When The White Lotus premiered, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I knew it was by Mike White, the creative force behind School of Rock, The Good Girl, and the infuriatingly ignored Enlightened. My expectations were high as Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, and the other rich, largely white, visitors descended upon the sun-drenched shore where the show takes place. I assumed there would be well-written characters. I assumed there would be some quirky hijinks. What I didn’t expect was how much dread White and company would conjure up during our stay in Hawaii.
What follows are my thoughts on the first season of The White Lotus (happy day, it’s been renewed) and this will entail spoilers. So be warned.
Welcome to the White Lotus
We start the show with a death, which sets the tone for much of the series. Now, I must admit… for some reason I thought Shane (Jake Lacy) had literally said the body was his wife’s. I didn’t realize this was a mystery at all until a few episodes in when I stumbled upon some tweets referencing the “mystery.” I went back after the season finale and watched this opening scene just to make sure. My enjoyment of the show wasn’t lessened by this, as to me the mystery was more the “how.” But I did assume Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) had the Damocles sword over her head. As it turns out, the sword had been swaying and wibbling over everyone the entire time.
The arrival at the island reminded me of Fantasy Island. I haven’t seen the show since I was a kid, but I do remember them greeting the guests every episode. Except, in this case, all the characters disembarking the boat are already living in a fantasy. Every character who works at the hotel is there to prop up and support that fantasy for as long as the guests are there. We see the suffering this causes right away in the character of Lani (Jolene Purdy), who needed a job and was too scared to admit she was very pregnant the first day on the job. One of the things that White does so well as a writer is that events and characters are never just one thing. Lani’s surprise pregnancy is played for laughs on one level. A near-sitcom device that Armond (Murray Bartlett) must deal with as the manager. But it’s also a horrific thing, that Lani is forced to do this, and Armond genuinely feels bad that he thought she was “just a little chunky.”
Unlikablely Likable or Likably Unlikable
It’d be impossible to untangle all the complex knots between the characters (and within the characters) in a single journal post. Besides, there’s the series itself to present that. But the genius of the show is that while none of the characters, save for Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), are what you’d call traditionally “likable” it’s easy to find yourself rooting for them at times. When Quinn (Fred Hechinger) finds his rowing buddies, when Rachel finally calls Shane a man-baby, any time Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) finds any sliver of joy—my protective instincts kicked in. But then you remember that Quinn is a part of the thoroughly spoiled and entitled Mossbacher family, Rachel eventually capitulates after much handwringing, and we know, even before the final episode, that Tanya is going to disappoint Belinda.
That’s because most character’s “goodness” or “badness” (or “likability” versus “unlikability”) is almost always situational. It just depends on the context, and who they’re playing against. The only focus characters who fall outside of this are Belinda and Shane. If Belinda is the most likable person, then Shane is her polar opposite. He’s a spoiled, entitled momma’s boy who murders someone and gets an apologetic handshake for it. His obsession with the pineapple suite—which isn’t even a better room, just a larger and more expensive one—is only because It’s something he was meant to have that he’s being denied. He didn’t even pick it out! His mom did! Speaking of Shane’s mom, she’s played by Molly Shannon, bringing her spikier qualities to full effect. If you’re looking for another great Mike White project, I very much recommend Year of the Dog.
I eventually found it hard to ever root for the Mossbachers, Tanya, or Rachel. Through Paula (Brittany O’Grady) and her “island boy” Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) we’re reminded that the very foundations of the White Lotus are built on stolen land. This is when the dread that has permeated the series really kicks into high gear. Everything around Kai, Paula, and the botched robbery is heartbreaking. Paula genuinely cares for Kai, and wants justice, but she does so in the most immature way. It was infuriating as she watched Nicole storm off, apparently oblivious to the consequences it could have for Kai. The problem is, she didn’t put much thought into her mini rebellion, even if her heart was in the right place. She gets to return to her friendship with Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and back to her life while Kai rots away in jail. When Paula is forced to endure the Mossbachers celebrating their luck, letting her necklace go into the ocean, it really is heartbreaking. The fact that ruining Kai’s life ends up providing an aphrodisiac for Nicole and Mark (Steve Zahn) is nauseating.
We know from the start Tanya just isn’t built to be focused enough to start a company with Belinda. But seeing it play out ends up being even more heartbreaking than I imagined. Tanya is self-aware enough to avoid “transactional friendships” but then tries to assuage her guilt with a huge chunk of cash. I found Rachel’s situation hard to empathize with from the start. But that’s only because I came to the same thought Rachel had by the end. Being rich and having sex with a hot guy would be an okay tradeoff for being arm candy. This probably makes both Rachel and I terrible people, but the reality is life is hard without money. And Shane seems like the type to roam and be gone a lot. So, there’d be time to find meaning and love. Yes, you’d have to put up with his asshole man-baby self, but that feels like a very privileged problem to have. I might hate Rachel (and myself!) for making the choice she ultimately does, especially after rooting for her for telling Shane off, but I understand the call.
Shane, in the Pineapple Suite, with the Pineapple Knife
Before the finale, there was a segment of the internet hoping that Armond might get fired from the White Lotus, only to be hired for another location for the second season (which will have a new cast and feature a different hotel in the White Lotus chain). Alas, it was not meant to be. It’s understandable why people gravitated toward Armond. Not only is Bartlett insanely magnetic (check him out in Looking and Tales of the City if you haven’t already) but he is the spiky counterpart to Belinda’s patience. If you have ever worked retail, or any customer-facing job, you’ve probably wanted to be Armond at some point. Yes, Armond has issues, to say the least. And his drug-fueled revenge both goes too far and gets him killed. But before that happens, he’s easy to relate to.
That he’s killed, especially after articulating the horror at the heart of the series in his comparison of the guests to the lotus eaters from Greek mythology, has a sense of inevitability about it once it happens. It’s one of the on-the-nose moments of the series, where what is generally spoken softly is said at full volume. Kai, Belinda, Lani—they’re playing the game, whether they really want to or not. Armond steps outside of it and sees it for what it is. So, of course, he must die. That being said, I have to note that Armond is the white manager, while the native people are relegated to waiting on tables, cleaning rooms, and providing the entertainment “local color.” When he dies, he’s replaced by another white manager. In this way, this idea of Armond as a commentator, somehow on the outside of everything, is shown to be a fallacy as well.
That’s why, in the end, I’m tempted to call The White Lotus a horror show. The ending, despite its moments of beauty (If you’ve seen Enlightened, you might wonder where White’s fascinations with turtles floating in the sea comes from), feels hopeless to me. Kind, empathetic Belinda mustering her best smile as she greets the new boatload of entitled assholes is heartbreaking. Quinn running (literally) from his family to go on a canoe feels like a moment of hope at first. Can this screen-obsessed kid break away from the cycle? But it’s also easy to see Quinn getting bored with it after a while. And he’ll have the safety net of his family to fall back onto. It’s hard for it to not feel like a dalliance as the rich kid plays around for a while. As an aside, I found the airport scene a little weird. Are we expected to believe the Mossbachers saw Quinn didn’t board the plane and thought “Oh well, guess he is staying.” I feel like they’d all be off that plane searching for him. But I’ll let that one go.
Paula throwing Kai’s necklace away (just as she threw him away) and letting Olivia embrace her again is also horrifying. Tanya getting ready to hop from exotic location to exotic location with her terminally ill beau is a dark “happy” ending as well. And then there’s Rachel, who has also given up and returned to her man-baby, murdering husband. The White Lotus can be so charming, human, and funny in ways, that it softens the blow when you realize there is no easy peace or justice or happiness in The White Lotus. Which is one reason the ending felt satisfying, dark, and all too real.