Throughout The White Lotus, Mike White’s six-episode HBO series, I left each episode wondering “why does this show exist?” Not in an esoteric way of “why is art?” but just what, exactly, is The White Lotus? HBO has billed it as a satire, but it’s not—it’s just a searingly true portrayal of wealthy white people and those they casually exploit. It’s not really a comedy or a drama either, it’s something both pleasantly and frustratingly experiential. Bathed in a warm Hawaiian glow, wrapped in opulence, and punctuated by a score that vacillates between serenity and chaotic noises, The White Lotus draws us in but leaves us empty.
Never was that feeling more true than in its finale (for now), “Departures.” Three characters—Belinda, Kai, and Armond—who lived at the behest of the resort’s entitled guests unsurprisingly ended up being trampled by those same people. Paula calls Olivia out for not understanding why she would help Kai steal from the Mossbachers by saying her family is her tribe, and that she may pretend to be a rebel but ultimately is still sheltered and protected by her wealth and privilege. But Paula, too, lives in that bubble to a certain degree; she’s the only POC we see in the series who isn’t working at the hotel, but she sets Kai up for failure by assuming that he can and will resort to theft. And he does. Where does that leave us, really?
It’s like seeing one of the Mossbachers’ tedious conversations about race, ethics, and society being acted out, which is to say it is excruciating. But none of these outcomes were unexpected. The same was true in that final, terrible moment where we saw Tanya let Belinda down about them getting into business together, saying that it wasn’t healthy for her (Tanya) to be involved in another transactional relationship—with no thought to how that would affect Belinda, of course. By the time Rachel reaches out to her for help, she has had enough of rich white people problems. Haven’t we all?
Not Rachel, perhaps; she ends things by not ending them. She has had her eyes opened to Shane’s controlling, manipulative nature and convinced herself to leave him, but then when tragedy strikes—not unlike the scare that brought the Mossbachers back together—she shows up for him and tethers herself again. Because it’s safe, because it’s easy. Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it buys choices.
Then there is poor Armond. When The White Lotus began, it teased a potential murder mystery by showing us a body being loaded on to a plane out of Hawaii, with the word in the terminal being that something terrible happened at the hotel. If this inclusion, which was quickly forgotten about until the finale, was meant to subvert our expectations of a “place where all is not as it seems” kind of miniseries, it did not succeed. Because in the end, a murder did take place; the only mystery is why any of that was even included beyond showing that it never really mattered. Ho-hum.
Armond’s tragic spiral was a helluva thing to watch over the course of the season, and Murray Bartlett gave one of the best performances in an already stellar cast. In a twisted way, he got his revenge on Shane—not just by defecating in his luggage, but by being accidentally killed by him in the suite Shane was so desperate for them to have. Maybe that was why he had a little smile there in the end; he got a kind of revenge on the entire hotel. Or did he? The lack of fanfare over the ordeal, and the way it happened only minutes before the episode wrapped up, just highlights the disposable nature of “the help” in the eyes of the privileged guests. (The same is true of Kai, who we literally never see again and is merely a footnote after the burglary). I can already see Shane rationalizing what happened: that Armond was crazy, he had perpetrated this crime and broken into his room, and he was only protecting himself. And he’ll probably be able to bury it really deep down and be “ok,” which for Shane means continuing to be a big, whiny baby. Nothing changes.
A good TV show doesn’t have to mean anything, but The White Lotus ultimately just felt like nothing at all. Its final episode confirmed what has been known since the dawn of time: the rich prevail. The only person who exited unscathed, perhaps, was Quinn. He, along with Belinda, were the show’s only pure hearts. But again, Quinn is able to chase that dream of his precisely because he has the privilege to do so. He can make that choice by using his parents’ credit card to take a cab back from the hotel and get a room somewhere before they cancel it (and they won’t, because they’ll be worried about him). He might ultimately reject the trappings they put upon him, but his transition will be easier because it is, again, a choice rather than a necessity.
There was something undeniably captivating about The White Lotus, likely due to the show’s atmosphere. The words and the actions played out as dismally expected, but boy what a pretty place. And maybe that’s what separates the series from other caustic rich white buffoon series (on HBO!) like Succession and Veep. The verbiage there is so sharp, so unlikely, and narratively there are tangible consequences to the nonsense these characters’ perpetrate. Those shows aren’t setting themselves up to comment on race or class so much as acknowledging that, to these people, those things don’t matter. They have insulated themselves enough to not have to confront it. But The White Lotus creates a story that is all about people making arguments about their innocence in good faith, and who exploit the few genuine characters we meet and then… it’s over. That is far more of a depressing and realistic mirror than a cartoonish, augmented riff on those who acknowledge that they are—if not openly horrible—at least complicit in horrible things.
So why did The White Lotus exist? I don’t rightfully know, only that there will be more of it. HBO has renewed the series for a second anthology season with new characters and a new location. It will likely feature a beautiful setting tarnished by self-centered, self-congratulatory, terribly wealthy individuals who are so polite while they smile and easily plunge a knife into those who stand in their way. What fun?
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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