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The White Lotus proves that nothing can disrupt the cycle of the rich and powerful

  • Vox

    "The HBO limited series vividly dissects the entrenched systems of power that rule the planet with an iron fist," says Emily VanDerWerff of the Season 1 finale of Mike White's HBO satirical dramedy. "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." VanDerWerff adds: "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...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 White Lotus succumbed to the same point of view of native Hawaiians as its clueless characters: Mitchell Kuga, a native of Hawaii, says The White Lotus' use of Hawaiian music made him squirm. "Part of my confusion was not always understanding the show’s intentions; in a series that’s purportedly satirizing white privilege, was using Hawaiian music to soundtrack the spiritual epiphanies of entitled tourists meant to be ironic?" says Kuga. "Or was it intended as a meta-commentary on the continent’s consumption of native land, culture, and people? Is the show that self-aware? If not (and if you have to ask, the answer is probably no), The White Lotus has a different set of problems to contend with, using Hawaiian folk music the way it uses its few Native Hawaiian characters: as hollow plot devices in service of illuminating the inner lives of the series’s mostly white protagonists."
    • The White Lotus has been a deliberately uncomfortable but often engrossing watch: "That discomfort works for the quirky satirical humor and bits of the drama," says Brandon Katz. "But it’s so obscure and vague at times that it can feel like a series of disparately connected shorts rather than a series. Vignettes of malaise and misery interspersed with ASMR flavorings. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. But was it also an esoteric, glacially paced downer? That’s fair to say, too. So is it surprising that HBO has doled out a second season order for the limited series? The show is averaging less than 500,000 live linear viewers on HBO, ranking 14th among HBO’s active shows (not canceled or concluded even if they’re in the offseason)."
    • The story of this season of White Lotus was impeccably told, and didn’t need a sequel: "But turning the title into a seasonal anthology a la American Horror Story seems a much better idea than, say, trying to generate a second season of Big Little Lies," says Alan Sepinwall. "Our world does not lack for either terrible rich people or beautiful places. And after a career spent mostly making arthouse fare, it’s hard to blame White for wanting to take himself on another expensive trip — especially since we’ll get to come along for the ride."
    • Jennifer Coolidge's performance is a triumph of big emotion and complex acting: "This performance is the show’s grandest by far," says Daniel D'Addario, adding: "And yet I’d argue it also does the most to advance the show’s subtleties. In all, The White Lotus has tended to be brutally direct in its depiction of endless venality among the rich. (Connie) Britton’s and (Jake) Lacy’s characters get backstory, but not a great deal, and their abuse of staff is relatively uncomplicated by ideas of potential friendship, or by much at all. While they seem constantly certain of their right to be accommodated, Tanya isn’t quite sure how to be at all. She wants something more from the hotel — for it to be a friend, a lover, a surrogate parent. And she expresses it in an ambient jokiness that we see is only covering for deep need — something more complicated than the show’s intriguing but somewhat thin pageant of class divide elsewhere."
    • Mike White should bring Coolidge back for Season 2: "Don’t get me wrong. I am hyped for The White Lotus Season 2, but I already have one tiny complaint," says Meghan O'Keefe. "The White Lotus Season 2 can be all new characters played by new actors in a new location…except Jennifer Coolidge‘s Tanya McQuoid better come back. Not only has Coolidge blossomed into Mike White’s new muse in the first season of the series, but her character’s story isn’t over. I really, really need The White Lotus Season 2 to follow Tanya and her new boyfriend Greg (Jon Gries) on a devastating and hilarious journey contemplating love, wealth, and how we die."
    • The White Lotus' ending seemed divorced from the rest of the season
    • The White Lotus showed it is not a show about how workers and Native Hawaiians rise up against their oppressors -- this is a show about the insidious power of wealth and whiteness
    • The White Lotus finale proved its climax was much more than a cynical ploy for viewership or a sly wink at contemporaries like Mare of Easttown or Big Little Lies
    • Inside the making of The White Lotus' wallpaper-filled opening title sequence
    • How Jennifer Coolidge's White Lotus style came together
    • Ranking The White Lotus characters from pure to pure evil
    • Steve Zahn says there were plenty of ways to play Mark Mossbacher: "He could have been a complete a**hole," says Zahn. "His Achilles’ heel is that he’s honest, and his honesty is what gets him in trouble. He doesn’t think about what he’s saying — he’s not calculated in that way, which is his charm, which is what makes him great. But he kind of represents all guys now, doesn’t he? In a way, I mean, it’s like what is masculinity? What are those instinctual, primal things that are a part of all of us? You can’t deny those, right? They’re there, so how do you navigate through this world we live in now? It was so fascinating to me."
    • Zahn on the graphic scene showing a body double wearing a prosthetic: "It's so abrupt. The way he did it was just great. It's like, 'Bam!' First episode," says Zahn. "So HBO, isn't it? I did another show for HBO called Treme, and the first thing you see of me in the entire four years we did was my a**. And I remember telling them, 'Hey, don't get all crazy here. I'm not going to be doing streaking scenes down the street and stuff.'"
    • Jake Lacy on why the murder is one of the least consequential elements of the series: “Whether people know it or not, what Mike made is a social satire, but it’s also a satire of the form,” says Lacy. “We’re so into these murder miniseries, so he’s like, ‘OK. I’ll show you a body, and then we’ll have five episodes about entitled douchebags. Then I’ll tell you what happened with the body. It’s this little, like, haha!”
    • Lacy on how Mike White could approach Season 2: "If Mike White didn’t have more to offer at this same level, he would go do something else," he says. "But you could do something more like Upstairs, Downstairs, with the second season being more about the service end of things. People have been talking about how the show is about entitlement, but Mike says it’s more about how money corrupts the dynamics of every relationship, whether it’s a business relationship, a friendship or a marriage. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) unfairly dangles this hope to Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) of having her own spa, and it’s messed up how quickly she snatches that hope away. But you also see how Belinda changes in the face of this opportunity. Nobody’s free from it, except maybe Quinn (Fred Hechinger) and the guys in the outrigger canoe, because none of them are making money from the ocean. There is a certain equality in that relationship."
    • Fred Hechinger says Quinn Mossbacher's insights shouldn’t come as a surprise: "There’s sort of a dumb misconception that if a person is quieter, that means they have less to say or that speech is the only form of deep expression," he says. "I think that’s very much not true."
    • Alexandra Daddario on delving into her character: "I wanted to unlock how trapped she really feels. I feel confident in where I am in my life and career in a lot of ways," she says. "But you know, that’s always a slippery slope, especially when, as an actor, you don’t know what your next job is going to be. So it was really unlocking that this is someone in her 30s who really hasn’t achieved the success that she wants and can’t stand on her own two feet in her career. She got caught up in something that felt more meaningful than what she was doing, while really not getting in touch with how she got into this relationship in the first place."
    • Daddario on the finale: "I think for me the ending is… you can’t use the word satisfying," she says. "And that’s the story Mike is trying to tell. This is her life, this is her world and I just wanted to live true to that and this confusion over feeling completely trapped and having no sense of how to get out of it. I took some of my own experiences and I think that Rachel has been through some stuff that has dampened her ability to really follow her instincts."
    • Murray Bartlett on filming the finale: "The script is brilliantly written, so a lot of it is in the script. We didn’t talk a lot about the scenes before we did them, and I loved that," he says. "Mike creates this incredible sense of play, so we just tried a bunch of sh*t. It’s such a wonderful experience as an actor to be in that kind of situation where there’s this freedom to try stuff. There’s freedom to be too big or not big enough. That moment really came out of that sense of play and just trying stuff out. That felt fitting."
    • Bartlett admits the finale "was a great shock for me": "I didn’t when I signed up to do the job because I’d only read the first script," he says. "I was shocked when I first read it! I didn’t see it coming. I feel like it’s a mixed bag, from what I hear, of who people think (will die), but I hope people are surprised because it was a great shock for me."
    • Did Bartlett stay in character with the haves separated from the have-nots?: "We didn’t go that far," he says with a laugh. "But we did kind of become a family ’cause we were our own isolated community and it was an intense schedule. We worked a lot but got to go down to the beach at the end of the day and swim together and spend at least one day on the weekend hanging out. It was a very unique experience. I would say it really helped a lot of the relationships in the show."
    • Bartlett on his reaction to Armond: "I think Armond is an amazing character because he's complex and has this public face, the face he has in his job," he says. "He maintains this game that he and the guests play, where he gives them whatever they need and plays this role, and they expect a lot. But he also has this very rich inner life, his own pain and demons he's dealing with, in terms of his addiction issues and probably other stuff that's not in the script, who he is and where he's coming from. When I first read it, I only read the first script, and in the first episode, the majority of what you see of him is playing this public face. So I was like, I love this character, I know Mike White's work and there's a lot going on underneath this. That's true of all of us, and I found that really fascinating."
    • Bartlett emphasized that the suffering of the privileged guests is not the same as that of the employees: “It's not the nightmare of having your land taken away, or not having any money, or being sent to prison because you've been set up in this stupid situation, or … Belinda being taken advantage of and never being able to get ahead,” he says. But underpinning everything in White Lotus, he adds, is the fact that the whole system is a mess and ultimately not good for anybody. “These characters might think they're fine, but there's a deep level of suffering in all this," he says.
    • Mike White accepts The White Lotus criticism and the conflicting feelings over the finale: "I’m that white kid, I guess," White tells Vulture of some of the criticism over the show's focus on its white people. "Am I going to hate myself? What do you do? I want to get into some of the stuff about Hawaii and the colonial, imperial parts of it that exist to this day. I feel like I tried to weave that in. When you start trying to tell that story, though, it’s like, Is this really my story to tell? I can only come at it from how I — I saw the turtle. I got on the boat. I had that moment. I think your reaction is the right reaction, which is, I have conflicted feelings about it. That’s what it hopefully is designed to do. I’m okay with people having that reaction, and I’m okay with the criticism because I think it’s a valid criticism." White also responded to criticism, from Vulture's E. Alex Jung, that "white people love the white lotus because it satirizes privilege/class/servitude while still centering white people." White said: "I could kind of tell he had — I had the knee-jerk reaction (to someone) criticizing the show. But the show demands that! (But also) if I took that assumption to its fullest, it would make it so that I shouldn’t even be creating anything anymore. It’s a deep criticism of who’s getting what stories made, which is a completely valid conversation. But obviously, it would threaten me in some way! Because this is all I can do! I don’t know how to be a general manager of a hotel!"
    • White explains how The White Lotus used a physical prop and two CGI companies to create poop: "My editor and the assistant were like, 'This doesn’t look real enough,'" says White. "And I was like, 'Should it look that real? The audience might not be able to handle it.'"
    • White's plan was always to bookend the season with the casket and the reveal: "It was always built into it," he says. "I wrote it just knowing that, yeah, it's now such a trope in these shows where there's a body, and I just did the most casual version of it. We don't keep coming back to it. But it just felt like that could create a little bit of a propulsion and attention in these scenes that otherwise it would just feel kind of overwrought to be playing this music. Like, 'Why are they playing this music? Why am I so stressed?' And I felt if we just telegraphed that there is going to be blood on the floor by the end of this, that it would allow people to let us have more of a playful, anxious tone throughout the show."

    TOPICS: The White Lotus, HBO, Fred Hechinger, Jake Lacy, Jennifer Coolidge, Mike White, Murray Bartlett, Steve Zahn, Opening Credits

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