Dissecting the Themes of The White Lotus

I already knew before I finished The White Lotus that I wanted to write about it. The new HBO series came recommended to me with scant details, but that only seemed to make it more alluring. All I knew going in was that the show was about several different guests that stay at a fancy hotel in Hawaii. That alone was enough to intrigue me, because I like stories with multiple, overlapping threads. My friend simply told me he thought I’d like it, and that was that. No persuasion needed. Usually, I can be a little reticent about trying new shows, but with this one I jumped right in.

Needless to say, there will be spoilers from here on out. If you haven’t checked out The White Lotus yet, you should definitely give it a go!

The series hooked me straight away, but I couldn’t figure out what exactly The White Lotus was until halfway through. The first two episodes were very entertaining; I enjoyed the events and the quirky personalities, but I was itching to know what the show’s well-executed components were in service of. Was it simply a comedy of errors, or was something more dramatic lying in wait? Would the interpersonal focus shift toward a murder mystery? Was there going to be a genre-twist at some point, like the resort turning out to be the underworld or perhaps a computerized simulation? I could feel a revelation on the horizon. The show was very funny, but its comedy always felt like it was on the cusp of uncloaking itself to reveal something more sinister. This expectation started with the flashforward of boxed human remains being loaded onto a plane, and continued with the show’s unsettling, exotica-inspired musical score. Even the tropical setting felt menacing rather than idyllic. Transition shots between scenes, framing the island from the perspective of the sea, seemed to emphasize the isolation of the resort or the inherent danger of the waves. I loved the way the tension always seemed to be escalating without any clear sign of what it was escalating towards. I was constantly trying to predict how seemingly trivial or petty conflicts would turn into something deadly- as well as who would be the one to die.

In the end, the dark reveal isn’t a singular horrifying act or twist. It’s institutional in nature- a cold portrait of the bourgeois treatment of customer service in capitalist societies, as symbolized by Armond’s death at the hands of a guest. This is the crux of the show that ties everything together. The hotel does indeed hide a secret. There is something sinister lurking beneath the humor. But it’s subtle. Systemic. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of neoliberal and neocolonial exploitation. The White Lotus isn’t about white supremacy- it’s about white privilege, which is very different. It’s about self-awareness, cultural echo chambers, and subconscious biases. Even the most annoying character in the show, Shane, is well-intentioned in his own twisted way. He’s not evil in the way a white supremacist is. He’s the product of a materialist upbringing and archaic ideas about gender roles. And that’s what makes The White Lotus both interesting and powerful- the flaws of the hotel guests are so relatable. Many of us have been these people, albeit in much less exaggerated ways. Like most good satires, The White Lotus uses stereotypes to better illuminate problematic behavior. A satire of white supremacy wouldn’t be as effective, because the problematic behavior is already obvious. How do you satirize a nutjob in a MAGA hat screaming the hate speech or conspiracy theories they parrot from Fox News? They’re already a parody of themselves. And hatred has less capacity for humor than ignorance, which is what white privilege is all about.

When I look at each of the guests, I think all of them have good intentions. What unifies them is an inability to see their own privilege. Their self-awareness is continually tested, which is the source of a lot of the comedy and the drama. What makes the guests interesting is that they represent the mild, semi-engaged middle-ground of the political spectrum. They’re sympathetic to progressive causes without fully understanding them, and like most people are much more concerned with their own neuroses. At heart they’re status quo apologists, which I find such an intriguing and entertaining subject for satire. I think you can draw some fascinating insights about human nature and capitalist society from the tendency of those with more resources to be broadly conservative and individualistic. The guests believe that they’re good people, and are defensive when their flaws are pointed out, rather than reflective. I think each of the 10 hotel guests in the show represent a particular aspect of white privilege:

Nicole represents white privilege through the lens of neoliberalism. Nicole is a powerful and successful CFO that belongs to an older branch of feminism that has no room for, or consideration of, women of color, trans women, queer women, et cetera. Hers is a very bourgeois and exclusive view of female empowerment, as opposed to the more diverse and inclusive feminism of her daughter’s generation. It’s a feminism that’s limited to the narrow confines of capitalism, which has made her a potent businesswoman but also a workaholic that’s inattentive to her family. Like many of the characters in The White Lotus, she’s not a bad person, but she only has time for her own concerns.

Mark represents patriarchal ideology as it relates to white privilege. He’s well-intentioned and more or less good-natured, but plagued with antiquated concepts of the masculine ideal. He needs to feel respected, to live up to this alpha male image as the protector. He confesses to feeling “emasculated” by the progressive elements of modern society. When he finds out that his dad was gay, this seems to challenge his own warped sense of masculinity. And when he saves Nicole from Kai, he feels like his sense of masculine pride is restored. Mark is unwilling to recognize his white privilege, which alienates Paula from the Mossbacher family and leads to her resentment of them. Rather than being compassionate to people of color, he feels victimized by progressive attitudes, which leads to his defensive rambling. He encapsulates the modern trend of wealthy white men claiming to be victimized or “cancelled” by attempts to reform the unequal status quo from which he benefits.

Tanya represents the way white privilege can be disguised by good intentions, as well as the obliviousness to this process. Tanya’s interesting because she obviously has good intentions but is blind to her own needy behavior and careless words. She dangles the prospect of life-changing resources in front of Belinda, without really thinking it through, and then casually snatches that prospect away. It underlines how insignificant money is to her that she can flirt absent-mindedly with the idea of investing in this business, perhaps as an amusing fantasy to make herself feel like a good person, only to change her mind when her vacation ends. Tanya likes the image of herself helping Belinda but realizes that she doesn’t genuinely care enough to put in the time and effort to actually do so. I honestly find the relationship between Tanya and Belinda so fascinating that I think it could be a blog post in and of itself.

Rachel represents the anxiety, identity crisis, and allure of white privilege. She correctly diagnoses the factors that led to her marriage- chief among them the lifestyle Shane’s wealth provides. What’s interesting about Rachel is that she’s one of the more self-aware characters. She can see the process of her unhappiness unfolding, but she struggles to find the conviction to do something about it. Ultimately, she chooses to be comfortable rather than happy.

Shane represents the immaturity of white privilege; the emotional stuntedness and lack of empathy that comes with being spoiled. When his wife tries to articulate her problems, he simply looks at her like a Sudoku puzzle. He doesn’t know how to show affection other than by providing material wealth, because that’s the only affection he was ever shown himself. Not only is he unequipped with the capacity to be nurturing, but his pampered upbringing has made him completely dependent on others. In Rachel, he wants a surrogate mother that can continue to take care of his needs, rather than an equal partner. Like everyone else, his behavior is a reflection of the environment in which he was raised.

Quinn represents the desire to escape white privilege. At first, he’s addicted to the materialism his family’s wealth has provided him with. His behavior is presented like that of a drug addict. He can’t function without video games and pornography- but they don’t make him truly happy. They just stimulate him in short bursts of dopamine that he can never get enough of. When he loses access to technology, he basically has to go cold turkey, but eventually he comes out the other side better for it. It forces him out of the digital world and into the natural one. He admires the sunset and the sight of a whale. It ignites a nascent passion within him for the natural world. When he finds other people that share this passion, he eagerly latches on to them. The simple joy of canoeing nourishes his soul in a way that the material wealth of his family never could.

Paula represents the recipience of white privilege in the form of its material wealth. Paula is unique in that she’s the only guest that’s a person of color, and she’s there as the guest of the Mossbacher family. That alone is intriguing. By making all of the hotel guests white, with the exception of Paula who has her trip paid for her, the show keeps its focus on white privilege specifically as opposed to a critique of wealth inequality in general. Paula occupies this interesting position where she has an inside perspective without belonging to the elite strata of society that the Mossbachers represent. This is in contrast to the people of color who work at the hotel, who have an outside perspective of events. The Mossbachers are incapable of empathizing with Paula’s status as a person of color and so she tries to find kinship with Kai- an indigenous Hawaiian- instead. However, despite their shared outrage at the way white neocolonialism has essentially commodified his native culture, she ultimately fails to truly understand his struggle.

Olivia represents the hypocrisy of white privilege. Like Tanya, she sees herself as an ally to people of color but is incapable of empathizing with them. However, unlike Tanya, Olivia takes it upon herself to lecture others about their white privilege while being unable to recognize her own. She wants to see herself as being like Paula but unlike her parents, which alienates Paula and pushes her towards Kai, who she feels will better understand what life is like in her shoes. More than anyone else in the show, Olivia sees Paula in terms of her color rather than who she is as a person, almost as a prop to make herself feel hip. For Olivia, Paula is a way to define herself in opposition to her parents and to suppress the reality that she’s more like her mother than she wants to admit. None of this is to say that Olivia doesn’t genuinely like Paula; it’s more that due to her naivety and lack of self-awareness, she doesn’t know how to be a good friend to her. That’s what her tears show us at the end- she doesn’t know what she’s doing wrong.

You also have Kitty and Greg as among the guests at the hotel, though as smaller characters I think their white privilege is mostly covered by the other eight. But they certainly add to the overall theme, with Kitty representing internalized misogyny and Greg the privilege of being able to spend his last years doing whatever he wants.

In the wake of these 10 guests, you have Armond, Belinda, and Kai as the hotel workers that have to suffer the effects of their selfishness, neediness, and carelessness. While the 10 guests I mentioned above are stereotypical for both comedic and illustrative purposes, their portrayal is nonetheless how they come across to people who work in the service industry. To the real-life Armonds, Belindas, and Kais, the people they have to deal with are just as crazy as the ones we see in the show. The thesis statement of The White Lotus is a call for empathy. Most people probably don’t like the idea of being thought of like the 10 guests in this show, and might think twice upon watching it what kind of image they project to those in customer service. By the end of the series, Armond is dead, Kai is presumably in jail, and Belinda is simply exhausted, cynical, and disheartened. This is the cost of the accumulated good intentions, reckless behavior, and emotional baggage they are burdened with. To further underline the theme of white privilege, Kai’s life is suggested to be in ruins for stealing Nicole’s earrings while Shane faces no suspicion or fallout from stabbing Armond to death. There’s not one line of dialogue to suggest Shane was ever treated as a suspect- we simply cut to him standing in the departure lounge for a plane to Tahiti, where he is promptly rewarded by his wife showing up to reconcile with him and putting his world back in order.

For the guests, they end their vacation with their equilibrium restored. The married couple are back together. The Mossbacher family are also happy again. Tanya has a new man in Greg. It suggests that no matter their flaws and mistakes, things will inevitably work out for them. Whereas Armond, Kai, and Belinda are all worse off for their visit. For them, the consequences are permanent. The guests- particularly the adults- appear not to have learned anything during their vacation. We are led to believe that Tanya, Shane, Rachel, Nicole, and Mark will carry on floating through life in a cloud of self-absorption, with plenty of safety nets in place to smooth out any bumps in the road. The fate of the kids- Paula, Olivia, and Quinn- is more ambiguous, but you can definitely interpret their endings as evidence they’ve grown in some way.

What conclusions did you draw from The White Lotus? Let me know in the comments!

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