Nothing changes on The White Lotus.
The HBO limited series vividly dissects the entrenched systems of power that rule the planet with an iron fist. Yet on some level, it does not believe those systems can be changed — only observed.
You can try to escape the ultrawealthy white people who comprise most of the show’s cast of characters, it suggests, but you’ll almost always end up subsumed by them. Only two characters materially change their circumstances, and one of those two characters ends up dead. It’s not a particularly hopeful vision.
I won’t be surprised by viewers who find the finale utterly depressing. (The White Lotus has been renewed for a second installment, but it will feature new characters in a new location, so this is the last we’ll see of the current cast.) The show comes so very close to making at least one or two of the rich characters at its center face the fact that their way of life — and the comfort to which they’re accustomed — must change if the world is to become a better place. Then the finale comes so very close to shaking up several characters’ status quo, only to bring them right back to where they started.
The show’s affluent vacationers are impervious to anything but their own whims, and they never stop making the same mistakes. Nothing can disrupt the cycle.
The White Lotus satirizes class by using old tropes in new ways
The White Lotus, broadly speaking, is a class satire about social climbing. The point of the class satire is that it’s built around the rotten core of class in America, and stories of social climbers have a rich history in American pop culture. You can obscure the rottenness in the happy ending of a rags-to-riches story, or you can play it up with a lot of screwball comedy, but it’s always there. The genre is often built around social climbers, who aim to navigate the class ladder without losing the qualities that make them protagonists worth rooting for. But the ladder itself is rotting from within.
The White Lotus is unique for how incessantly it spotlights its rottenness. The show takes a while to reveal which of its characters are our social climbers, thanks to its expansive, tremendous ensemble cast. By the season’s midpoint, it is zeroing in on two characters in particular as our windows into this world: newlywed Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and best friend along for a family’s ride Paula (Brittany O’Grady). They aren’t the main characters, per se, but they are the characters who have the most to lose and whose ascent of the class ladder puts them in a perilous position.
As the finale begins, both women are on the precipice of major change. Rachel has decided to leave her boorish husband, Shane (Jake Lacy), on their honeymoon. Paula is hoping that her hotel staff lover, Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), has gotten away with robbing the family Paula has joined on vacation.
The White Lotus is rife with instances of characters intermingling, then accidentally making the lives of people beneath them on the social ladder just a little bit worse. Ultimately, those with a higher position on the social ladder rewrite the story to wash away the pain and horror of anyone who isn’t them.
The story of Kai offers a window into what series creator, writer, and director Mike White is up to. Paula gives Kai the code to the safe in the suite where she is vacationing with the Mossbacher family, while everyone is supposedly out for the day. She thinks he should steal the family’s jewelry, to sell it and win back a tiny drop in the bucket of the ill-gotten gains of white America.
But Nicole (Connie Britton) and Mark Mossbacher (Steve Zahn) return to the room unexpectedly, resulting in an encounter where Mark tackles Kai. Kai escapes but barely. Should anyone pin the crime on Kai, Paula will surely fall under suspicion, if only from her friend Olivia Mossbacher (Sydney Sweeney).
Indeed, the only person who figures out Paula was involved is Olivia, and the scene where she coaxes that information out of Paula is maybe the most pointed of all. When Olivia objects to the notion that Kai stealing the jewelry might be a tiny little bit of payback for what Olivia and her family have taken from the planet, Paula says, “I guess it’s not stealing when you think that everything’s already yours.” Something awful might have happened, Olivia says, implying her mother might have died or been hurt badly. But something awful did happen, Paula says. Kai’s life is ruined now, and it’s become a Mossbacher anecdote about that time Mark rescued his wife from a masked intruder.
Throughout the finale, White tends to isolate Paula in the frame, cutting her off from all of the other characters. He stops doing this near the end of the episode, when Olivia rolls over and holds Paula tightly in the bed they’ve been sharing. It’s simultaneously a tender moment and a supremely cynical one. Olivia knows too much. Paula won’t be able to escape her anytime soon.
How The White Lotus makes the belief that anything can change a marker of class
For as gutting as Paula’s resolution is, it has nothing on Rachel’s. She spends most of the series figuring out that the man she’s married and the rich family she’s married into are toxic, poisonous creatures. Shane only values her for her hotness, and he encourages her to stop pursuing a journalism career that she worries has gone stagnant. The second half of the season and especially the finale are concerned with whether Rachel can extricate herself from her brand new marriage.
She does extricate herself — very briefly. Early in the finale, Rachel tells Shane she thinks the marriage was a mistake; he initially refuses to believe her, then just tries to ignore it. She eventually gets him to take her seriously and even checks into her own room. It doesn’t take. For whatever reason — fear, a need for money, a violent altercation Shane is involved in the night after the two “break up” — Rachel caves. The next morning, she shows up at the airport and tells Shane that she’ll be fine. They embrace and board the plane home together.
The penultimate episode of The White Lotus prominently quotes Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” a poem based on the lotus-eaters, apathetic creatures from Greek mythology who lost all care for anything except pleasure once they’re drunk on the power of the lotus. The obvious connection the series draws between this myth and its characters is one of money. Rachel, having had just a taste of wealth, doesn’t want to go back to her old life. The series’ conclusion is depressing — but it also might be realistic.
Only one character openly rejects the lotus’s influence, though it’s arguable that his rejection is just the opposite. Quinn, the youngest of the Mossbachers, sneaks away from his family at the airport, because he’s decided he wants to stay in Hawaii, so inspired he feels by the state’s natural wonder and by the locals with whom he goes boating in the morning. He’s only able to stay in Hawaii because he’s got the privilege of his race and class. Still, he is trying to do something new.
Or is he? A character attaining a spiritual awakening from a tropical paradise has come up in White’s work before. The first episode of his masterpiece Enlightened involves a woman who has an epiphany after seeing a sea turtle, a sequence that White repeats almost beat for beat with Quinn in The White Lotus. But the show also sets up the Hawaiian resort where the characters stay as a kind of escape from reality and into pure pleasure. Quinn might think he’s chasing something authentic and real, and he’s certainly getting away from his family, but he’s still protected from consequence.
As The White Lotus ends, there’s only one character left who is trapped in the land of the lotus-eaters but not a lotus-eater herself. Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) is the manager of the resort’s spa, and across the span of the series, she becomes a sounding board and advice dispenser for many of the show’s rich, white people.
As a Black woman, Belinda is filling a particular character archetype within the class satire: a member of the support staff, usually a person of color, who is of a lower class but wise in a way the richer folks just can’t manage. The longer The White Lotus goes on, the less patience Belinda has for any of her well-heeled clientele. When Rachel asks Belinda what she should do about her marriage, Belinda can no longer bring herself to care. She exits, leaving Rachel to figure it out for herself. That’s when Rachel chooses comfort and luxury over the difficult work of self-realization.
Belinda doesn’t have that luxury. The second-to-last shot of the series zooms in on her face, unsmiling, as she waits for a new boat full of resort guests to arrive at the dock. As the vessel gets close enough for the passengers to see her, she plasters on a smile and begins to wave. In the eyes of the resort guests, Belinda exists not for herself but for the people who pay her to pamper them. Then, when they go elsewhere, she’s stuck, forced to endure another round of people who assume her to be a supporting character.
The final shot of The White Lotus tracks Quinn and his rowing crew as they paddle away from the island. The shot of Belinda’s faked expression and the shot of Quinn’s boat are in a kind of dialogue, each of them both a question posed and an answer resolving it. Is escape possible? Maybe, but you always have to come back. Can you actually change your life? Not if you get stuck in routine, but maybe if you break out of it.
The meaning changes depending on whose perspective you take. Quinn, young and white and rich, sees the possibility of escape; Belinda, jaded and Black and working in the hospitality industry, cannot allow herself to indulge in that kind of optimism. We take our pleasures where we find them, and sometimes, the greatest pleasure is believing you have done something deeply meaningful and that everybody around you exists to guide you along that journey, no matter how myopic that belief might be.