10 Thoughts I Had While Watching HBO's New Mini-Series 'The White Lotus'
Tensions are mounting at The White Lotus. Created by Mike White, The White Lotus is a satirical mini-series set in a hotel of the same name against the utopic backdrop of Maui, Hawaii. It follows a dysfunctional crew of hotel guests, and the staff that orbit them, over the course of a week in paradise that reveals all that can go wrong – and all that we attempt to escape from – when we go on holiday.
In the first scene, we flashforward to the airport. There, a fiercely sheltered Shane Patton (Jake Lacy), who has travelled to celebrate his honeymoon with Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), reveals that someone has died at the hotel during their stay and aircrew are loading the coffin onto the plane. From that moment chaos ensues. White’s ambitious mission for the show takes shape. By unpeeling every cultural onion we grapple with as a society today, from grief to performative wokeness, he plots the struggles of his characters to feel seen.
Take Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) for example, for whom Hawaii represents the final frontier in her journey to reckon with her mother’s death and part with her ashes. Or look to Paula (Brittany O’Grady), Olivia Mossbacher’s (Sydney Sweeney) plus-one, as she navigates being part of a family holiday that doesn’t go as planned. There are also the staff, like hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), who juggles multiple philosophical balls at once, including his quest for sobriety and thirst for power in a service industry that affords him none.
The show’s humour is dark and the pace is slow, each episode awash with problems faced by the wealthy and privileged that range from trivial to troubling. At first glance, they might engender an eye roll, but White fleshes out substance in every character, no matter how one-dimensional they may seem.
Like the inviting waters that splash against the screen, The White Lotus feels refreshing in its acknowledgement that female and male characters are deeply complicated and demand unpacking onscreen. The show baits audiences with a novel challenge; it dares us to sit through a whodunit that doesn’t resolve in TikTok speed. Below, 10 thoughts that came to mind while waiting for clues.
'10 Thoughts I Had While Watching HBO's New Mini-Series The White Lotus'
1. We may have graduated from The School of Rock, but the adults in the room, and the insecurities they face, are no less concerning.
It’s hard to watch The White Lotus without drawing connections to School of Rock (2003), given both were written by White. On some level, both projects are preoccupied with adults who struggle to rise to the occasion despite the resources available to them, and whose anxieties are projected onto a younger generation to bear the burden.
The cast of The White Lotus may be older than the class of Horace Green, but there is an infantile hopelessness in many of their behaviours, like Tanya, who appears to always be lost, or Shane’s dependency on his mother, that detracts from their abilities to inhabit identities that are whole.
Armond highlights this in the show’s pilot, when the guests approach the hotel and he schools the new staff member on how to behave around them. “You don’t want to be too specific as a presence, as an identity, you want to be more generic,” he explains. “The goal is to create for the guests an overall impression of vagueness… they get everything they want but they don’t even know what they want”.
2. What paradise lost lies in the Pineapple Suite, and how would it have altered the course of the Pattons’ honeymoon?
Before arriving at The White Lotus, Shane embarks on a virtual tour of the Honeymoon Suite paid for by his parents, only to discover it doesn’t exist. Promised a plunge pool with a private patio (which we later learn belong to a double-booked Pineapple Suite), the couple’s romantic vacation is foiled by Shane’s attempts to secure a better room.
Their appearance as happy newlyweds begins to crack and you wonder if the greener grass in the Pineapple Suite would have been enough of a distraction to smooth over their incompatibility. If they had stayed in the room they had paid for, would Rachel have been sitting alongside Shane in the airport, waiting to board their flight? Could she be in the coffin, or did she just step away to the bathroom?
3. In a faraway life that existed before Covid-19, did family holidays suck this much?
Watching the Mossbacher family role-play experiences that are intended to bond them – from snorkelling to sharing meals together – is sometimes funny but always tinged with sadness. The parents, Mark and Nicole (Steve Zahn, Connie Britton), have drifted apart, setting a precedent of disconnection that pumps bad blood through the veins of Olivia and her brother Quinn.
There are familiar triggers, like the frustration of sharing a room with a sibling or enduring embarrassing admissions from your mother in front of your friend, that will resonate with everyone. But these moments will also encourage you to interrogate past holidays more deeply, and question whether you’d volunteer to be stranded with loved ones on an island resort again.
4. What do Paula and Olivia have to gain from pretending to read all those books by the pool, if they refuse to confront the tensions underlying their own female friendship?
Much has been written about the poolside accessories of the guests at The White Lotus. Do these props serve as stand-ins for their characters, giving us insight into who they are? What does it mean, for example, that Rachel reads Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ or that Shane clutches to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’?
More puzzling, however, is how Paula and Olivia power through the works of Freud, Nietzsche and Judith Butler, but even with their theories front of mind, fail to confront their own ‘Gender Trouble’. While we presume they met in college, establishing a friendship where Paula broadened Olivia’s reading list and Olivia repaid the favour by inviting her on holiday, we watch their trust and communication disintegrate, and wonder if, and for who, their relationship registers meaning and even intimacy.
5. Does Rachel’s appearance betray her resistance to keep up with the Joneses?
While her husband fights to get a room upgrade, newlywed Rachel wrestles with the reality that she is no longer a starving journalist, but a rich wife. When she gets an assignment during their honeymoon, Shane argues with her until she turns it down, reducing her writing to “clickbait gussied up as some high-minded, trendy, woke bullshit”. Most of her anxieties chime with the life of a freelancer: she’s always hustling, she has big dreams, and she makes inconsistent money.
But what doesn’t add up is why Rachel has the best vacation wardrobe in the show. It begs the question whether this is an oversight or a clue? Is White using her clothes to signal to us that she is not who she seems, and we should not trust her, or is he using fashion to distract us from an answer that lies in plain sight, as to who ends up in the coffin?
6. Why isn’t Belinda, the spa manager, running the show?
There is a sense that all the staff members and guests at The White Lotus are unhinged, except Belinda, which makes one wonder why she isn’t in charge. Of all the characters, she seems hyper-aware of where she fits in – in reality and in everyone’s minds. When she turns down Tanya’s dinner invitation, Tanya’s response (“Is there some kind of caste system?”) stirs up Belinda’s agency, and her unwavering compassion for others (“there’s a purpose in helping even rich people”) gives a sense that she sees past the BS in ways the other staff can’t. Here’s hoping if she survives the season, and the show is renewed, there will be changes to management.
7. Is this sepia-tinted version of Hawaii affecting our sense of time and space?
It’s impossible to ignore that White’s vision of Hawaii is bathed in a golden light with a certain vintage quality, as if the footage was pulled out of the wash decades ago but no one has aged. Initially it felt like he was attempting to invoke nostalgia for holidays past, but as drama unfolds at The White Lotus, the sepia tint feels ironic.
Coupled with the show’s slow build, the yellow overtones seem to stretch place and time; it’s more beautiful to watch but feels like each day slips into night without disruption, and that the guests have been at the hotel for much longer than a week.
8. If validation is a binding thread in the show, what do its characters tell us about how to feel seen?
One of the most interesting elements of the show is how it explores our need to feel seen, and how each of us achieves our sense of validation. For Shane, any gaps in his masculinity are restored through sex, while Rachel seeks self-worth through her career. These pursuits are easy enough to stomach, but the show interrogates more vulnerable, nuanced ways of chasing visibility, like Tanya finding herself by mourning her mother, or Mark reconciling his past with his father by reclaiming his relationship with his son.
Even if the dialogue can be on the nose–like when Nicole asks her daughter why “it’s okay to reduce everybody to their race and gender [given that’s] the kind of thinking we’ve been fighting against all these years?” – White strikes at an important sore point. If we seek validation by whittling ourselves down to one thing, like work or family or masculine assertion, what happens when we can no longer depend on these parts of our identities to make us feel full?
9. Could there be something worse than the germs that fester in hotel rooms, like the lingering histories of the guests that inhabit them?
Besides the obvious conditions of shared space and inevitable sunburn that may exacerbate the feeling of being stranded on an island with your loved ones for one day too long, could it be said that the guests at The White Lotus, and their stories, are haunted by previous hotel revellers? Think about it: Nicole is always rearranging the furniture, worried about feng shui, while Shane fails to enjoy the spoils of a pre-paid honeymoon without the Honeymoon Suite. What if, it turns out, the coffin is filled with the body of an ex-guest, or worse, somebody dies in a room in the hotel that has seen death before?
10. Finally, even the beauty of Hawaii can’t eclipse the trials of adulthood
… But at The White Lotus, it can expose the problems of the privileged and, for a while, make you forget your own, offering a brief but entertaining respite from real life.