“They wanna be the only child, the special chosen baby child of the hotel,” explains resort manager Armond to a colleague in the first episode of HBO’s The White Lotus, a six-episode miniseries about rich people on vacation in Hawaii. The comedy drama, whose finale aired on Sunday night, is a scathing satire, neatly availing itself of two TV and film tropes: trouble in paradise (say, The Beach) and comedy in a hotel (Fawlty Towers).
What sets The White Lotus and its eponymous resort hotel apart is that it serves as a container for America’s social antagonisms, its guests and staff playing out the drama of class society and its 21st-century delusions in a tropical idyll. The principal members of the superbly cast ensemble number ten in total. The eight vacationers – a family of four plus friend, a newlywed couple, and a bereaved solo traveller – are avatars of America’s ruling class and its professional adjuncts: self-pitying but vicious, woke and superior. These are complemented by put-upon staff: Belinda, a hotel masseuse, and the manager, Armond.
Their interactions are frequently overlaid by a doomlike portentousness – judicially aided by an over-amped score of tribal drums and crashing waves that ratchet up tension without ever serving as a substitute for the real drama on screen. The characters’ relations, meanwhile, serve as reminders that society (class society) permeates everywhere, even on a tropical island, something that US television traditionally does its best to obfuscate.
The sharpness of the social satire is, it must be said, urged along by a cheap plot device: we learn in an opening scene flash-forward that somebody died at the resort during our eight protagonists’ stay. That this trope is well-executed doesn’t stop it from being a tired cliché. But to showrunner Mike White’s (School of Rock, Enlightened) credit, it works as a hook to get the action started; thereafter, the dramatic tension is self-sustaining. Even if the showrunners fluff the death-mystery denouement in tonight’s finale, it shouldn’t do great damage to the show.
Instead, the hotel guests generate their own compelling drama. Newlywed couple Shane (heir to a real estate magnate and an obnoxious douchebag in a Cornell cap) and Rachel (a clickbait journalist and the only guest not evidently from money) are in the process of discovering each other – and discovering they’ve made a huge mistake. Nicole (high-powered tech company CFO) and her demasculinised husband, Mark, are parents to Quinn (an alienated and screen-addicted teenager) and college sophomore Olivia (a self-obsessed and cruel wokester). Accompanied by Olivia’s college friend Paula (a typical overdiagnosed and overmedicated Zoomer), the five compose your classic rich, dysfunctional family. Rounding out this VIP set – these guests, unlike most, arrived by boat – is tragic Tanya, a botoxed lady of leisure struggling to process grief for her deceased abusive mother.
The characters’ needy narcissism spills over into the ambit of the hotel staff. Alcoholic Tanya latches on to Belinda, the hotel masseuse, imagining her a “mystical Negro” who can fill the void inside her. Stoic Belinda is left discomfited by Tanya’s quasi-ecstatic response to Belinda’s therapeutic massages. Belinda reluctantly accepts Tanya’s invitation to dinner, despite hotel regulations urging against staff-guest confraternisation. “What?! Is this some kind of caste system?” an incredulous Tanya asks (Oh, more than you know!).
Belinda keeps her cards close to her chest, in an echo of what Armond (a star turn by Murray Bartlett as a swishy, camp, recovering-addict hotel manager) advises another employee: “Self-disclosure is discouraged. . . . You don’t want to be too specific as a presence, as an identity.” The staff’s physical labour — readying the resort before guests have even awoken — is added to by the requisite emotional labour.
Armond, though, is at the end of his rope, teetering back into alcohol and drug abuse – requiring only a push from douchebag Shane, who insists on antagonising Armond for having double-booked the prized Pineapple Suite. Though honeymooning Shane and Rachel enjoy a beautiful suite with its own perks, Shane demands his pound of flesh. “I’m finally being shown some respect!” Shane exclaims after receiving a bottle of champagne as recompense from Armond. This “Karen” reimagined as frat boy needs his ego stroked. “People have been coming for me my whole life,” he bemoans to his wife, his immense social advantages recast as victimisation.
It is these sorts of moments that are so astutely observed in the show. Mike White has his characters pushed up against one another such that they land blows, exposing one other’s foibles and contradictions, without a paragon of virtue ever emerging – be it personal or political.
In one of the many tense dinner table scenes (a stable of satires of the bourgeoisie, from Luis Buñuel onwards) social-justice warrior Olivia denounces her mother Nicole’s career, minimising her achievement as a woman at the top of the corporate ladder, and charging her Big Tech company of “unravelling the social fabric.” It turns out that Nicole was merely looking for some personal validation from her daughter, not her political endorsement. “I want support as your mother,” she exclaims – one of the many instances of confusion between the personal and political, the social and psychological.
Olivia and Paula are written perfectly as students in their first years of college, members of a future manager caste who have learned a little about the world and imagine themselves to know everything. At one point, Nicole hits back at the pair: “My feeling is most of these activists, they don’t really want to dismantle the systems of economic exploitation, not the ones that benefit them – which are all global, by the way. They just want a better seat at the table of tyranny.” Olivia retorts, “No, that’s just you, Mom.”
“And what’s your system of belief, Olivia?” Nicole asks. “Not capitalism. Not socialism. So just cynicism?”
That such a skewering of the radical and self-serving pretensions of well-to-do wokeness should come from a Hillary-stan girlboss is some achievement on the part of the show’s creators. When truth emerges from unlikely mouths, it is a testament to good writing.
And an unlikely mouth it is. In a separate scene, pretty puff-piece journalist Rachel approaches Nicole, of whom she’d written a profile some years before, seeking life advice. Rachel feels she is losing her independence, now that she has married into money, and worries her career will evaporate (execrable husband Shaun even proposes to “double whatever they’re paying you” so that his new bride become the trophy wife of his dreams). It is revealed that in that piece Rachel argued Nicole had climbed to the top of the corporate ladder “surfing the Me Too wave, using the victimisation of other women to advance.” No one comes off well, even Rachel – she’s part of the system, too, now benefiting from the financial security she has married into.
And this is precisely the point. Ideology is not what you believe, it is what you do.
Teenage son Quinn, fed up with his sister and mother’s self-serving arguments, explodes at the table: “What does it matter what we think? If we think the right things or the wrong things? We all do the same shit.” A moment of stunning clarity – though one quickly undermined as we learn what Quinn was driving at: eco-nihilism. “We’re all still parasites on the Earth. There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating the last fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fires. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”
Once again, the guests’ preening narcissism leads them to continually misrecognise the political as personal and vice versa. For example, when self-pitying father Mark is traumatised by the impromptu news he receives (his late father was gay, had led a double life, and died of AIDS, not cancer as previously believed), unfeeling daughter Olivia interprets it as an expression of homophobic disgust — yet another opportunity for her to virtue signal.
This self-involvement can be dangerous. Dipsey, needy Tanya casually throws out the idea that Belinda could start her own business – Tanya could even bankroll it! Belinda suddenly eyes an opportunity to prize herself out of an unsatisfying job at the hotel wellness centre “helping fucked-up rich people” (“Oh, I know loads of fucked-up rich people,” Tanya spits with some venom – clearly referring to her abusive parents . . . and maybe herself). Later, Tanya starts a vacation romance and seems to lose interest in her erstwhile favourite Belinda. Will Belinda be left in the lurch, holding a business plan with no addressee?
Tanya’s evident psychological pain encourages a degree of audience sympathy. As does Olivia’s friend Paula – caught not only in her friend’s family’s derangement but also in her friend’s jealous crosshairs. Paula – one of the only non-white guests — identifies with the plight of Kai, a handsome Hawaiian staff member and his story of injustice (the hotel stole his family’s land; now he works at the hotel performing traditional dances for the hotel’s rich patrons). To “save” Kai, she devises a plan for him to steal a pair of Nicole’s bracelets worth seventy-five grand each – thereby exposing him, not her, to a great deal of risk. She only does so, however, once she learns Olivia had been flirting with Kai, trying to steal him out from under her. Funny how alleged passions for social justice so often come interlaced with personal vindictiveness.
That such a show has been made in the contemporary US may be an accident of circumstance. It was greenlit because HBO was looking for something “COVID friendly” from a production point of view. Shooting on location at a Hawaiian resort hotel fit the bill. But HBO does have prior. In its satire of the rich – and examination of American pathologies through the prism of the family – Succession is an obvious comparison. The latter is a far grander show, and the better drama, but showrunner Mike White recognises some limitations of Succession as satire of the upper-middle class: “It’s a great show, but it’s very king’s court. You can kind of otherise them. They’re billionaires. With White Lotus, I wanted it to be more, like, this is your next-door-neighbour rich person who is part of the system.”
Some critics have complained that this approach lacks dramatic tension, asking “Why should I care about these people’s vacation?” But it is the (if not quite ordinariness, then) lack of exoticism of the show that makes it such cutting satire. After all, a sense of entitlement is common to vacationers lower down the social order too, and this is what makes it such engaging viewing. So much is invested into your one week away amid fifty-one weeks of slog that the need for it to be perfect and unencumbered by ordinary social concerns looms large. This is why the trouble-in-paradise trope, the vacation disaster idea, recurs so frequently, in fiction as well as in our own fears. It’s what makes the show so provocative.
But what makes the guests at the White Lotus that bit different is their evident lack of concern with making a nice time of it; they, unlike most, wear their leisure lightly – be it Nicole’s workaholic disposition or Shane’s determination to pursue the resort manager at the expense of honeymoon bliss.
Here is an important point about class that the show understands – with its carefully rounded and almost never totally unsympathetic characters (to be expected from a writer of Freaks and Geeks, the only thing on screen ever to do high school well). Class is not about inequality, it’s about unfreedom. A major part of the story of class society is the damaged subjects it creates. Like in Parasite, the staff, the downtrodden, the downstairs to the rich guests’ upstairs, are not good victims, or good because they’re victims. They have their foibles and their damage too. But we sympathise because their agency, their freedom, is far more circumscribed than those they serve.
This is socially structured. It is not about having good opinions or being a good person. Ideology works through what you do, not the thoughts you hold in your head. Understanding things this way allows The White Lotus to pierce through the endless self-important culture wars, whose foundation is precisely the opinions one holds and the opinions of others one holds and the opinions one presumes the other to hold. And this remains true no matter how “political” the opinions – say, in the face-off between those concerned with oppression and privilege and those defensive of merit and achievement. At the White Lotus’s evening lobster bake, these sides are materially only divided by an expanse of table, and maybe a generation.
That their narcissism prevents them from perceiving it is by the by: What would it change? At issue is that their materially structured delusions are continually splattered over the US media. This is contemporary politics – The Discourse – flattening, crushing, bending out of shape, and sucking out the oxygen from the public sphere. That place where class politics might be.
Alex Hochuli is a writer and research consultant based in São Paulo, Brazil. He is co-host of Aufhebunga Bunga, the global politics podcast, and co-author of Politics at the End of the End of History.