Few people weren’t dreaming of travel in August 2020, arguably the most stir-crazy moment of the COVID-19 quarantine, with tensions boiling over after a divisive election and widespread protests, all while wildfires threatened the West Coast.
Mike White, for one, funneled the escapist fantasy into the ugly reality of the beautiful people, translating the moment’s tensions and the zeitgeist into “The White Lotus,” a dark comedy about affluent Americans on holiday at a luxurious Hawaiian resort and the staff who cater to them. Moving as fast as the flames raging around Southern California at the time, White wrote the pilot for the six-episode HBO limited series near the end of the summer before heading to Hawaii to begin prepping production.
Shot in fall and early winter of that same year, “The White Lotus” follows three sets of guests, almost all of whom are white and would self-identify as progressive. They’re pampered by a diverse staff whose mission is to give their rich patrons a pleasant experience while disappearing under an “overall impression of vagueness,” as resort manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) instructs his staff.
“‘White Lotus’ is kind of a wild ride,” says Bartlett, who has racked up awards for his increasingly unhinged performance. “It’s a very dark, funny look at that kind of social construct where you have those very privileged, often obnoxious people at the top of the pyramid and how that affects all the people in the lower tiers, and vice versa.”
Speaking of the privileged, Jennifer Coolidge plays Tanya McQuoid, a needy heiress carting her mother’s ashes around. With seemingly good intentions, she dangles a business opportunity that entices spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) to set aside professional boundaries and serve as her companion during her stay. “Mike White is such a good observer of the plight of people that are very rich, and that is that the very rich can delay having to look at their demons,” Coolidge says. “But [Tanya] does have to face herself, and she actually does get this incredible moment where she’s brave enough to face everything she probably feared her entire life.”
One of the resort’s other well-to-do guests is hard-working journalist Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who is in Hawaii on her honeymoon with her privileged husband Shane (Jake Lacy). After a whirlwind romance, her vacation gives her the respite she needed to realize she’s a trophy wife, plunging her into an identity crisis of her own. Daddario notes that many of the scenarios that take place on the show loosely connect back to White’s own experiences — for example, the scene in which Rachel seeks career advice from — and then is reproached by — fellow guest Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), a hard-charging CEO she once profiled for an assignment.
White offers the experience from both perspectives, including through the eyes of the journalist, taken aback that her “fluff piece” was perceived as “a hatchet job.”
“[White] has a fascination with who these people really are,” says Daddario. “Who is the journalist who writes things about him he does not like, and marries the rich guy and acts like she loves his work now? He finds stuff like that funny — the hypocrisy of life.”
Similarly, Rachel’s husband Shane can’t let it go when the suite he booked was given to another couple. As it becomes evident that Armond is lying to him about double-booking the room — and then going to great lengths to sabotage his stay — it’s understandable to feel for the character, who’s petulant but not exactly wrong.
“Mike did an amazing job of finding this healthy dose of humanity in all of these characters. It makes everybody hold the mirror up to themselves and see how they relate or how they’re repulsed by these characters,” says Brittany O’Grady, who plays Paula, a BIPOC college friend of Nicole Mossbacher’s supercilious daughter Olivia who’s brought along on this family vacation. Paula quickly becomes the heart of the show, a wannabe hero who sees herself as ethically superior to the ridiculous white elitists she’s surrounded by. During a luau, the beating of the drums drives emotions into action by all the characters at a crossroads — particularly Paula, who impels Native Hawaiian hotel worker Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) to steal the Mossbachers’ jewelry as reparations for colonialism.
When her plot fails and it seems likely Kai will wind up in jail, Paula finds that she, too, is unwilling to “cede her power.” What would be gained by her confession? It becomes evident the viewer is the luau pig being roasted, rotating to see experiences from all viewpoints.
With 10 fully realized characters sprinting across a tonal tightrope, their messiness could easily throw off the balance of the entire show. However, while depictions are extreme, they retain authenticity, leading the audience to accept moments perhaps never before seen in a television show.
“These scenes worked because each moment is grounded and human; Mike never went for shock value,” says executive producer David Bernad. “You believe that these characters would really be in these situations and make those decisions.”
During their stay at the White Lotus, Paula and the other guests find out who they really are versus who they had believed themselves to be. Each eventually makes a self-aware choice to accept their place of privilege, perhaps losing a piece of their soul to enjoy the comfortable life to which they’ve become accustomed.
Social media blazed after the finale, aghast at a resolution that defies the expectation that the characters’ personal growth is supposed to end in positive change.
“People’s reactions show why it was exceptional,” says Daddario. “It made people think; it astounded people with its dark humor and its ability to make you feel. People describe being unsettled, unsure, but also completely hooked. That is a tremendous feat — to make people come back week after week to something that threw them off-kilter, made them laugh and made their jaws drop.”
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