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The White Lotus is reinventing the ugly American tourist

We just want to see annoying rich people sent to an emotional gulag.

Theo James and Meghann Fahy in The White Lotus. WHY IS HE LOOKING AT HER LIKE THAT?!!
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

The saying “money can’t buy happiness” is one of the greatest lies in American history. Barring, I guess, some kind of tragedy-induced life insurance payout, people are usually pretty happy to receive money. But just because that saying is demonstrably untrue doesn’t mean we don’t want to believe it. I mean, isn’t that why The White Lotus exists?

For a second straight season, showrunner Mike White has made rich people’s misery enjoyable Sunday-night viewing. This time, his characters are in majestic Sicily and all they can do is complain, worry, lie to each other, and wallow in their self-absorption.

It’s gotten to the point where fans have fantasized about sending other very rich, predominantly white people, fictional or otherwise, to a White Lotus, from the cast of The OC to the original Gossip Girl. Imagine the psychic damage they could inflict on each other there! Watching gorgeous hotels and pristine locales morph into punishment chambers for the rich is a thrilling kink. And I guess we’re all sick little piggies who cannot get enough of seeing these fancy people become more and more miserable. Oink oink.

Witnessing extremely rich people be unhappy during vacation — that time that we’ve all socioculturally agreed is supposed to be joyous — is the engine that drives this show. It’s so satisfying because it makes us feel better about our own (relative) lack of money. It mitigates our envy and reassures us that maybe there are limits to the kinds of happiness money can buy. And it makes for great memes. If we can’t eat the rich in real life, then at least The White Lotus may be able to do that for us in fiction.

The White Lotus is rich people Hunger Games

Whenever I watch an episode of The White Lotus, my mind keeps circling back to the idea of the “ugly American” tourist. As a kid, when we went on family trips, my mom wasn’t just afraid that we’d be them but also worried that we’d have no idea that we were them. Use of the term has died down a bit, maybe because of the pandemic, maybe because people just got used to Americans abroad, or maybe other “ugly” tourists took the spotlight. But the term refers to an acutely awful type of American traveler — loud, brash, impolite, and equipped with a terminal lack of self-awareness.

Over the past two seasons of his show, Mike White is carving out his own distinct Ugly American.

His creations go to stunning locations like Hawaii or Sicily but rarely venture outside their hotel. They congregate around the breakfast buffet — fruit and pastries — every morning. They have a vampiric knack for sucking up the energy and emotions of the people around them, and return nothing. They hardly interact with anyone who isn’t a worker or a fellow visitor at the resort (arguably for the best, since they’re the worst).

Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and her assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson). Despite being told that Tanya would like to never see her face during this trip, Portia manages to find a seat facing the door in every restaurant she’s in.

White Lotus visitors are aimlessly greedy, ravenous — less to feel pleasure than to acquire it. They’re egregiously wealthy and have the world at their fingertips, but are terminally incurious about exploring it. They do not want to experience a place in its real state; they want to experience that place as the hotel, a golden cage. A cage that isn’t meant to keep them in, but rather keep everyone else out.

Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) is the only returning main character from the first season, and she’s become the prime example. In the first installment, set in Hawaii, Tanya was grieving the death of her mother. She was a lonely, needy basket case, forcing her dependence on the people around her, mainly spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell).

After leading on Belinda with the promise of helping her open her own spa and then abruptly ditching her, Tanya arrives in Sicily for this chapter dragging her emotional support assistant Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) and new husband Greg (Jon Gries) with her. Greg hates Portia, so Tanya tells her assistant to make herself scarce. When Greg leaves for a surprise trip, Tanya yanks on Portia’s leash, keeping her by her side at all times. Even when Tanya naps. Portia, who has no backbone, won’t stand up for herself. Even when Tanya naps.

At first, Tanya’s antics seemed clownishly benign (a testament to Coolidge’s talent as a comedic actress). But with each passing minute, she unfurls further into a monstrous thing, a psychic barbarian with no consciousness or empathy for the people in her orbit. This entire second season has been a confirmation that Belinda dodged a bullet after Tanya dumped her. Of course Tanya has “Blossom” status at White Lotus properties, a loyal and regular visitor, ensuring that if she isn’t one of the deaths foreshadowed in the first episode, she’ll be tormenting staff at White Lotuses worldwide.

Tanya’s fellow resort guests are an insufferable bunch.

Aubrey Plaza as Harper in The White Lotus. Harper has a lot of mean things to say, and even when she’s not saying them, she’s thinking them.

Financial skeeze Cameron (Theo James) and his wife Daphne (Meghann Fahy) have invited Cameron’s old roommate Ethan (Will Sharpe) and his wife Harper (Aubrey Plaza) to Sicily with them in hopes that Cameron will be able to convince Ethan, who has just sold his company, to become a client.

Ethan and Harper seem to have good heads on their shoulders and are concerned with the goings-on in the world (Harper is shocked that Cameron and Daphne can’t remember if they voted). Still, they have somehow figured out a way to be miserable in Sicily, mainly with him lying and her lack of trust. The most exciting part of this quad’s day is eating at the hotel’s one restaurant night after night.

Albie (Adam Di Marco), Dominic (Michael Imperioli), and Bert (F. Murray Abraham) are the other guests — three generations of men from the same family, a goldilocks conundrum of toxic masculinity.

Grandpa Bert is a little too touchy and flirty with women. Dominic thinks himself better but has a sex addiction, which, along with his failed marriage, he blames on Bert. Albie, determined not to be like his father or grandfather, is a benevolent sexist — he sees women as the better, fairer, gentler, sex and wants to protect them from the world. He will tell you he voted for Hillary Clinton, twice. He’s come on a little too strong and a little weak for Portia but quickly rebounded with sex worker Lucia (Simona Tabasco), who initially came to the resort as Dominic’s date. Albie has no idea. I can’t imagine that going over well.

Despite being in paradise and on vacation, all these people have figured out a way to be rotten and spread that wretchedness around on this once-in-a-lifetime trip. It’s as though having everything and still feeling like themselves just throws into relief how unhappy these characters really are. Out of everything, that feeling of being desperately sad (or confused, or angry, or jealous, or scared) when you’re supposed to be having the time of your life might be the most unsettlingly relatable part of the show.

But that doesn’t mean it’s miserable to watch these miserable people. It’s the same principle that makes the always-horrifying “girls trip” vacation arcs on every Real Housewives franchise so eminently watchable.

These characters are such an acute satire of a highly visible slice of the American population: the richest people who aren’t full-fledged billionaires, the dying upper-upper-upper middle class. If given the chance to have this kind of trip, we all think we’d do a better job of being happy. But if there are people in this world exactly like Harper, Cameron, or Tanya in real life, do you think they would have enough self-awareness to realize it?

The White Lotus works in large part because it has no problem acknowledging that wealth is just wealth. Having lots of money doesn’t make someone aspirational, nor does it indicate they worked hard to get it. Affluence is different from taste and sophistication. Perspective (and a good personality) can’t be purchased; self-inflicted misery is the great equalizer. So, even though money can buy happiness, the semi-sad, oddly hopeful reality is that it so often doesn’t.

On the surface, then, the looming deaths from the first episode seem like the ultimate retribution for the characters’ awfulness, especially since the show has spent all of its episodes building up how exhausting these characters can be. Maybe the ocean will swallow Tanya (the show’s sixth episode this season seems to paint her in a very precarious situation) the way she gobbles up everyone’s energy? Or will Cameron overdose on bad molly while cheating? Perhaps Sicily will be the end of Ethan or Albie’s loser behavior?

But The White Lotus isn’t that kind of show.

I don’t like Tanya, but I don’t like Tanya’s husband Greg even more! Can you believe that?

That’s obvious in the first season when Shane, perhaps the most annoying character (a testament to Jake Lacy’s lean into punchable smarm) kills hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett). But to a less obvious degree, Paula (Brittany O’Grady), the Mossbachers’ guest, and Tanya — both of whom seem to have initially good intentions — manage to ruin some lives during their visit, too.

If the pattern holds, it’ll likely be one of the less affluent characters to bite the dust. While the opening scene/flash forward specifically mentions “guests,” it’s worth remembering that Lucia, Mia (Beatrice Grannò), and Jack (Leo Woodall) are all registered as guests at the hotel. Their “guest” status in this case could be a clue pointing to their demise. Portia, who wouldn’t be able to afford this vacation on her own, is also a guest. The dead “guests” could be a bait and switch.

How profoundly disappointing, right? That’s exactly the point.

Even though it skewers these very privileged, very rancid people, The White Lotus also skewers the system that enables them to live consequence-free lives. We want to believe the universe operates on the idea that good is rewarded and bad is punished, but The White Lotus has at least 1.75 seasons’ worth of argument that actually that’s not the truth. The universe doesn’t particularly care if rich pastry-for-breakfast-every-day people get rocked, nor does it offer any consolation for the bodies they leave in their wake of emotional exsanguination. If it ever did, we wouldn’t be so obsessed with watching.

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