to the comic relief, Tanya changes the most throughout her journey at the White Lotus. She arrives as a depressed, self-confessed alcoholic who has recently lost her mother. Lost in a sea of grief she finds a life raft in Belinda the spa manager. However, Belinda is merely a tool in Tanya’s recovery. Despite appearing to cultivate a friendship and potential business relationship, their diametrically opposed social positions mean that when Tanya gets better she discards Belinda with little second thought. A commentary on even the best intentioned patrons attitudes to service workers. Natasha Rothwell quietly steals the show as the foil to Coolidge’s outrageous character. Without speaking a word in many scenes she says more than the other characters’ prolix sermonising. Despite her obvious skill, ambition and hard work her situation remains the same, her growth is not prioritised. It’s a clear allegory for whom the American Dream actually applies and who it doesn’t.
Another scene-stealer is Murray Bartlett as the Hotel Manager Armond. He perfects the customer service smile that never quite reaches the eyes as he deals with sanctimonious and entitled guests. However, Armond is not in the moral clear. In the first episode his dismissive and exploitative treatment of his staff members, such as Lani (Jolene Purdy) who is so desperate to keep her job she continues to work while in labour, puts him in the middle ground between lowly server and his privileged guests. However, in the end, despite his airs and graces, he is as disposable as the rest of the staff.
The staff are merely collateral damage to the guests at the White Lotus. We do not get to see the outcome of the misfortune that befalls them at the hands of their rich clientele. It’s a case of ‘out of sight out of mind’ and the season closes as it opens with a row of smiling servers welcoming a new set of guests. Perversely, by depriving the audience of a satisfying ending for the hotel workers, The White Lotus gives recognition to the dehumanising condition of the service industry. The fact that many of the Hawaiian characters remain nameless and even faceless is somewhat fitting given that Hawaii is often used as a backdrop for white American holidaymakers with little appreciation or even notice of the ancient and rich cultures that exist there. The fact that Hawaii is stolen land and the struggle of its indigenous people to retain their sacred spaces are scarcely discussed as frankly on American television. However, it could be argued that since Hawaiians are so rarely centered, The White Lotus does a disservice to the most prominent Hawaiian character, Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), by giving his character such an unceremonious ending.
While The White Lotus can be enjoyed at face value, there is an intellectual undertone which reveals some of the show’s true genius. Showrunner Mike White is obviously very well read and he uses his literary knowledge to plant Easter eggs throughout the series. He assigns books to various characters to tell us more about them. White described the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, carried throughout by Shane Patton, as a book which makes the reader feel smart even if they aren’t. In addition, Olivia and Paula accessorise with new books by internationally lauded thinkers such as Neittze, Paglia and Fanon. Whether they actually read them is up for debate, but it would seem their reading habits are as performative as their faux-radical discourse. Another literary reference is made by Armond when he quotes from Alfred Tennyson’s Lotos Eaters, a poem about something that seems wonderful on the surface but is actually empty and hollow underneath. A perfect metaphor for the resort and it’s temporary inhabitants.
The White Lotus is returning for a second season with a different cast and setting. While it’s exciting that we get more of Mike White’s brilliantly intricate writing and directing, many of the characters’ arcs felt unfinished and the final episode was anti-climatic after a flawless build-up. Despite room for improvement, this allegorical eight-episode capsule has encouraged an immense amount of conversation and offers a sharp social commentary while never making the audience feel as though they are being lectured to. In the end, every person at the White Lotus thinks they are a good person, which prompts the question; is anyone truly good in a corrupt society?