Who’s to Blame in “The White Lotus”?

In the weeks since the release of Mike White’s latest HBO series, debate has centered on the show’s politics. Is it liberal satire or spectacle? 

Set in a luxury resort off the coast of Maui, The White Lotus follows a group of guests and a handful of hotel staff members during a week-long vacation, where they all quickly learn that the destination isn’t an escape but a place for their problems to fester. Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), an insecure blogger, questions her new marriage while on a honeymoon with her entitled old-money husband, Shane (Jake Lacy). A grief-stricken middle-aged woman, Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), struggles with the direction of her life, eventually relying upon Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the hotel’s spa manager, for emotional support. Upper-class neoliberal couple Nicole and Mark Mossbacher (Connie Britton and Steve Zahn) bring their domestic baggage to the resort, along with their 16-year-old screen-addled son Quinn (Fred Hechinger); Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), their college-age leftist daughter; and her equally radical nonwhite friend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Per Dante, the path to paradise begins in hell, but the characters in The White Lotus seem to have brought hell along with them.

Though the HBO limited series’ premise contains enough melodrama to sustain its six episodes on the back of domestic squabbles, writer-director Mike White also transforms his tranquil Hawaiian setting into a playground for punditry and discourse, where the cultural debates du jour are animated through the behavior of the tourists and residents. Shane obnoxiously flouts his wealth by waging war against the resort manager, Armond (Murray Bartlett), a queer Basil Fawlty type with a drug problem, because an accidental double booking landed him in the wrong luxury suite. Tanya passively exploits the time and labor of Belinda, a Black pink-collar worker, under the false promise of funding her wellness center. Paula schemes against the Mossbacher family to help her island fling, Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), reclaim his native land. The resort’s placid beauty, with its sun-dappled waves and clean, white beaches, uneasily contrasts with the casual ugliness of the patrons and their actions.

In the weeks since the series aired, the debate has centered on its politics: Is it satire or a mere spectacle that indulges in the attitudes and excess it supposedly critiques? Putting aside that this tired question too often arises with this kind of subject matter, I think it’s clear that The White Lotus at least partially satirizes the elite’s propensity for casual exploitation. This happens on both a more intimate scale (the uneven power in a marriage or friendship) and a more structural one (a resort, built on stolen land, providing an escapist fantasy for a mostly white clientele). Still, it’s possible to read The White Lotus as an exercise in flattering the intelligence of its savvy prestige-TV audience, especially since Mike White isn’t particularly subtle about these thematic machinations. The same set of people who could travel to a luxury Hawaiian resort could also watch The White Lotus and not feel implicated in its critique. However, this is always the danger with any satire that doesn’t talk down to its audience.

Even so, viewing The White Lotus as entirely satirical ultimately feels restrictive. In many ways, the series resembles a classic ensemble portrait that uses irony to explore the tension between values and behavior. White packs his series with imperfect people whose “polite” or “righteous” politics are tested on a trip designed to be a respite from the messiness of the real world. Schadenfreude and light contempt are integral parts of his characterizations, but the show rises above hollow mockery because most of White’s characters aren’t all caricatures. These are affluent people who believe that they are principled, even if those principles are flawed. Regardless, their selfishness and egotism render them unable to live by those values in a meaningful way. Whether he intended to or not, White has dramatized the contradictions of liberalism as we know it.

White has built his career on writing “difficult” characters. His acclaimed Freaks and Geeks episode “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” took such an unflinching look at the dysfunctional, abusive household of the cast’s most abrasive member that NBC refused to air it. Chuck & Buck, one of his earliest credited feature screenplays, follows an obsessive man-child (played by White himself) romantically pining after his adolescent best friend to the point of stalking him. Even in his most popular screenplay, School of Rock, Jack Black’s kid-friendly rock teacher sports adolescent ne’er-do-well qualities designed to aggravate, if not enrage, most of the employed adults in his orbit.

White’s most sophisticated ploy is crafting characters whose off-putting qualities are in tension with their morals. Molly Shannon’s character in Year of the Dog channels her misanthropy into animal rights activism, isolating herself from everyone in her life. In Beatriz at Dinner, a dramedy of manners, Salma Hayek’s working-class massage therapist tanks a classy dinner party after discovering that she’s in the company of a wealthy industrialist whose developments ravaged her Mexican community. White writes characters who express their politics in alienating, often disconcerting ways to acknowledge that a person can be both morally sound and personally unpleasant.

The finest example of White’s project is his first HBO series, Enlightened. The show follows Amy Jellicoe (Laura Dern), a corporate executive who suffers a mental breakdown at work, has a spiritual and philosophical awakening during her stay at a holistic rehabilitation clinic, and brings her new attitude back to her professional and personal life. White and Dern, who cocreated the series, characterize Amy in many unflattering terms. She exudes the energy of a New Age kook who would talk a stranger’s ear off about some self-help book. She has almost no self-awareness, and her strident unpredictability puts everyone around her permanently on edge. Amy constantly pushes an agenda without ever realizing it, and she does so at the worst possible times, such as when she hijacks a friend’s baby shower to try to organize a protest for a soon-to-be-deported undocumented mother. At her worst, she’s the most pitiful kind of ideologue, the kind who desperately wants to reform but can’t perceive why her efforts are self-defeating.

It’s important that neither White nor Dern excuse those qualities, but they also make it relatively impossible not to sympathize with Amy. Her beliefs are genuine and heartfelt: She sincerely wants to improve herself and spread good will to others. Though her rehabilitation has the gloss of inchoate spirituality, Amy’s sincerity takes the sting out of her social faux pas and obliviousness without neutering the discomfort. But while her earnest progressivism comes from a place of honest concern, especially regarding her workplace’s toxic corporate culture and practices, White subtly emphasizes how she’s also motivated by vengeance. Amy might want to fight on behalf of the little guy, but only because she’s been scorned first. This tension between means and ends, intentions and consequences, self-improvement and self-destruction are what make Enlightened a true gem, a show whose characters feel unnervingly real because their values are both motivated by and at odds with their petty grievances.

Though Enlightened’s two seasons bridged Obama’s first and second terms, Amy Jellicoe feels like a character of the present moment, a “social justice warrior” desperately trying to take down the system without realizing she’s in over her head. The series indirectly confronted the zeitgeist but never got bogged down in responding to headlines. The White Lotus, on the other hand, tackles the present moment head-on simply by featuring characters who are hyper-aware of our divided culture. In Enlightened, Amy views Twitter as a fresh opportunity to express herself; in The White Lotus, it’s assumed that every character has been made miserable by being on Twitter for years.

With his new series, White updates the Enlightened playbook for a more self-conscious era, and given the size of his ensemble, the results are more diffuse and mixed. Shane’s feud with Armond, for example, evokes the moneyed class’s sense of reflexive entitlement toward the service class, exemplifying the assumption that trading money for work also necessitates fealty. It’s the broadest subplot in the series, culminating with an inebriated Armond defecating in Shane’s suitcase, but it lacks teeth because of Shane’s exaggerated character. His petulant tantrums and grinning arrogance render him too obviously villainous, an easy symbol of masculine toxicity and one-percenter superciliousness. Lacy’s knowing performance also annuls the character’s complexity; his awareness of Shane’s douchebaggery almost bleeds through the screen.

On the other hand, Paula’s story line encapsulates White’s nuanced perspective on politics mingling with personal animus. At the beginning of The White Lotus, Olivia and Paula come across like sketches of Gen Z partisans, smug and sardonic teens conversant in podcast-approved talking points who mistake put-downs for wit. Yet White details Paula’s growing resentment toward the Mossbacher parents effectively, capturing how their every flippant comment about socialism and the supposed marginalization of the white male slowly enrages her. At one point, Mark dismisses her discomfort with Native Hawaiian employees’ performing traditional dances for the guests by saying, “Obviously, imperialism was bad. But it’s humanity. Welcome to history. Welcome to America”—a tone-deaf statement that also contains a kernel of truth. It’s then that Paula convinces her vacation hookup to steal jewelry from the Mossbachers’ safe when they’re all out of the room in order to fund his lawsuit against the Hawaiian government for stealing his family’s land.

But White undercuts the righteousness of Paula’s crusade by muddling her motivations. It’s not clear that she convinces Kai to steal from the Mossbachers purely as an act of class warfare. It’s possible she simply wants to get back at Olivia for trying to steal her lover, something that she’s done once before, and leverages the rhetoric of inequality to further her aims. White also delves into her adolescent perspective, sympathizing with her earnestness while recognizing that her developing worldview conflates conflicting emotions—lust, rebellion, jealousy.

It’s key that White never follows up on Kai’s fate after Paula’s shoddy plan goes awry. He’s arrested off-screen for robbery and assault, likely to be imprisoned for going along with a naive teen’s revenge scheme. Of course, Paula has outsourced her alleged revolutionary act rather than participating in it herself, distancing herself from the consequences if not from the guilt. Comparable collateral damage piles up in The White Lotus across its cast of characters. Tanya initially promises to support Belinda’s business financially as thanks for helping her with her grief; by the end of the week, she focuses her attention on a new beau and hangs Belinda out to dry in a truly insulting way—paying her off while talking about not wanting to participate in transactional relationships.

These exclusions are baked into the show’s structure as well. The White Lotus begins with a birth and ends with a death, a too-neat touch on White’s part, aimed at erecting the divides from the onset. In the first episode, a pregnant employee breaks water and no one notices; she gives birth at the end of the episode and never returns to the story. Shane accidentally stabs Armond, killing him after effectively orchestrating his termination for the room fiasco. Armond dies alone in a luxury suite that he serviced but never slept in, and his death goes unavenged. These elisions are not accidental; rather, they are conscious manifestations of the psychopathy of the rich.

In one sense, The White Lotus represents an amalgamation of the interests that White has cultivated over the years. It’s an interrogation of wealth’s impact on personal behavior. An avowed fan of reality television (specifically Survivor, which he personally competed in), White imbues The White Lotus with the genre’s soapy sensibility. Hawaii, depicted in the series as a charged place for potential transformation, has long been a favored setting for White, who owns a house there and used it to similar effect in Enlightened. The online word-of-mouth success of his new series feels very much like a victory lap for a creator whose work has rarely been popular upon its initial release.

Yet, as a white man working in Hollywood during a period of social upheaval (or at least a period of paying lip service to social upheaval), he also instills the series with a new anxiety of obsolescence. White male anxiety permeates the series, evoked most strongly in Mark’s labored relationship with his son, Quinn, for whom he wants to model “positive” behavior, including open communication and emotional intelligence. Mark and Nicole quietly worry that someone like Quinn can’t thrive in this time, and White doesn’t skimp on the irony of this angst. The three white male guests in the series all either triumph or leave the island unscathed. Mark becomes a hero for clumsily trying to protect his wife from Kai. Shane literally gets away with murder. And Quinn undergoes his own spiritual awakening, transforming from a person who can’t live without a phone in his hand to someone who becomes so in tune with the nature and community of Hawaii that he rejects the trappings of modern society. White invests Quinn’s journey with disarming sincerity: While everyone else frets about their place in the world, the person whom the culture worries over most—a young, straight, white male—feels most secure sailing away.

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