The White Lotus

The White Lotus and White Privilege

The relationship of whiteness to colonialism rests in part upon a duality of expectations about the people and land being colonized. Infantilizing and fetishization are two sides of the same coin, expressed by colonizers, both conscious and hidden, to defend their relationships, actions, and identities.

Rudyard Kipling, author of the stunningly lazy, infantile, and racist The Jungle Book (the name “Baloo” literally means “bear” in multiple South Asian languages, for example) wrote a small essay called “The White Man’s Burden”. The argument of the essay is, in essence, that “civilized” white people needed to save Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples from “our” barbarism, stupidity, and eternal damnation.

When white people across the gender and sexual spectrum fetishize Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples, it is an active display of the colonizing mindset. The fetishization differs from context to context but ingrained within it is an undeniable continuation of the social paradigm that equates whiteness with humanity and therefore, respect.

The White Lotus is not that deep. This is not to knock the now-anthology series but rather to temper expectations, be realistic about its storytelling prowess and flaws, and push back against the idea that mere engagement with the toxicity of whiteness is enough for a story to be about that toxicity and the pollution it leaves behind for others to inhale.

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To say that The White Lotus is about the colonial relationship non-Hawaiians have with the island archipelago would be duly incorrect. For it to be so, it would have to prioritize its Native Hawaiian characters as much as everyone else and it just doesn’t do that. For starters, there are only two explicitly Native Hawaiian characters on the show and they both exist more to further the plot lines of other characters than to have a foundational narrative presence of their own.

Lani’s (Jolene Purdy) character arc serves almost entirely to jumpstart Armond’s (Murray Bartlett) character arc, where he realizes that he’s treating his employees the same way the hotel’s guests treat him. Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) has a series of really touching scenes with Paula (Brittany O’Grady) where he talks about how much he struggles with being an employee of the resort whose owners had stolen his family’s land. Kekoa crushes the scene but it feels oddly expository. Mike White wants to comment on white people stealing land from Native Hawaiians and then profiting off of their culture, but it ultimately comes at the expense of Kai having a proper character arc. It didn’t need to.

Kai has no scene in the finale. We just know that he’s been apprehended and is likely going to be charged. Armond is confused by the situation but then the episode entirely pivots to focus on Paula’s sense of guilt. That guilt is essential to her character but how does Kai feel about everything that has happened to him? We don’t know and it’s not what The White Lotus is interested in, either. 

So the series engages with whiteness and thus gains platitudes across the board. It deserves many of them but it feels hollow to praise a white-created show for how it handles the conversations around white privilege when the vast majority of its cast is white, its director and writer is white, and the screen time is overwhelmingly centred on its white characters. It’s important for stories to engage with white privilege in a time where white supremacy is an ever-present and real threat, but perspective on what that engagement looks like and what its limitations are is vital for the stories’ impact. Give me stories where Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples sear white privilege and the consequences it brings to their lives for those stories are endless.

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The situational and character logic in The White Lotus is often missing. Why do the Mossbachers not have multiple rooms when they have so much money? It just doesn’t make sense that Paula and Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) are sleeping in a massive bed in the living room. Why does Nicole (Connie Britton) rush around to find a Zoom meeting spot when a hotel this expensive probably has a business centre she could place on hold? Does the computer system not let Armond know when he double books a room?

But it is three particular elements that ultimately hold The White Lotus together. Its ability to garner, maintain, and heighten suspense is excellent and, in large part, what kept me engaged from week to week. I wanted to know what happened, who died, who did it, and why they did it. The suspense garnered from Armond’s final dinner was particularly exquisite and the way Murray moved with the camera, a last waltz before the curtains fell. The score from Cristobal Tapia de Veer makes every sequence, including the excellent intro credits, a gorgeous and anxiety-inducing mixture of beauty and discomfort that sets the mood and never lets you go. Take that score away and the show’s ability to garner skin crawling tension is reduced to what could be just a rote murder mystery in a gorgeous locale.

But the tour de force of The White Lotus is its cavalcade of talented actors, with several of them giving what are career-best performances. Jennifer Coolidge’s Tanya is an incredible, frustrating character whom Coolidge imbues with just enough sympathy and exquisite character movements to make her somewhat sympathetic until the final episode. Her mannerisms, line readings, and facial expressions are a revelation and bring sharp humour and sympathy in moments that deeply require them. 

Murray Bartlett is in fine form as the rapidly unraveling Armond and his performance during the final dinner is so exquisitely haunting that it should single-handedly gain him an Emmy nomination, if not a win. He’s particularly deft at displaying anger bubbling just beneath the surface—rage he must keep banked down for the sake of propriety. Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady ground their characters beautifully, which is especially impressive considering their lines are obviously written by someone older taking a stab at youthful dialogue. Alexandra Daddario gives her best performance yet as Rachel, a woman struggling with the confidence of being her own person while married to a stunningly selfish arse who can’t see anyone before him unless they validate his existence.

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Overall though, the series MVP is Natasha Rothwell. Her Belinda is exhausted. She is kind, empathetic, and has an ability to connect with people in a way a lot of people simply can’t and/or won’t. But she is worn out. Her dreams and ideas have been thoroughly tempered by the energy it takes for her to take care of everyone else when no one else is seemingly bothered with caring for her. As Belinda’s son aptly notes, The White Lotus is exploiting her.

It’s why Tanya’s offer resonates and why she accepts Rachel’s card as a last ditch effort. Belinda knows—and Rothwell aptly demonstrates that she knows—how little trust she can put into the promises made by a rich white woman. But a part of her wants to, for her own sake and in spite of all of her earned misgivings, let that hope grow but then it is dashed. 

Belinda’s character arc is deeply resonant in a society that simultaneously treats Black women as disposable and subjects them to deification. Both are dehumanizing. Almost no one seems to give a shit about Belinda—not even at the level of “Hey, how are you doing? Do you want some coffee? Do you want a day off?” Tanya talks about Belinda as if she’s not a human being with her own desires and problems, and instead places her on a pedestal where she stresses that Belinda has cured her in a way no one has ever been able to. Then she yanks the pedestal from beneath Belinda’s feet and returns only to pick up the sunglasses she had left behind. Which is not to say that The White Lotus was consciously aware enough to write that social reality into its script. The show is aware that Tanya really doesn’t engage with Belinda as a real person, but that’s where its conscious-and-aware scripting ends. The rest is happenstance.

I cannot say that the series finale was particularly satisfying but it felt right for the tone, themes, and character arcs that Mike White had set up. That Shane is likely to face no consequences for Armond’s death. That Rachel stays with Shane in spite of the breakthrough where she realized that he’s toxic for her. That Paula and Olivia are likely to remain friends for at least a bit. That Tanya doesn’t invest in Belinda’s business. That Paula gets to go home in first class while Kai is likely headed to prison. That the Mossbachers’ marriage seems to be on the mend in the most superficial way possible. Committing to change is hard, scary, and sometimes the sureness of toxicity and the foundations it has already provided seem a safer and a more practical choice. It’s tragic but for these characters, fitting.

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A man died but the most inconvenience these guests (minus Paula and Rachel) are likely to face as they travel back home in absolute comfort is having to plan another vacation or writing an underwhelming Yelp review. Meanwhile the new and old crew of the White Lotus wave ruefully to another boat of VIP guests and the cycle continues.

Notes:

  • Mitchell Kuga’s critique of The White Lotus and its portrayal of Native Hawaiians is a must read and can be found here: https://www.vox.com/first-person/22621960/white-lotus-native-hawaiians-hbo.
  • E. Alex Jung’s profile of Jennifer Coolidge is excellent: https://www.vulture.com/article/jennifer-coolidge-profile.html?utm_source=tw&utm_medium=s1&utm_campaign=vulture.
  • Ryan Ken’s TikTok satirizing how non-Black people fawn over Stacey Abrams while ignoring and dehumanizing their Black coworkers and employees is worth a watch: https://twitter.com/Ryan_Ken_Acts/status/1346874177211543563?s=20.
  • I didn’t mention everyone in the cast, but truly, not a single flawed performance in the whole thing.
  • Connie Britton’s “Why am I the punching bag?!” was exceptional line reading.
  • I know The White Lotus is getting an anthology second season, but I don’t know if another instalment of white people being awful at a resort in a colonized land is going to do it for me.
  • Armond’s reaction to inappropriate heterosexual prodding about gay sex was so relatable.
  • The police officer shaking Shane’s hand was such a perfect, repugnant moment.
  • Others have said this but those final shots of Natasha Rothwell and Alexandra Daddario are stunning in the intimacy of their tragedy. What a gut punch.
  • Emmys for like, everyone, but I will be furious if Natasha Rothwell and Alexandra Daddario are not nominated.

Do not go to Hawai’i during the pandemic.

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