by Zenia Grzebin
A new show has ascended the throne of the cultural zeitgeist– HBO’s The White Lotus. For weeks, I heard about the show all over pop culture news, and I was finally enticed to watch it when some family members emphatically recommended it to me. Watching the first episode, I eagerly awaited to understand what made this show so buzzworthy. However, after finishing the first episode, I sat back and wondered, Wait, what’s the point of this?
Determined, I brushed this thought aside, resolving that the show must be a slow-burner and that I would gain more clarity in episode 2. Nevertheless, after finishing episodes 2 and 3 the hype surrounding the show absolutely confounded me. Why is this observational study of rich people on vacation receiving such laudatory praise? However, I write to you today from the other side of the White Lotus tunnel to assure you that this limited series is, in fact, worth the hype. Although it is not the most groundbreaking concept, the show expertly and intricately provides poignant commentary on class, race, and privilege in a way that our world desperately needs right now. So, buckle up and enjoy my quasi-rant about the value of a show I did not completely understand for most of my time watching it.
To lay the groundwork, White Lotus centers around three affluent groups of vacationers that are staying at the hotel from which the show derives its title. The first group is the Mossbacher family, a modern day nuclear family consisting of a breadwinning wife, her weak husband, and their two children. While Olivia is a “woke” college student intent on defying everything her mother stands for, Quinn is a post-pubescent teen who is constantly emasculated by his older sister. Olivia also brings her college friend, Paula, along for the trip, making her virtually the only guest of color at the resort. Second, we have a newlywed couple, Shane, an obnoxious, snobby, trust fund baby, and Rachel, a lost, failing journalist who Shane is trying to mold into the perfect country club wife. Finally, Tanya is an emotional, often drunk woman traveling to Hawaii to scatter her dead, abusive mother’s ashes. Two other important characters are Armand, the hotel’s chipper manager struggling to maintain his sobriety due to the stress of dealing with the insufferable guests, and Belinda, the empathetic spa manager tasked with alleviating the stress of white, privileged guests as a woman of color.
While, as I mentioned before, the beginning of the show leaves viewers wondering what its purpose is, over the course of six episodes, the show subtly unravels each character to expose their roles in this pointed social critique. For example, Olivia and Paula seem like your run-of-the-mill contrarian college students at first– two girls just trying to challenge Olivia’s parents’ antiquated views and sneak away to get high. However, as the show progresses, their performativity and disingenuity shine through. Although they are constantly seen reading by the pool or beach, they cycle through dense, philosophical books by Freud and Nietszche in a single day, suggesting that they do not care as much about reading as they do about being seen reading. This characterization brilliantly satirizes today’s youth– a group that is obsessed with pointing the finger and talking about dismantling systems of oppression for appearance but one that does not actually want to do the legwork to reap that change. Another example of a character unraveled is Rachel who goes from a character for whom the viewer may feel sympathy because of her intolerable husband to one with astoundingly ridiculous rich people problems. Rachel’s satirical persona is epitomized in Episode 6 when she babbles to Belinda about her ludicrous issues, comparing her decision to marry Shane to a “Faustian bargain,” among other verbose complaints. Here, Rachel exemplifies millennial women who dream of “finding themselves,” a luxury they are given without hardship and on someone else’s dime. Although I could go on about how each character functions in the satire, these two examples illustrate how White Lotus relies on a character-driven narrative and subtle interactions and details to deliver its social critique.
Another poignant element is the juxtaposition of the guests to the service workers on the island. Throughout the show, we watch the staff bend over backward, and occasionally degrade themselves, to please the petulant, white guests. Shane pesters Armand for a week after a scheduling conflict landed him in the second nicest room in the hotel, as opposed to the first nicest, which his mommy specifically paid for. Belinda spends the week babysitting Tanya who in turn treats her like an emotional support dog. Tanya even dangles the prospect of financing Belinda’s own medical spa in front of her in order to gain her company, just as an owner dangles a treat before a dog to gain its obedience. Finally, Kai, a service worker who engages in a fling with Paula, dances in a tiki costume despite being jaded about white people stealing his native people’s land. Despite their backbreaking devotion, each of these characters end up worse off than they began because of their interactions with the rich, white guests. Kai is arrested because Paula encouraged him to steal the Mossbaucher’s jewelry, Tanya declines to invest in Belinda’s business, and Armand literally ends up dead. Although the ending is bleak, it highlights the undeniable societal tendency of the rich and powerful to triumph over the poor and disadvantaged.
With all this said, I believe that the genius of White Lotus is not in a dramatic plot or even a memorable one. Instead, it is in the nuance of the details. It is in the tension that boils in a dinner party scene, one that simmers to the top of the pot but never overflows. It is in the quiet absurdity of the characters’ reactions to small problems that, when you think about it, we have all seen in our own lives. It is in the resolution wherein the guests return to the security of wealth and status, abandoning the messes they made on their brief sojourn. In sum, the genius of White Lotus is that it is all of us, and I hope that its critique forces us to look inward and to step out of the ridiculousness that is our world.