Just the idea of Hawaii is sexy to me — burnt sunsets, warm sand, hot nights. Maybe it’s the Hollywood gaze. From Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster rolling in the surf in From Here to Eternity to Blue Crush and the fantasy of the vacation romance, love in the Pacific is horny and urgent. Can Ann Marie score a perfect barrel ride and an NFL hunk before he flies home? Will Lancaster rescue Kerr from her ugly marriage before she sails to the mainland? Even Gigdet had a love triangle to untangle before she bid Waikiki aloha. This week on The White Lotus, sex is the topic of conversation and, occasionally, even on the itinerary. It is variously divisive, clandestine, lusty, affirming, embarrassing, and solitary, but it’s never very sexy.
The Pattons are tiffing again, this time because Shane wants to have sex. It’s not that Rachel doesn’t want to have sex — though sometimes she doesn’t want to — but that she wants Shane to want to have sex less. Until, that is, he says he doesn’t want to have sex, in which case she looks hurt until he admits that he actually would in fact like to have sex. Honestly, this horndog discourse is hard for me to buy. The newlyweds have so far ended each evening with a bang, but otherwise it’s pretty chaste between them.
In “Mysterious Monkeys,” they also have morning sex, which appears mutually satisfying if perhaps perfunctory. Rachel’s not fully undressed and there’s no post-coital cuddle, but no judgment here, the breakfast buffet probably ends at 10. So I was as thrown as Rachel’s polo shirt of a husband to hear she’s unhappy with the central role sex is playing in their relationship. “I can’t wait to fuck in Tahiti” isn’t the most romantic sweet-nothing I’ve ever heard, but how much sex is too much on day three of marriage? Rachel is looking for a fight, desperate to find cracks in the relationship to justify her second thoughts. It’s hardly necessary! There’s a surfeit of obvious reasons not to be with this dude, like his complete disregard for her career, his reliance on his mother to solve his problems, and how long it’s taking him to finish Blink. Still, her criticism sends Shane on a quest to show he’s more than an erection with a black card.
At least the Pattons are doing it on vacation. The Mossbachers are nowhere close. There are mood-killers, of course: their daughter’s derision, their son’s tech/porn addiction, Nicole’s workaholism, and Mark’s existential crisis. When Rachel asks Mark how the Mossbachers keep “the spark alive,” his candor is more disconcerting than Shane’s libido. In the beginning, Mark couldn’t get enough of Nicole; now, he compares sex to a food challenge on Fear Factor, a show on which I saw a person drink the juice from a cow’s eyeball. But radical honesty is Mark’s new watchword. He doesn’t even flinch when his teenage son overhears.
Because honesty, Mark declares, is going to be the difference between Mark and his own dad, the one we learned died from AIDS. Steve Zahn, who refuses to recede into his character for me, wakes up stupefied from the news, leaving his wife to explain the situation to the kids. The girls are predictably merciless. They only see the homophobia in Mark’s reaction when really he’s grieving the loss of a fictional childhood, plus also being homophobic. “Maybe he was just too embarrassed to ask grandma to use a dildo on him?” suggests Olivia, who is maaaybe trying to help? But there’s an unmissable twinkle in her eye when she informs her parents that grandad “was probably a bottom. That’s how you mostly get it — receiving.” She’s perpetually thrilled with her own worldly knowledge, mistaking it for a reason why her opinions are the most correct. Mark has Bloody Marys for breakfast until it’s time for day one of scuba school.
Which brings us to poor, suffering Quinn. Kicked out of the hotel suite by his sister, he spent the night sleeping under a canopy of stars. It was magical until the tide washed away his many, many devices. His mom orders replacements that can’t make it to the island in time, but this is Maui, not the edge of civilization. He’s a 20-minute Uber from Target — give the kid a credit card. Phoneless and Switchless, Quinn has no refuge from his dad’s unfiltered truth, or at least what Mark thinks the truth is. It’s fascinating to see how quickly Mark bends the new information about his dad into a self-serving narrative. He believed he was the “flawed child of an icon”; now, he’s using his dad’s secrets to excuse his shortcomings. “He hid the monkey and that screwed me up.” To save Quinn, Mark is going to tell the truth, and the truth is mostly frank sex talk with anyone who will listen. Later, Nicole explains to her daughter over family dinner that, as you get older, you come to value your dignity more than sex — a revealing set of counterpoints. Mark doesn’t hear because he’s still at the bar, accidentally propositioning Armond, who has enjoyed 400–500 pau hana drinks.
Armond’s sinking fast since busting open the dispensary of Paula’s lost bag. Belinda finds him asleep in his car. He can’t stop hitting on Dillon, a young staffer with an aesthetic that screams “my beat-up Toyota is covered in bumper stickers.” (Armie likes his top knot.) And just when it seems the Pineapple Suite fiasco is over, a reckless Armond can’t resist the chance to escalate. He books the Pattons onto the hotel boat for sunset dinner on the same night Tanya is planning to scatter her mother’s remains. An Armond with a stash and a vendetta is a dangerous thing. Honeymoons will be scorched.
As good as Murray Bartlett is at playing a man buzzing with Adderall and schadenfreude, this week’s MVP is hands-down Jennifer Coolidge, who takes boozy Tanya from fragile to fractured over a case of champagne. Tanya feels like a fuller version of other characters that Coolidge has played — washed-up and spaced out, simultaneously puerile and battered — but with backstory enough to justify her sadness. She had an oppressive, collapsed relationship with her “cruel” mother that even the woman’s death can’t end. She dreams that she’s wading into the chest-high sea, throwing handfuls of ashes into an on-shore wind that blows them back into her face. Her mourning is hysterical in every sense of the word. “I wish I had a man here,” she says, watching Rachel and Shane over dinner. Belinda, whom Tanya’s compelled to leave work early to join her, agrees. These women are bad bedfellows: Belinda is pathologically empathic, and Tanya’s distress seems to blossom when she has witnesses.
In a shrewd metaphor, Tanya can’t even get the urn open herself. On the boat, she breaks down crying and screaming before the ashes can be emptied. She’ll probably carry them with her forever. As the boat sails back to The White Lotus, the shell-shocked Pattons clutch each other close, and Belinda sings to Tanya, scratching her head like the child she’ll never outgrow.
Predictably, Shane’s sense of perspective on his own life disappears faster than you can say “land ho.” He’s fuming at Armond. “People have been coming for me my whole life,” he tells Rachel, somehow with a straight face. “I’m just playing the hand I was dealt. Like, yeah, it’s a great hand, and that’s not my fault.” Rachel promptly initiates what I can only imagine is please-stop-talking sex.
Eventually, Mark drunkenly stumbles home to his family, chattering like a monkey and thumping his bare chest. It’s so weird and pathetic that I almost wanted Nicole to be into it, just to spare us the humiliation. “You’re taking this really hard,” she says with total remove. If she ever stopped answering emails and rearranging furniture long enough to consider it, Nicole might find she detests her husband.
The only people having enviable sex on The White Lotus are Paula and the nameless waiter. Olivia is the one doing the envying. As “Mysterious Monkey” opens, she wakes to find her friend missing from bed, but Paula has an instinct to lie about it, and Olivia has an instinct to hide that she knows Paula is lying. The next night, Olivia follows her into the night to confirm what she already knows. But why? Is Olivia jealous of Paula? Jealous of the waiter who gets to be with her? What do these friends even have in common besides a penchant for scoffing and the same section of Poli Sci 201?
Speaking of, it’s time for another round of bookwatch. Paula has progressed from Freud to Frantz Fanon’s book on colonialism — a topic she brought up at dinner in last week’s ep and which is always germane when holidaying in the stolen Kingdom of Hawai’i. Olivia has traded Neitzsche for his disciple Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae, an ambiguously anti-feminist text that is sure to rankle her even more than her mother does. What point is Mike White making with their vacation syllabus? That a liberal arts education is largely performative? That it breeds cynicism? Or is Shane, who alleges they’re not reading at all, kind of right — intellectual history is simply the new black? Shane splashing the young women with pool water while at the same time negging them is my personal watch-through-your-fingers, cringe-of-the-week moment. Rachel, horrified and embarrassed and maybe even jealous, has to flee the scene. For her part, Rachel is finally cracking open Elena Ferrante, which is fitting. My Brilliant Friend is the exact novel you bring on vacation and can’t finish when you realize it’s darker than you thought it would be. As previously mentioned, Shane, who really doesn’t need encouragement to trust his own gut instincts, is still flipping through Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.
We’re halfway through The White Lotus already, and I’m starting to question my assumption that the death teased in the pilot was a murder. Nothing seems headed in a murder-y direction. But then I remember Juan Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s twisty Polynesian theme tune, which felt almost ironic when it introduced episode one. With each successive week, it conjures something darker and nervier for me. Every character is fraying in some sense, but in ways that make them less intimidating. Tanya can’t do a murder; she can’t even open a box. Mark would have to ask Nicole’s permission. And yet this can’t all end with a tragic ridge-hike-selfie death, can it? The first three episodes of the series collectively established and exposed these flawed castaways and the chaos they cause just by being themselves; now it’s time for things to get really out of control.
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