The White Lotus
When The White Lotus started filming at Maui’s shut-down Four Seasons in the fall of 2020, the series was capturing a tension between visitors and locals that had evaporated when the pandemic hit. Now, Maui’s experiencing a tourism boom that’s overwhelming its infrastructure. The road to Hana is a traffic jam and the island’s mayor has asked airlines to temporarily “pause” incoming flights. Like The Handmaid’s Tale premiering during Donald Trump’s first 100 days,The White Lotus can’t help feeling extra prescient. In this week’s episode, beach boys lug chaises longues onto the hot sand, waiters gawk as Shane Patton piles an obscene buffet plate, and the wealthy resort guests enmesh themselves in the lives of the staff without much thought to what happens when they leave. Consequences are as ephemeral as sunsets.
Shane is fighting a two-front war now. He’s still strung out on the Pineapple Suite, enlisting his mom’s travel agent to harass the hotel manager. Meanwhile, his new wife has plunged into an existential crisis — or at least caught an especially virile case of the post-wedding blues. After months of neglecting her career to plan their big day, Rachel is offered a low-prestige, low-pay magazine assignment, which she’d like to report from their honeymoon. Shane isn’t necessarily wrong when he tells her it’s “rude” to interrupt their trip, but everything else that emanates from his supremely punchable face is belittling, particularly offering her cash from their now-communal assets to not take the gig. “You must have thought about it,” he says, broaching how his enormous wealth could free Rachel from the bonds of mediocre wage labor. And she must have, right? She showed up carrying a Goyard tote.
For Rachel, it’s about the work, yes, but it’s also not about work at all. A wedding is over in a day; honing the contours of a marriage could last a lifetime but, ideally, at least until the sunset clause on her prenup expires. Her career anxieties feel almost metonymic. The real question dogging her is how do you stay yourself in a relationship that affords you a new life? Rachel’s been worried about money every day of her existence, and the feeling is so familiar, so a part of how she sees herself and interacts with the world, that she so far prefers the worry to the actual money. She approaches Nicole, whose high-octane career she admires, for advice. Nicole will know what to do; Nicole carries a Louis Vuitton Neverfull to the pool.
Can we wax about how good Connie Britton is at playing Nicole Mossbacher, the way she can sell a single line so that it works on multiple registers? “Your independence is your power,” she tells the newlywed, who gobbles up the platitude as the audience rolls its eyes. What is Nicole talking about? But also: What else is she supposed to say? When she discovers Rachel was the author of a borderline unflattering news story on her, Nicole’s sunny mask never breaks, even as she eviscerates Rachel with put-downs. It’s the same impassive smile she gives to her husband’s dopey toast and to Tanya’s intrusive compliments, shouted across the hotel restaurant. Nicole’s impregnability is her power.
The only person able to pierce it is Olivia, whose favorite way to unwind at the end of a long, tropical day is to needle her mother. Their dinner conversations aren’t actually conversations, more like sequences of small tiffs followed by silences, which pretty quickly give way to the next tiff. When Nicole mentions that Rachel is a “fan” of her work at a big search engine, Olivia complains that the company is responsible for eroding the social fabric. The generational divide happens to be between the letters X and Z and the points of conflict are hyper du jour, but the shape of the schism will feel familiar to most people and their parents. I see my younger millennial self in Olivia’s insensitivity; I see my boomer mother in Nicole’s lack of curiosity.
Olivia feels less specific when she’s alone with Paula, though the scenes between them are the most overtly comic in this week’s episode. When they discover a veritable pharmacy lurking in their hand luggage and then “do some ASMR,” you get the feeling you’re watching Mike White digest everything he’s recently heard about young people. His interest in the lives of women their age is about as sincere as Nicole’s. She knows she smells weed in their room, for example, but when Paula claims they’re making sacrifices to Hecate, Nicole’s as happy as they are to move on. “Witchcraft” is just another word on The White Lotus’s 2021 bingo card.
The episode is called “New Day” and it applies most directly to Mark Mossbacher, who doesn’t have cancer, thereby dramatically reducing his chances of leaving the resort dead. (You’d be forgiven for forgetting that someone must.) The good news sends him on a reflective bender. The day will be seized; footprints will be left in the sand. He’s insistent about spending time with his son, who generally survives life as a member of his toxic family by playing Nintendo. But Mark doesn’t really want to get to know his kid; he wants to recreate his own childhood, casting himself in the role of worshipped father. He doesn’t even ask Quinn what video game he’s been playing. Instead, he signs them up for scuba lessons. Quinn gamely agrees to “bro out” with his dad, but the situation has shallow-water blackout written all over it. Is this how Quinn goes?
It’s a new day of a kind for Tanya, too. Craniosacral therapy with Belinda has left her refreshed. What started as a trip to scatter her mother’s ashes has become an impromptu wellness retreat. She collapses herself all over Belinda, eventually asking her to dinner. It’s a presumptuous invitation that curdles completely when she refuses to accept Belinda’s polite no; she even threatens to stir up trouble with the hotel manager to make a seafood tower for two a reality. The scene’s ugliness has levels. There’s Tanya’s sense of entitlement to Belinda’s unpaid time, her brinkmanship, her complete lack of self-awareness. The customer is always right, and Tanya is a lifelong customer.
But what happens at the dinner is more agonizing. As Belinda justifies a career helping “rich white people” find some peace — they’re the ones whose psychic pain is “fucking up the whole world” — Tanya offers to help her open her own business. We don’t know enough of Belinda to understand why she can’t hear the insincerity in the proposal or recognize the flashes of flakiness in Tanya, but right now she seems more likely to leave The White Lotus in a body bag than as the owner/manager of an eponymous spa.
Comparatively, what’s happening between Shane and Armond can look like a battle between equals. Shane may have all the privilege, but Armond is standing strong between him and the only closed door he’s ever seen. Privately, though, Armond’s hanging by a thread. His sobriety is fragile after a forced reckoning with his own lack of compassion — he didn’t notice Lani was in labor because he was preoccupied keeping paradise on schedule. “What if I can’t fucking do this anymore?” he asks. The Pineapple Suite may be Shane’s whole war, but for The White Lotus manager it’s just another skirmish. Next week, another rich guy with another impossible demand will arrive on the trade winds. And the week after that. And the week after that. Lei, luau, repeat. Ultimately, Armond pops a few pills from the girl’s druggie go-bag, which they lost on the beach in their own K-hole. Armond could surely perish.
And so the new day, our first full day with out-of-offices on, comes to a close. Rachel passes on the assignment, saving her honeymoon but probably damning her marriage with festering resentment. Shane somehow gets lucky anyway. The bitchy girls kick Quinn out of their hotel room, and he falls asleep on the beach with a lobtailing whale in the distance. Belinda is high on what’s got to be false hope; Armond is just high. And Mark crashes out of his carpe diem fugue when he finds out the strapping, Paul Bunyan of a father he lost to cancer when he was Quinn’s age actually died from AIDS, contracted during a gay affair.
At least Quinn probably doesn’t have to go to scuba school now.