The rich keep getting richer
Perhaps the most surprising thing about The White Lotus, the breakout late Summer hit from HBO that concluded on Sunday night, didn’t actually happen in the show. It happened outside it during the leadup to the finale when HBO announced that the show would be returning for a second season. Suddenly, it became clear that what was a mildly intriguing, somewhat uncomfortable skewering of the lives, culture and assumptions of wealthy (mostly white) people was just surface-level shtick and mere ingredients for an extended, multi-season run on the cable network, as opposed to a well-timed social critique whose vaguely surprising finale has brought torrents of reviews and analysis from television critics, fashion blogs and travel newsletters alike.
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Over five episodes leading up the finale, Mike White’s “dramedy” had shined an ugly light on the materialistic, self-centered culture of those who have mostly thrived in the new economy, and those that make their mostly pointless lives possible:, the multiracial working hordes who staff our tourism and service economies with little job security, middling health benefits and lunatic, psychologically unhealthy bosses on the take. The setting for The White Lotus, a luxury Hawaiian boutique hotel, also draws in complicated subjects like the destruction and colonialization of indigenous lands by real-estate vultures for the enjoyment by one-percenters who prefer to engage with local culture during their eco-tourism adventures over steaks and wine during dinner.
The race and class-based critiques at the heart of the show exist in tandem with a broader look at the emotionally dysfunctional and empty lives of the vacationers and staff that populate the show. As on the mainland, prescription medications, alcohol and wellness treatments serve as numbing agents for day-to-day existence in the post-industrial economy, particularly for the college-age set who treat such medications like breath mints. Empty marriages, aimless lives, multigenerational family trauma, the show touches them all. It certainly isn’t the first show to highlight these basic human issues, but the implicit and explicit connections to white and class privilege came off as somewhat fresh and unique.
And then came the finale. Viewers knew from the beginning episode that there was a dead body at the end of the stay at the White Lotus, and that somehow the Tagg Romney-like Shane (some type of financier who reads Malcom Gladwell best-sellers to sharpen his business acumen) was involved with the death. Throughout the series, White (capital W) seemed to indicate that it would be Shane’s new wife, Rachel, who would be the most likely candidate for being in the casket in the bottom of the plane out of Hawaii. Rachel, a struggling and middling journalist likely carrying tons of college debt, has hooked up with Shane. He swooped her off her feet with the access that money buys in New York.
Throughout the series, Rachel seemed to increasingly recognize what a miserable mistake she had made by marrying Shane and realizing that he considered her more as a taker instead of a maker. She seemed to despise her mother-in-law who wanted to push her into a Real Housewives world of New York charity work. Yet, in the end, Rachel decides to stay with Shane to be “happy” in the life of a maker’s wife.
Instead, the body at the end turns out to that of the gay hotel manager, Armond, who slowly devolves throughout the series as the stresses of catering to the ridiculous whims of wealthy white people became too much for him and his addictions. And, as it turns out, Shane kills him in his suite minutes after Armond literally crapped in Shane’s luggage. But instead of Shane facing any repercussions, people treat him well after the killing. He shakes hands with what appears to be an investigator. We see what looks to be a quickly-hired lawyer trailing him. And with Rachel by his side at the end, Shane will likely take his rightful place as a Master of the Universe at the end of his vacation. And oddly, so is the n’er do well loser husband, Mark Mossbacher, who saves his loveless/sexless marriage to his powerful corporate executive wife by protecting her during a heist.
So, in the end, the loser white dudes get their (white) women, the gay service worker is dead, other service workers are left disappointed and exploited (or jailed) for one reason or another, two female college students show the limits of woke ideology, and just one or two characters find true, albeit likely momentary, fulfillment in their lives. Maybe a getaway vacation at a beautiful resort isn’t all its cracked up to be, and there are deep problems with white privilege and consumer culture.
Ok, lessons learned, with some laughs along the way. What exactly will Season 2 be about? Will the vacationers still be mostly all white? Or is Mike White prepared to flip the script and have it be like some mashup of Girl’s Trip meets President Obama’s 60th Birthday party on Martha’s Vineyard? What other lessons are there to learn here? It can’t be about more screwed-up wealthy white people in a beautiful place, can it?
In mythology, the White Lotus is a symbol of rebirth and a clean slate. Needless to say White has taken an ironic approach to the concept of a new beginning (and whiteness). In fact, there is no new beginning here at all. Things mostly stay the same. Women are generally subjugated, the working class gets the shaft. So, what does that portend for the next season of his show? More of the same? A voluntourism angle? Who needs it?
Now, sure we have come a long way from the days of Dallas and Dynasty when TV glorified the lives of wealthy (straight) white people every week. But, really, if we’re now beating up on the service workers that make our economy hum and reinforce hapless white men as family leaders, is that any kind of progress?
Maybe it’s no accident that HBO broadcast the finale of The White Lotus, entitled “The Departure,” on the very same day televisions around the world filled with images of Americans (and Afghans) scrambling to depart Afghanistan as the Taliban returned to power in that country 20 years after 9/11. It’s as if nothing had changed since 2001. And while the overriding lesson of The White Lotus’s first season is somewhat the same–despite all the changes in the world, nothing has changed or will change–maybe Mike White should have quit while he was ahead.