Jennifer Coolidge, checking in for her stay.
Photo credit: Mario Perez / HBO
The opening titles of The white lotus magnify the images in sections of textured wallpaper that, at first, resemble the decor you would expect to see in a tropical candle setting. Birds and monkeys frolic in the branches. Leopards take a blissful nap in the palm leaves. But slowly, the footage gets more disturbing: there’s a close-up of a tiny fish, with one eye bulging as it is strangled by algae, and there are three men paddling a canoe straight into a fearsome wave.
Headlines announce that this place you’re about to enter – specifically, the Hawaiian luxury resort at the center of Mike White’s new HBO series – is full of life. But also? This place is death.
Death subtly hangs over all six episodes of the dark, completely absorbing comic book The white lotus thanks to the very first scene, which finds Shane Patton (Jake Lacy, stepping away from his usual good-natured roles to play an unrepentant asshole) confirming to an overly talkative couple at the airport that someone recently died at the White Lotus, the resort where he just spent part of his honeymoon.
There are elements that sound a little familiar to this opening, which ends with a flashback to the previous week, when Shane, his wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and several other well-heeled guests first arrive at their house. chic beach digs. the in the media res beginning followed by a jump in time has fundamentally become the standard storytelling device of modern television. And in keeping with HBO’s sensibility, this is yet another limited series about rich, white people that immediately implies that a murder may have happened.
But apart from these elements, the word “familiar” does not really apply to The white lotus, which begins Sunday evening. Created, Written, and Directed by White, the Man Responsible for Another Big HBO, the Prematurely Canceled Enlightened, this series is a heavily etched satire of classism and white privilege, as well as a skillful exploration of the power dynamics that define every relationship between and among guests and staff in this upscale paradise. Whenever you think you know where this show is heading, it’s heading to an unexpected place. Tonally, it’s an arsenic-enriched piña colada, or maybe a Bloody Mary with a generous dash of real blood. Subtextually, and often verbatim, that’s more or less all Socko says in the song “How the World Works” by Bo Burnham. Inside. (“Why do you rich white whores insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic prism of your own self-fulfillment? It’s not about you!” Etc.)
When VIP guests first arrive at the isolated resort by boat, Armond, the hotel manager played by Murray Bartlett (formerly Dom on HBO’s Looking at), advises Lani (Jolene Purdy), an intern on her first day on the job, that the role of the staff is to remain invisible while responding to the every whim of the guests. “You can’t be too specific as a presence, as an identity,” he said to this Hawaiian woman who is surely used to her identity being ignored by tourists with overcrowded bank accounts. This tongue-in-cheek advice doubles as a clever tip on how to look critically The white lotus, a series in which anyone of means or power, whether guest or staff, shows a lack of compassion for those below them in the established social hierarchy. At this point: For much of the rest of episode one, whenever Armond is asked about Lani, he responds with “Who?”, Only remembering her when she is called “the intern”. . This man who told Lani to suppress her identity never sees her as having one in the first place.
Armond’s behavior, like that of almost every character in The white lotus, could and could spark a thousand thoughts, which is a testament to the jagged edges of White’s handwriting and the fantastic actors who make up the cast. When Shane, a man who apparently had access to a silver spoon in utero, realizes that he and Rachel may have been booked into the wrong sequel, his obsession with error becomes his white whale in a way. both comical and a little disturbing. . Lacy addresses this dichotomy by deploying his dimpled smile charm, then dropping that cold smile when Shane isn’t getting precisely the treatment he thinks he deserves. Shane’s right becomes more and more appalling for Rachel, who immediately begins to wonder if marrying this guy wasn’t a bad decision. When Shane tries to reassure her that their happiness will never fade – “There will be days and days like this,” he coos in her ear – the look of abject terror on Daddario’s face. evokes laughter and some sympathy for this woman who doesn’t come for money and clearly has no idea how he shapes mindsets.
The Mossbacher family is embarking on The white lotus with a whole different literal and emotional baggage. Mark (Steve Zahn) is obsessed with the possibility that he is about to be diagnosed with cancer, while his wife Nicole (Connie Britton), a successful head of a Google-style business, doesn’t know how to handle what whether it is unless it is the arrangement, whether it is the furniture of the hotel suite or the meal schedule for the day. “Mom, it’s vacation,” shouts the Mossbacher’s teenage son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) at one point. “It’s a breakfast buffet in Hawaii. It shouldn’t be a stressful situation!
Nicole is a false Zen mom, the kind of woman who keeps her cool both for appearances and because she knows the kind of peace that only a woman who gets everything she wants can experience. Britton gives here the kind of performance that seems effortless, but only because she seems to understand deep down in her bones how a woman like Nicole wields her power: gently, so no one feels the hurt of entry until that the knife has already started to twist.
Nicole’s biggest quiet challenge is her daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), a sophomore college student who brought in her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady, from the overlooked Apple TV + series Small voice) along the family journey as a partner in endless judgment. At the hotel, by the pool or on the beach, the two young women sit next to each other and cast ruthless glances at the others over their absurdly juxtaposed beach readings. (In one scene, Paula reads Freud while Olivia reads Nietzsche.) During an informal conversation with Rachel, they question her as if they memorize details which they could then file in a police report.
Olivia derives special satisfaction from calling her parents out of their own privilege and ignorance. In an exchange, she signals to her father that he made a homophobic comment, prompting Nicole to ask him if she is considering “canceling it?” Dox him? Is K-pop against him? As the only non-white person integrated into this family circle, Paula, whose ethnicity is never specified, hints more and more strongly that she feels like an outsider here. Mossbacher people are usually too oblivious to notice.
And then there is [trumpet fanfare] Tanya McQuoid, pronounced Mc-Kwad, an eccentric woman traveling alone and determined to scatter the ashes of her late mother in an act of farewell and catharsis. Tanya is played by the great Jennifer Coolidge, who could easily make a career out of scenes from The white lotus if she hadn’t been so good at so many projects before this one. Upon arrival, Tanya books a massage with spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell, convincingly and movingly playing a woman who may be the opposite of Rothwell’s. Precarious character Kelli) and develops a friendship with her that could lead to a business partnership. Perhaps.
Speaking sentences that come out like a long, slow whisper, mainly because she doesn’t know how she is going to finish them, Tanya could very easily have been a caricature of the glamorous yet lonely rich woman. But Coolidge finds the humanity and heartbreak within Tanya and gives her permission to share the space with all of her hilarious lunch qualities. And she’s really hilarious; during their first spa treatment, Belinda asks Tanya, who complains of fatigue, to sit on a pillow. “Why do you think you’re so tired?” Belinda asks sincerely. Equally sincerely, Tanya responds, “I think it’s because I’m so close to the ground.” Reader: I sniffed. I snorted really loudly.
Holidays are meant to be about rest and rejuvenation, but The white lotus is not a relaxing watch. While the beauty of its setting is captured in pretty shots of turtles swimming on the surface of the sea and the twinkling of fairy lights on cozy dinner tables, this series is not here, unlike the staff at the White Lotus, to make you comfortable. It is an accusation of colonialism and cultural appropriation, of privileges and systemic power structures, of law and the many forms it takes. It’s also a comedy about how no one really gets what they want in life, even those who clearly have everything and then die, especially this character that is alluded to in that first scene. The opening scene implies that death should be a big deal. But at the end of The white lotus, it doesn’t look like much like one. After all, everyone is consumable.