The White Lotus

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Jolene Purdy and Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus.
Jolene Purdy and Murray Bartlett in The White Lotus.
Photo: Showmax


The White Lotus




4/5 Stars


The series details a week in the life of vacationers as they relax and rejuvenate in paradise. With each passing day, a darker complexity emerges in these picture-perfect travellers, the hotel's cheerful employees and the idyllic locale itself.


There is a line in The Great Gatsby where the narrator, Nick Carraway, says: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that held them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…" This is such an apt way to describe the satire that The White Lotus implores to critique the careless manner in which the upper class treats those who are not as privileged as them.

The series begins with the character of Shane (Jake Lacy) at the airport talking to another couple; he says he is heading home after his honeymoon. After they enquire about his wife, he tells them to mind their business. We then see him watching as a coffin-sized box with the sticker 'human remains' is loaded onto the plane. From there, we flashback to when Shane and his wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) are on a boat on their way to a resort in Maui, Hawaii. From the very start, we know that someone will be dead by the end of the trip, however, the series does not feel like a murder mystery. We aren't constantly teased about the murder; there are no clues scattered throughout the series; it sits more like a foreboding of what is to come. We know that someone is going to die, but the tone of the series moves at such a pace that by the end, it could literally be anyone (other than Shane, of course).

The White Lotus serves more as a character study. One of the few places where people of different social classes are forced to interact with each other is at a luxury resort where it is the duty of the staff to make guests feel welcomed and their every whim served. As the guests are arriving on the island, the manager Armand (Murray Bartlett), tells a new staff member, Lani (Jolene Purdy), to treat the guests as if they were the "special chosen baby child of the hotel".

The guests include the aforementioned Shane, a trust fund real estate mogul, and his wife Rachel, a clickbait journalist who is trying to build up her career. Shane spends most of his honeymoon at war with Armand because he believes he was cheated out of the room his mother booked for them. At the same time, Rachel is grappling with her decision to marry him, as his true colours are shown. Shane laments that people have been coming for him his whole life because of his privilege, which fuels his crusade against Armand. Rachel, however, is going through a career crisis; Shane wants her to give up her work to be a trophy wife, but she feels like she is not as far in her career as she wished to be at that point, and she's not ready to give up on the dream.

And then there are the Mossbachers. Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton) is a CFO of a search engine, a kind of Sheryl Sandberg-type, who was hellbent on her family going on vacation together, even though she works through it all. Her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), is struggling with a cancer scare. While learning some surprising information about his own father, it causes him to re-examine his relationship with his teenage son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger). Quinn is addicted to technology, and when an accident causes his phone and tablet to be forced out of the equation, he learns to appreciate life in a different way. The daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), is college-aged and at the point of her life when she believes herself to be smarter than everyone else, constantly judging and using 'faux woke' rhetoric to damn her family but does not see how she still benefits from her own privilege.

Travelling with the Mossbachers is Paula (Brittany O'Grady), Olivia's college friend and one of the few non-white guests at the resort. Paula is an interesting character because she walks the line between the 'haves' and the 'have nots' while not being completely on the side of either of them. Like Olivia, she judges others and uses her intelligence as a weapon in order to ridicule others. But when she meets and starts a relationship with a hotel employee, Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), things change for Paula. She learns how the resort is built on his family's ancestral land stolen from them. It prompts her to become more outspoken about imperialism, cultural appropriation and privilege, which causes her to bump heads with Mossbachers and make rash moves. But at the same time, she is also protected by her association with the Mossbachers. She has learned how to benefit from her proximity to them by knowing her place compared to Olivia and the rest of the family.

The final featured guest is Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a wealthy woman who went to the resort to scatter her mother's ashes. Shortly after arriving, she receives treatment at the spa from the spa manager, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell). She then becomes attached to Belinda, promising to invest in helping Belinda create her own wellness centre. And because of this promise, Belinda puts in the extra time to be a companion to Tanya, even accompanying her to scatter her mother's ashes. But once Tanya got what she wanted from Belinda, she moved on, leaving Belinda with shattered hopes. This storyline was painful to watch, especially because of Rothwell's performance. In the scene where Tanya leaves her, you see the emotion on her face, realising she had her hopes up. Coolidge is also in top form in a role that is both comedic and emotional, and there is a monologue that she does on the boat about her mother that is so perfectly insane that you can't help but feel sympathy for her.

On the other end are Armand and the rest of the staff at The White Lotus. One of the staff members, Lani, goes into labour on her first day, and Armand did not even know she was pregnant, but she needed the job so badly that she didn't disclose that she was pregnant. Armand is a recovering drug addict, but the stress of the job causes him to start using again, and he spirals out of control. At the end of the vacation, the guests leave, and we assume their lives go back to normal, but the staff of The White Lotus lives will never be the same again. They have to deal with a death that happened at the resort, a staff member is arrested for another crime that they were encouraged to do by a guest, and all of them are affected by having to serve every whim of the wealthy guests. In the same way that in The Great Gatsby, the actions of Tom and Daisy caused the death of Gatsby and the Wilsons, and they were just able to go on with their lives with no repercussions.

All six episodes of The White Lotus was written and directed by Mike White (School of Rock, Enlightened), and even though the characterisation might seem harsh, none of the characters feel like caricatures. They are all so well-rounded that they feel real, and you can't help but feel sympathy for them to a certain degree, but perhaps not enough to admonish them of their crimes. The only character who seems wholly like a villain is Shane, and thanks to the non-linear storyline, he is also the one character who we know for sure will be alive at the end. Just like F. Scott Fitzgerald before him, and other storytellers, Mike White is telling a story where bad people don't necessarily get punished; wealth and privilege have allowed people to get away with their crimes for centuries. If anything, The White Lotus is trying to tell us to look at ourselves and how our actions affect those around us, especially those who are not as privileged as we are.


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