Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea,
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be.
Beleaguered hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) cites Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos-Eaters deep into the run of HBO’s The White Lotus. Sitting in the eponymous Hawaiian luxury resort’s restaurant after an emotionally punishing day of work, he stares around at the guests, wondering aloud how watching them eat their fill makes him want to gouge his eyes out. His dinner partner, the holistic spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), a soothing presence to those in her orbit, neither agrees nor disagrees, simply pours more wine. In silence; ripen, fall and cease: give us long rest, or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Armond taught trainee Lani (Jolene Purdy) that anonymity is the game of their business, to dampen your essence and individuality so as to be the perfect unobtrusive host to the rich denizens of the eponymous hotel: “tropical kabuki.” Exist to appease a privileged lot used to being treated as the “special baby chosen child”. But by now, their essence is all but extinguished as they bend themselves broken to accommodate a particularly toxic and invasive group of vacationers, whose problems demand urgency and reverence, despite being more meagre and existential than the immediate, tangible issues facing those in their service. The staff are living in difficulty on colonised land, stolen as a resort for the wealthy to spend thousands a night barely watching the locals perform their cultural dances just to make a living, but, y’know, this room isn’t exactly what I’d like and I do need nice feng shui. Surely, surely, slumber is more sweet than toil!
The White Lotus, writer-director Mike White’s (Enlightened, School of Rock) experiment in high-minded lockdown filmmaking, opens with a death. Human remains are loaded onto a plane as one man, deplorable rich-bro Shane (Jake Lacy), watches on. Returning to a week before we see the staff welcome a boatful of tightly wound and entitled guests: a tech millionaire and her emasculated husband; their borderline sociopathic Gen-Z teenagers; a newlywed couple; an alcoholic clutching a box of ashes. Who dies? It really doesn’t matter. As we follow this glut of out-of-touch characters as they intersect with the staff and each other, it’s clear White was never once concerned with making a Big Little Lies style mystery. Instead, we are treated to a scabrous, perfectly realised satire on privilege, wealth and existential anxieties, replete with entertainingly awful yet uncomfortably understandable characters, a rich tapestry of increasingly complex class-conscious interactions, and a cast beyond capable of elevating such already great material.
Everyone in The White Lotus is desperate for peace, yet their surface reasons of grieving, or escaping the stress of work, betray deeper, intrinsic discomforts. And these, paired with the tiers of power different characters operate on, instigate the series many conflicts. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) processes the death of her emotionally manipulative mother, unwittingly perpetuating the same control over the ever-helpful Belinda, who sees in Tanya a potential financier for her own business. Newlywed Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) struggles to consolidate her newfound financial status—from husband Shane—with her will to have a career and not become a “moon to his planet”; while Shane finds a nemesis in the clinging-to-sobriety Armond, after a clerical mix-up provides a closed door that self-proclaimed “victim” Shane has never encountered in his life. The Mossbacher’s are a well of generational divides and performative allyship; reflected in their guest Paula (Brittany O’Grady), the rare person of colour staying at the resort, who listens to the families misguided debates on race and colonialism before sneaking off to see local staff member Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), whose home was displaced and repackaged as a space for waste and sloth for the rich and white.
It’s initially played as a delectable cringe-comedy, with dialogue that veers from surreal, as Tanya purrs that she met a “deep sea diver from Black Lives Matter”, to the unforgettably sociopathic: essentially anything uttered by Sydney Sweeney’s Olivia (with no context: “Maybe he was too embarrassed to ask grandma to use a dildo on him”). Ben Kutchin’s oceanside cinematography is often blisteringly beautiful, and never lets us forget the human footprint on the beautiful land. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s animalistic, flute-and-drum-heavy score is a world-beater, and always expertly employed (one track, the double-meaning “Fuck This Place!”, dissolving from heavy percussion to pleasured moans, is a real standout). As days and episodes draw on, paradise falls: The comedy stills and the intensity hangs as heavy in the air as the foreboding music. Empty hallways, a common motif, become ever more ominous. The camera bobs above the water to catch the hotel; waves detonate violently against the rocky shore, sea foam bubbles up from blood red sand. The White Lotus has turned as nasty as its worst denizens. And when it does, it is truly, wholeheartedly, wonderful.
I am occasionally guilty of the sin of hyperbole, but I assure you this next statement is measured, considered, and said with a lot of thought. The White Lotus has the most effective ensemble I have ever seen on television. Absent of the usual big name anchor that modern prestige series rely on, the cast is filled with talented and before now woefully under-utilised actors, and each one is at their absolute best, revealing untapped depths. Some showed their talents on under-seen shows (Bartlett the grounded, mature heart of Looking; Rothwell exuberant on Insecure), some have been in big properties and suffered typecasting as a result (Coolidge ever the bimbo in Legally Blonde, or as Stifler’s Mom; Daddario consigned to fare like Baywatch). The White Lotus allows every single actor the space and time for their performance to matter; it offers them a chance to subvert expectations. There is not a single weak link. If I were to name standouts, I’d personally plump for the four mentioned so far this paragraph: Coolidge and Bartlett as agents of chaos, Daddario and Rothwell heartbreakingly earnest. (Everyone’s favourites will be different). And even then, I feel bad for excluding Sweeney and O’Grady’s fascinating interplay; Fred Hechinger’s petulant frustration and optimistic arc; Lacy’s dirtbag entitlement; Steve Zahn’s gruesomely, insidiously funny delivery; and Connie Britton’s believable ferocity—searing in the series most memorable scene in a breathtakingly unpleasant interaction with Daddario. There’s no weak link. And I’ve never said that before. Even supporting cast Purdy, Kekumano, Lukas Gage, Jon Gries and Molly Shannon have impact: especially the latter, with her monstrous advice to Rachel, “Don’t work for charities, you throw parties for charities, and that is work”, so well delivered it’s skin crawling. No weak link, and no weak character.
Hopefully, this serves as a moratorium on the prevalent white-centric storytelling of Hawaiian narratives. Authentic, native stories should be the norm, and in a good world White’s series would act as one last blistering takedown of the dominant narrative. The White Lotus has proven an effective examination from his side of the debate on the discomfort for a land dependent on the tourism industry for rich people from foreign shores developed as a result of the meddling of rich people from foreign shores; of wealth, power, privilege sadly excusing repercussion and change. These characters are sated creatures of want, their needs now solely intangible. Everyone, staff included, say they want rest, but Armond knows better. Nobody knows what they want. Maybe it’s survival? But survival has varying degrees, and those at the top can survive more comfortably than those who are not. And in this world where ceding power to help others is as alien as the shores, nobody is above putting someone else down to stay afloat.