The White Existentialism of ‘The White Lotus’ – Washington Square News
HBO’s splashy summer drama probes America’s colonial past, but fails to rewrite a critical future.
Cradled by the lapping tides, a boat filled with white, wealthy, and unreasonably attractive patrons arrives on the island paradise of Maui as adorable staff members wave in the distance, relegated to a mere dot in the frame. This is one of the opening scenes of creator Mike White’s latest show, âThe White Lotus,â a moment that remains iconic throughout the series throughout its six episodes.
The show’s opening is about a mysterious corpse wrapped in an outbound flight and a man returning from his (presumably ruined) honeymoon. This image hovers over audiences as the series then returns to the beginning, showing the events leading up to this untimely death. With that, we officially meet the main cast of characters. First, a WASP-y tech family and their daughter Paula’s friend, then a lonely woman named Tanya mourning her late mother (played with hilarious brevity by a Jennifer Coolidge), and, finally, the young couple. newlyweds – who have already grown up to despise each other – go on their honeymoon.
These three groups each have equally charged dynamics that blend into each other and manage to separate dramatic climaxes as the series continues. But what really gives the show depth is the eclectic staff who run the hotel on the sidelines, including a bell boy named Kai, who begins a secret date with Paula who ends up heading south, and the powerful hotel manager named Armond, whose uncanny ability to break drug addiction to a hospitable Cheshire cat should receive several accolades. The staff are also at the center of the show’s rotation: a black spa worker named Belinda, whose impeccable service causes Tanya to become obsessive and demands that Belinda remain on hand. It is on these characters that families wreak havoc, as they demean, despise, and even outright insult staff in a futile attempt to exert control over their situations.
Watching privileged people soar under the sleek and alluring atmosphere of a tropical hotel that turns “The White Lotus” into late summer catnip and a daring satire of the American tourism industry that has taken control of Hawaii – one of the most famous but overlooked examples of theft and colonized land. However, as well-intentioned as this parody of the 1% is, the show’s constant focus on hotel guests creates another media obsessed with whiteness.
Instead of opting for parts of the narrative to focus on the staff, who are mostly people of color, White chooses to confuse only the problematic behavior of the newcomers. We see the twists and turns of snobby groom Shane’s erratic behavior toward Armond as retaliation for Armond’s failure to follow through on him. We watch in horror as tech company boss Nicole marries neoliberal Twitter lingo about canceling culture for her teenage children. Even more heartbreaking, we see Tanya’s obsession with Belinda’s service culminating in the revocation of an offer she made to fund Belinda’s Welfare Company, leaving Belinda in tears at the reception.
It is all as savage as it is painfully accurate. Unfortunately, the hospitality industry is organized to meet all the demands of eligible whites. The working-class people of color employed at these establishments are seen as completely replaceable, perhaps best represented by the pilot episode in which an intern gives birth in the hotel lobby – never to appear on the show again. There’s a cruel, cyclical nature to the hospitality industry that âThe White Lotusâ completely nails down, as white guests take over or even colonize the setting. However, it can be argued that the series leans too far into an area of ââexistential pessimism for its point to resonate.
While the series is flawless in its portrayal of the overwhelming whiteness in the tourism industry, the storylines aren’t nuanced enough to justify embodying its own review. The same remarks about class, colonialism, and race can be made while giving secondary characters equal screen time. Why aren’t the public quite sure why Kai told Paula he was forced to take this job? How does Belinda recover every day from catering for whites? In short, why aren’t these characters portrayed as interesting enough to be legitimately portrayed – even when the narrative concerns them?
A didactic history lesson on America’s colonial past isn’t even necessary here. The indigenous creators of TikTok have already went viral do the free work of explaining how Hawaiian tourism has become so uncontrollable. Even a simple glimpse into the lives of these hotel workers would have painted a richer portrait of the horrific effects of the hospitality industry, rather than just showing off the fiery right we have already encountered in other popular HBO outfits such as “Succession” or “Big Little Lies.”
Beyond the way improbability is constantly staged and presented here, the way some characters are written leans more towards caricature than complexity. Although played with gusto, Shane’s whiny condescension as he calls his new wife a trophy makes more of an opera villain than a legitimate break in the male ego. “The White Lotus” could have created human or even slightly related characters that evoke the daily micro-aggressions that most people in the service industry face on a daily basis. Instead, the series seems determined to solve all of Hawaii’s tourism problems with a few crazy examples rather than a nuanced problem with lots of moving parts.
The miniseries finale sees all three parts make a quick exit as the murderous plot comes to a heartbreaking conclusion. Families remain relatively unscathed, but staff members are returning to exactly where they started: smiles glued and waving to the horizon. This ending relays the desperation that “The White Lotus” was determined to convey and presents the characters’ separate destinies as inevitable. This streak mourns but accepts the effects of tourism in Hawaii and makes the winding intrigues more like an admission of obvious guilt than an eye-opening exploration of underserved populations.
âThe White Lotusâ is an undeniably successful entertainment series. From its inflated score to the bewitching scenography, the series begs the viewer to stay glued to the screen for any narrative punch that could approach the idyllic location. It is this aspect that most likely prompted HBO to renew the series for a second season and possibly more in the future. However, as âThe White Lotusâ continues, it is in the public interest to consider how much self-indulgent criticism of white creators is needed, and if they should simply step aside.
A version of this article appears in the electronic edition of Monday, August 30, 2021. Send an e-mail to Isabelle Armus To [emailÂ protected]