Television

How Mike White’s Survivor Season Set the Stage for The White Lotus

The “David vs. Goliath” competition taught the HBO hit’s creator a few things about power and privilege.

Mike White lounging in a hammock on Survivor: David vs. Goliath.
Mike White on Survivor: David vs. Goliath. CBS via Getty Images

Natalie Cole, the successful CEO and Survivor competitor, introduces herself to the audience of the show’s “David vs. Goliath” season by informing them that her employees are “literally willing to take a bullet for me.” But in the episode “Jackets and Eggs,” she ends up taking a bullet herself. She’s outfoxed by her fellow Goliath, Angelina, a financial consultant, who concocts a plan in the freezing downpour, insisting that she “runs cold.”

“I want Lyrsa’s jacket,” Angelina tells Natalie, while the entire tribe sits through a torrential downpour. Used to leveraging power to her advantage, the Goliath CEO approaches another tribemate—eventual season winner Nick Wilson—hinting that if he aids in some jacket thievery, she’ll make sure he stays safe in the game. “I’m not stealing anybody’s stuff, or anything like that,” he says. But Angelina has a backup plan in place; charm Natalie over to get her jacket if conning the Davids fails. As she politely begs, again and again, “Natalie, is there any way I could have your jacket?” Mike White’s head sinks into his hands, watching a Goliath present herself in powerless a way possible after her privilege doesn’t do the trick.

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This exchange occurs in the fifth episode of David vs Goliath, not only a season in which White competed but one he came damn close to winning. Watching this moment in the wake of his HBO hit The White Lotus, one can almost feel a moment of creative inception—a look at privilege and power in its most concentrated, gamified form. And while the Survivor season contrives to have its David come out ahead, White’s fictionalized version offers no such assurances about the triumph of the underdog.

Angelina, and the Goliath tribe in general, have long benefitted from a world run by lotus eaters. “I’ve had a fairy-tale life,” she reflects on her introductory boat ride. “There’s so much about me that puts me at such an advantageous position.” Not a few minutes later, catching sight of the Davids, she can’t hold back laughs, hand over her heart. “Looking at the other tribe, I have the biggest smile on my face.” she says. “The cards are stacked completely in our favor, and I want to take full advantage of that.”

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The parallels between Survivor and The White Lotus start right at the beginning, with a group of strangers on a boat being ferried to a remote locale where they will live off the land and its people as if they own both. But Survivor is a fantasy series where, ultimately, winning is all about blending in, hoping people won’t notice you enough to want to vote you off or put a target on your back—evoking Armond’s theory that the hotel staff exist to be invisible helpers for its guests. The White Lotus’ manager has slotted himself right in the middle of the resort’s Davids and Goliaths—the same as White’s admitted strategy on Survivor. But when he comes head-to-head with Shane’s Goliath entitlement, Armond puts a target on his own back, and Shane never stops pressing his advantage

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[Read: The White Lotus’ Biggest Mystery Wasn’t Who Died]

Shane’s fixation on getting revenge for the inconvenience of being denied the Pineapple Suite mirrors the way Angelina plots revenge after she comes out on the wrong side of a vote. As she stirs a large pot of rice, she reveals her plan to “treat [the tribe] really well and then slit their throats in the end.” Not long after, the remaining contestants are running low on food. Angelina takes this opportunity to negotiate with Probst, positioning herself as the tribal mediator. “When I was getting my MBA from Yale …” she begins, rambling about how she took “Advanced Negotiations.”

At the final tribal council, Angelina will, again, bring up the rice situation, reiterating for the umpteenth time what a selfless sacrifice her nicety-tinged, passive-aggressive mediating was, as if she’s filling out a college application. The story of David vs. Goliath is about triumph,” she tells the jury, “I feel my story out here was about triumph.”

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At the end of the season, White is asked if he has any regrets, and he reflects on the moments where his defensive sarcasm kept him from seeing eye-to-eye with his teammates. “There is a part of me that feels like I was creating a character out here.” He’s realized that his reflexive self-deprecation doesn’t change the fact that he’s a true Goliath, a Hollywood insider with dozens of people working underneath him. Competing against the Davids, he says, has made him “want to apologize for everything I’ve done and said.”

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Nick, the last David standing and future winner, lends his perspective. “The difference between me and Mike was I had to turn my game on. … I couldn’t just ride to the end with whatever Goliaths wanted me—as their little sideshow, or whatever. I had to take my fate and put it in my own hands.” That’s the difference power makes, as White has learned from his own privileged experiences. A jury made up of mostly Davids rewards Nick with the million dollars in the end.

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[Read: The White Lotus’ Final Getaway Isn’t as Perfect as It Seems]

But as White admitted in an interview in May, before The White Lotus had aired, “in real life, the Goliath always wins.” And in fact, he goes on, creating stories in which the underdog triumphs only “[perpetuates] the hollow American myth that the “little guy,” through wile and determination, can overcome all the obstacles of a rigged system.” In The White Lotus, the game is rigged, and it comes out just as the forces that rigged it intend.

White might have identified as a David when he first set foot on the beach, reverting to his old, ostracized, middle school personality when being “surrounded by people who are all Baywatch attractive.” But his tenure on the show made him realize that he was, in fact, a Goliath, and seasoned enough storyteller to note: “Nobody’s going to be rooting for us! We’re the Goliaths. I want to be a David! But you’re not a David anymore! You are a Goliath.”

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“Every kid growing up wants to be the hero of the story, and in the end you’re just happy you’re not the villain,” The White Lotus’ Mark tells his teenage son Quinn. Maybe you’re just the guy who watches it happen, greeting the guests and watching them play out their familiar dramas, knowing they’ll all leave more or less the same as they came

“Mike, you’re the best welcoming committee,” a fellow Goliath tells him close to the end of his Survivor game. White may not have won his season. But at least he emerged unscathed (not to mention the seeds of a hit HBO series). On The White Lotus, the Goliaths come out with the Members Only jackets, and their welcoming committee bleeds out in a hotel bathtub.

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