How free are we, really? This may not be the first question that pops into your mind when watching Mike White’s The White Lotus, but as the summer smash finishes its self-contained first season, I think you ought to consider it the big one. The answer is not rhetorical, but as concrete as a kitchen knife to the chest: We’re not. As the wealthy guests pestering the resort’s manager about activities learned on their very first day, you only have so many choices. What’s really available to you is playing your part in the class-dance of contemporary American life. As the song about another hotel goes: You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.
The White Lotus romped onto HBO like Succession: The Summer Sessions, a comedy of class warfare about the escalating tensions at a supremely upscale Hawaiian getaway. But I think it’s more properly seen as a tongue-in-cheek tragedy, where another outcome feels possible enough that the inevitable one stings. It all could have gone differently! The messenger could have reached Romeo! Nicole could have stayed on the boat! Rachel could have left Shane! Armond could have just said “Housekeeping”! But it couldn’t have. The outcome is not only written in the script, it’s written in the stars—or, in The White Lotus’ case, the characters’ bank balances.
Looked at as a whole, The White Lotus is schematic. The rich—the Mossbachers, the newlywed Pattons, and the grieving Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge)— descend upon paradise to swan, skulk, and scuba while being attended to by the hotel’s employees. It’s a Downton Abbey setup, but this is America. Upstairs and downstairs may have their places, but everyone wants more, and there’s a middle class to boot— the upwardly mobile arrivistes, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who have hitched their wagon to these obscenely wealthy people and see that it is, in fact, obscene.
But by the time the plot is done, the rich leave better off than they started—even Shane (Jake Lacy), whose marriage is now, presumably, for keeps and maybe won’t be quite such a dick at his next hotel. The middle class characters are guilty and complicit, and the employees are: dead, disappointed, jailed. The White Lotus’ accomplishment is to feel enough like life that it appears as though the characters are making their own choices, as if structural forces aren’t all that there is, as if they are free. But they’re only free enough to play out a preordained story.
In the series’ first episode, Armond (Murray Bartlett), the hotel’s manager, tells a pregnant new employee that the goal is for them to blend in, to be generic. The job requires disappearing, but no one wants to be the background of their own existence. By the end of the episode, that new employee’s water has broken on the hotel floor. She was trying to blend in, but you can’t hold back the force of life. No one else tries nearly so hard, and Armond can’t even take his own advice. When confronted by Shane, the marshmallow manbaby, he gets annoyed, aggravated, and then gets into it. Soon he’s hitting on the guests and stealing their drugs, all while believing the power struggle he’s in with Shane might be one he can win. Meanwhile the spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who has clearly been around the block with affluent white women, finds herself, yet again and nevertheless, hoping Tanya, exactly such a woman, might be the ticket to starting her own business.
Armond and Belinda’s dreams come to abrupt, unfortunate ends. But not so for their wealthy clientele. The White Lotus is sympathetic to many of these characters, with all their flaws, because what they want is worth wanting. Tanya wants to figure herself out, to be less insecure, less broken, less alone; Quinn (Fred Hechniger) wants to get out from under his internet, his porn, his family, he just doesn’t know it till his iPhone drowns; Mark (Steve Zahn) wants his wife and children to like him, for his family to mean something. By the end they all get what they want—the sweet relationship with a dying guy with a hacking cough; the permanent island existence; the rejuvenated marriage—but what they don’t quite see is that they can only have it because they are rich enough to do exactly what is right for themselves. The money they have isn’t their fault, but it does let them float above, unsullied, unthinking about any damage they’ve done.
For most of the White Lotus’ guests, vacation does what it promises: It’s a relaxation, an escape, a recharge. But for the two characters in the middle, it’s a moral quandary. Paula’s not permanently tied to the Mossbachers and she comes along knowing her friend Olivia’s (Sydney Sweeney) flaws, but she thinks it’s worth playing second fiddle for a week in Hawaii. Once she’s there, however, she’s grossed out by their dynamics and even more so by the colonial and imperialist injustices being relayed to her by Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), the Indigenous Hawaiian whose family once owned the land where the hotel he now works at sits. He’s a fling that Paula definitely only thinks of as a fling, but while she’s clear that they have no future together, she wants to leave him better than she found him, and sets him up to steal expensive jewelry from Nicole (Connie Britton) as a form of reparations. Instead, he gets caught. Paula is far enough outside the bubble to see that something is wrong with how wealth is distributed, but just inside enough not to really understand some acts have consequences, and her ignorance irrevocably alters Kai’s life. He will presumably go to jail—and though it seem like she’ll carry that around forever, she still gets to walks away.
For Rachel, vacation opens her eyes to the man she married: Shane is an entitled, infantile mama’s boy, but that realization also only makes her realize the paucity of her own life. She wants to be her own person, but who is that? If she gives up Shane, what’s left? She decides whatever that might be is worth it, and musters up the courage to leave him. And then she can’t find anyone to support her decision: not her mother, not the hotel employee she barely knows (Belinda, who happens to be full up on white women problems at the moment Rachel approaches her). And then Shane kills Armond. He needs her, he’s cowed, he’s sad. Or maybe it makes Rachel see what it’s costs to fight so much entitlement, anger, self-assurance. She tosses her lot in with the obscene, even if her life is forfeit. She’s a rich person now, and in few years it probably won’t even feel like a sacrifice.
As for Shane and Armond: It could never have gone another way. And yet when they both look down at the knife, at the spreading pool of blood, and then at each other, they appear to be wondering the same thing: How could this have happened? That it was possible to imagine anyone else might have been the one to die is all to The White Lotus’ credit. It was all right there all along, in the setup, in the structure, in the stars.