The White Lotus review: Mike White pulverises privilege in spectacular HBO satire
- The White Lotus review: Mike White and his spectacular cast deliver one of the best shows of 2021. The new HBO social satire/murder mystery is the rare TV experience that'll give you withdrawal symptoms when you're done.
From Mike White, the creator of Enlightened — the best HBO show you’ve never seen — comes The White Lotus, one of those rare television experiences that’ll give you withdrawal symptoms when it’s over. He’s working through some things here, and I don’t know if these six episodes are an admission of his white privilege or an apology for writing The Emoji Movie. Or both.
The one-percent is satirised with zero remorse in The White Lotus, the latest in a growing list of ‘Covid-productions’ that networks are scrambling to greenlight during the pandemic, because they can be shot in bubbles. There is a sense of an impending apocalypse in this show, but also a sense that its characters have just survived one.
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Each of them arrives, in the opening scene, in some way broken and looking to rebuild. But in the words of Christopher Plummer’s character from David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, these are ‘the most detestable collection of people you will ever meet’. Barring Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), a naive journalist who is the closest thing to an audience surrogate that the show is willing to produce, each member of the ensemble seems to be competing against each other to test the limits of your patience. But as the days wear on, the discomfort builds.
This unsettling feeling is pretty much established in the show’s opening credits sequence — a jingle-jangle of notes that barely resembles music — and is cemented in the opening scene. We’re introduced to the guests as they arrive at The White Lotus resort in Hawaii, one by one, like they’re in a Peter Ustinov Poirot movie. One of them will die, the show reveals right off the bat, but shh.
Among them is a grieving middle-aged woman (Jennifer Coolidge) who’s lugging along the ashes of her recently-deceased mother — baggage both literal and metaphorical. And then there’s the Mossbacher family — Mark (Steve Zahn), who’s convinced he has cancer, his wife Nicole (Connie Britton), a CFO who’s convinced she’s a celebrity, their kids Olivia and Quinn, and Olivia’s friend Paula — the only person of colour in the group, who’s well aware of the fact that she’s been given a handout. Rachel and her new husband Shane (Jake Lacy), meanwhile, are like the sort of honeymooners you see in Manali, unable to take their hands off each other when we first lay eyes on them, but also unable to hide the hint of trepidation that’ll snowball into something larger as the show goes along.
The puppet-master, so to speak, is the resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett). He is, in many ways, also the show’s lead. He represents not only Mike White — someone who has spent a lifetime putting on a show to please powerful masters — but also the downtrodden, and that is what fuels his frustration. “They always want to feel seen, to feel special, like an only child,” he whispers into a trainee’s ears in an early scene (and ostensibly also ours), revealing tricks of the trade that double up as survival techniques. Ironically, this is exactly the sort of privilege that he craves, but for several reasons, has been restricted from enjoying. In a staff made up mostly of minority groups, he is their white captain. Then why is he also treated like the rest of them?
Armond is angry and vain; as a former addict, he lies at the drop of a hat; he exudes pride, but is also capable of adopting a servile posture when the situation demands. There’s little that anyone can say to him after he’s admitted to making a mistake, although Shane, in a running gag that the show is determined to not abandon, tries his best to corner him. The unraveling of Armond is fascinating to behold. It's like watching a man who has been given the illusion of power come to the realisation that he is, and perhaps always will be, thoroughly impotent when faced with the sort of white people that his resort almost exclusively caters to.
The White Lotus justifies excusing the bad behaviour of some by juxtaposing it with worse behaviour of others. Armond is routinely in the wrong, but because he’s screwing over someone as unlikeable as Shane — a man who has the privilege of the Winklevoss twins and the petulance of Andy Bernard — you’re willing to forgive him, a tragic circus monkey if there ever was one.
This is the kind of show that can have a character recite the Gayatri Mantra in one scene, and just 20 minutes later, have another expose their junk. It’s the kind of show in which a teenage character, who was showing all the signs of imminently shooting up a school, turns out to be among its most endearing and wise. “We are all parasites on this Earth,” the teenager in question says in a heated dinner scene. “There’s no virtuous person when we’re all eating the last fish and throwing all our plastic crap in the ocean. Like a billion animals died in Australia during the fires. A billion. Where does all the pain go?”
The White Lotus can bloom in 2021, but will it be able to in a future where the power structures remain unchallenged?
The White Lotus
Creator - Mike White
Cast - Murray Bartlett, Steve Zahn, Connie Britton, Jake Lacy, Alexandra Daddario, Sydney Sweeney, Jennifer Coolidge