“Where does all the pain go?”
That’s the most urgent moral question posed in The White Lotus, the HBO series by Mike White which wrapped its first season on Sunday. That it’s asked by a 16-year-old rich white kid at a luxury Hawaiian resort, as displaced Natives shed their hotel uniforms for traditional dress and perform a dinnertime-friendly entertainment for people who have benefitted most from the island’s destruction (and who don’t even watch but complain it’s too loud), doesn’t make it less compelling.
I can’t think of a question more timely or more acutely distressing to contemplate during a pandemic which has killed more than 4 million people, as humanity barrels towards climate catastrophe, as Afghanistan falls.
Quinn Mossbacher (Fred Hechinger) is largely invisible to the people at the dinner table with him: his Lean In-style mother Nicole (Connie Britton), his masculinity-obsessed father Mark (Steve Zahn), his caustic sister Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and her class-conflicted frenemy Paula (Brittany O’Grady). Because they’re preoccupied with the timeless question pitched at every major reorganization of society: Who gets to have power now, and where do I fit in?
The adult Mossbachers are largely in agreement about what’s really going on: All the social justice talk that proliferates now is not really moral in nature. It’s tribal. “Activists don’t want to dismantle the systems of economic exploitation,” Nicole explains. “They just want a better seat at the table of tyranny.” Paula and Olivia don’t seem entirely convinced, but they don’t seem able to envision a world without hierarchies either. They’re staking a claim for themselves by being smarter than everyone else, lounging poolside with books by Freud, Nietzsche, and Frantz Fanon—although they go through so many in the course of a week it’s fair to wonder how much they’ve actually read and how much those tomes act as props to discourage scrutiny of their conduct. But while they may have increased their understanding of oppressive and colonialist structures, they can’t quite figure out a way to live outside of them—not if it means signing up to being ordinary, or broke, or shacking up with a guy who works at the resort.
But Quinn isn’t talking about power. He’s not identifying with his class, his status, his privilege: He’s thinking about the world around him. And it’s in pain. “Like, one billion animals died” in the Australian wildfires, he says.
“Where does all the pain go?”
Nobody at the table answers the question because wow, downer! But the series does, mostly through the trajectory of the resort’s employees, through the people most affected by class, status, race, and worldviews that concern themselves with power alone. Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), who Paula sleeps with, sets up to steal Nicole’s jewelry, and then abandons when he gets caught, simply disappears, running off into an increasingly blurry vanishing point. So, that’s where his trauma goes. Probably to jail. Armond (Murray Bartlett) dies, killed by a guest who apparently gets to leave without consequence. An efficient way to deal with his sorrow: Box it up, ship it home, bury it.
The most vivid representation of where pain goes belongs to the character of Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the resort’s resident “healer” and manager of its wellness center. Like Quinn, Belinda is concerned by the suffering around her. It’s her job to care but tending to it feels like a vocation. She uses her talents, her touch and her voice, to help people connect with themselves again—which is good, she thinks. That she “heals” mostly rich white women, though, pricks her conscience. “Rich people, they are the ones who are fucking up the world,” she tells Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge). But you can see that Belinda thinks that maybe through healing, the rich white people are getting in touch with other people’s hurt, too? Maybe it’s doing some good, similar to Tony Soprano and his therapy sessions.
Tanya teases Belinda with the promise of helping her start her own business, and Belinda jumps at the opportunity. She formulates a business plan in which it’s not just rich white women who are granted curative rituals of care, but also poor women, broken women. Who better to feel the healing touch, right? That dream implodes because, well, it was obvious Tanya was only ever using Belinda to experience her own power—to have it massaged into her body on demand. But at least Tanya has learned enough to couch her betrayal in the language of self-improvement. “You’re so talented,” Tanya says, “but I’m realizing I’m getting into this pattern again where I latch on to someone and use my money to control them.”
Tanya tells Belinda that “another transactional relationship” isn’t “healthy” for her,” and passes her an envelope stuffed with cash by way of apology. It’s the last installment in what was always a transactional relationship—and a potent reminder that “wellness” is often endless spa-sanctioned indulgence for rich people.
Belinda’s tears—the first and only non-white tears of the series—are ignored by Tanya, who scoots back in, not to comfort Belinda, but only to grab her sunglasses. (Can’t go to Honolulu without those!) Belinda’s misery is ignored, and even Belinda can’t indulge it because the phone is ringing, another rich client looking to be made whole. Belinda sets her sorrow aside in much the same way she puts away the money in the drawer.
Later, as she sits playing agony aunt for Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), another white woman decrying her gilded cage, Belinda stands up and declares, “I’m out.”* But she’s not quitting her job—that’s not an option when you must make a living. She’s just doing what Armond did: checking out, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually. She’s dead in her own way now, a necessary form of employment insurance. In the finale, the once open and vulnerable Belinda shuts herself off to protect her own livelihood. It’s clear to her now that Armond was right: You can’t serve these people and be whole yourself. Something has to give, and that something is her.
In contrast to Belinda’s slow asphyxiation over the course of the series, Quinn comes alive—to himself, to the world around him. To the ocean and to the locals who welcome him into their boat and take him along with them on their journey to the big island. Quinn, whose only interest when he arrived was his iPhone, no longer cares if he ever has another device because he has found connection. And he found it by looking outside the resort’s walls.
Quinn is the only character who doesn’t think his room is a meaningful indicator of status, so much so that he winds up sleeping on the beach with nothing but a duvet and a lounge chair. Possibly the only fair-skinned redhead in recorded history who doesn’t cower in the presence of the sun, his lack of self-regard pays off. Quinn is the only guest that enjoys something like a transcendent private moment: a nighttime vision of a whale breeching in the ocean. The idea of leaving, of going back to what he calls a “dead” life fills Quinn with pain. Looking out at the ocean from his lounge chair, he cries.
In the last scene of the finale, he paddles into the sunset—no longer alone but alongside the locals who welcomed him, a healing, cathartic moment that rivals anything going on at the wellness center. Quinn is part of something beyond himself now, and sorrow is replaced by exhilaration. He’s a boy on an adventure. Hallelujah, sings the choir. But behind him stands Belinda, squinting into that same sun, as yet another boatload of rich adult babies arrives. They’ll want the impossible again, and more of it after that, and they’ll never quite figure out why they’re all so miserable in paradise. Now Belinda is miserable, too, and she knows that she looks it, so she fixes a frozen smile for the guests.
Look behind you, Quinn. Wave goodbye to Belinda. Back there, that’s where the pain goes. Inside. Everywhere around you. It definitely never takes a vacation.
It’s a nice sleight of hand that the two characters most concerned with the misery of human existence, with where it goes and how to heal it, arrive at very different places emotionally from where they started. And while it’s not exactly revelatory that a rich white boy has greater opportunities to escape and live his dreams than a middle-aged Black woman working in the service sector, it’s a credit to White’s writing that if he can’t provide a satisfying alternative for change, he can at least make the audience feel the pain.
Correction, Aug. 17, 2021: This article originally misidentified Alexandra Daddario as Andrea Addario.