“Give up. Just quit. Because in this life you can’t win. Yeah, you can try. But in the end, you’re just going to lose, big time. Because the world is run by the Man.”
That’s a snippet from a monologue spoken by Jack Black as fake substitute teacher Dewey Finn in the movie School of Rock. That film and those words were written by Mike White, the creator, writer, and director of The White Lotus, the HBO series about a bunch of rich people on vacation that, like many of White’s films and shows (in addition to School of Rock and The White Lotus, see Enlightened and Brad’s Status), reckons with the intractability of the Establishment.
Sunday night’s finale of this much-discussed series — a season-one finale as opposed to a series finale, now that HBO has green-lit a second White Lotus season — was, at its core, an exploration of how the status quo is upheld, both by those who benefit from it and those who become too exhausted to fight it. Many viewers may have tuned in primarily to find out which character wound up dead, a fate hinted at for one of the White Lotus staff or guests from the very first episode. That reveal — which involved human feces, a confrontation between two enemies, and an accidental stabbing with a pineapple-carving knife — fulfilled its obligation to shock, awe, and make viewers go ewwww. But it also tied in directly with that extremely Mike White-ian message: that certain people can’t win, ever, in a world run by the Man.
One person who definitely does not win in The White Lotus is Armond (Murray Bartlett), the frazzled manager of the White Lotus resort who serves as the show’s Basil Fawlty equivalent, if Basil Fawlty had been Australian and handled extreme stress by snorting blow and engaging in sexual acts with Manuel. Armond — spoiler alert, if a spoiler alert is needed on an article with the headline “Let’s Talk About That White Lotus Ending” — is the person who winds up dead, his corpse loaded onto a plane to Honolulu as extra cargo.
Armond is killed by his nemesis Shane (Jake Lacy), who accidentally stabs him with the pineapple carving knife he had meant to use on the jewelry thief he assumes is roaming the resort. Armond dies physically as he lived his last days mentally: stuck in the Pineapple Suite with this demanding asshole, who is only capable of saying the words “I’m sorry” after plunging a sharp implement into another person’s chest. Sadly, bleeding out in that jacuzzi tub for two is probably the closest Armond ever got to spending a night in luxury accommodations.
You would think the homicide of the head of the resort would perhaps put things on pause at the White Lotus. But in one of the most pointed, full-circle moments in the finale, we can see that it doesn’t. Near the end of the episode, in an image that’s nearly identical to one from the first, we see a shot of several White Lotus staff members, lined up on the verdant edge of the resort’s property, waving at another group of unseen, incoming VIP guests arriving by boat and ready to have their every need accommodated.
There’s Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) — poor Belinda, who dared to believe that Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) might actually invest in Belinda’s own wellness spa instead of bailing on it after deciding that transactional relationships are “not healthy [pregnant pause] for me” — turning her annoyed grimace into a beatific, welcoming smile as she prepares to soldier through another round of visitors demanding hydrating facials and seaweed wraps. On one side of her is a staffer who looks vaguely like Lani but is not actually Lani. (Remember Lani, played by Jolene Purdy, who gave birth to a child at the resort in episode one and was neither heard from nor mentioned again because people on the lower end of the employee ladder are just expendable?) On the other is the presumed new manager of the White Lotus, a tall lanky man dressed in the hotel’s required salmon-colored blazer. If you squint through a blast of sunshine, this new guy might pass for Armond.
But he’s definitely not Armond, because Armond, the guy who advised Lani to try to be generic in the eyes of the guests, then ultimately realized you don’t have to try to be generic when you’re dealing with people who don’t see you as human, is gone. But still, the White Lotus conveyor belt keeps running, with a new man in charge of making sure the well-heeled continue to be catered to without interruption. Really, as the rest of the finale shows us, that’s how everything works: The globe keeps spinning, and the white, rich, and privileged keep winning. The finale does try to offer one hopeful exception to that rule, but even that moment is open to interpretation. But we’ll get to that shortly.
There are so many examples in this finale of people outside of the wealthy and/or white bubble trying to pop it, and realizing it’s unpoppable. Despite all of Belinda’s efforts, all Tanya does is thank her for helping her break old habits, including a tendency to “latch onto somebody and then … use my money to control them,” which, by the way, is exactly what Tanya seems to be doing with her new boyfriend Greg (Jon Gries). Of course Tanya doesn’t see that, the same way she doesn’t see how condescending it is to hand Belinda an envelope full of cash rather than invest in her in a way that has actual value.
Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) comes so, so close to running away from a life spent with an entitled baby like Shane. But she can’t bring herself to leave him. After seeking guidance from Belinda, who has understandably had it with helping white women — “You want my advice? I am all out,” Belinda tells her — Rachel reunites with Shane at the airport. It is unclear whether she knows Shane killed Armond (she must, right?), but if she does, even that’s not enough to push her to bail on the marriage. “I’m happy,” she tells him, completely unconvincingly, a look of defeat on her face. “I promise. I’ll be happy.”
It is as obvious as a turd on a Polo shirt in a suitcase that she is lying. Rachel’s going to be miserable for the rest of this marriage, and she’s going to pretend she isn’t. But like so many white women, she’s apparently decided it’s easier to buy into a system in which she’s protected and financially supported than it is to summon the courage to work against it. Rachel knows the world is run by the Man and she doesn’t like it, but she’s resigned to the fact that it’s easier to go through life with the Man on your side.
The sharpest, most observant writing in the finale centers on the Mossbacher family, the victims of that “scary” break-in, which was actually just naive, sweet Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) acting at the behest of Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who thinks that snatching an expensive tennis bracelet from the Mossbachers will serve as revenge for having Kai’s native land overrun with snotty tourists. But the quote-unquote heist only gets Kai in trouble and binds the Mossbachers closer together.
Mark (Steve Zahn) and Nicole (Connie Britton) make love for the first time in eons, having established, for the second time in The White Lotus, that he has a working set of balls because he “saved” his wife from an intruder. During the boat trip, when Mark and Quinn (Fred Hechinger) emerge from an invigorating round of snorkeling, the four members of the family are all together and happy for the first time on this vacation, while Paula is noticeably queasy and alone, the one puzzle piece that doesn’t fit in that cozy jigsaw. Over dinner, while talking Quinn out of staying on the island, Mark imagines a future for the Mossbachers where they get back to nature … by buying a boat.
“We can be one of those boat families,” he says, cluelessly, hilariously, sadly. It doesn’t even occur to Mark that a “boat family” is more evocative of a group of refugees fleeing by sea than a bunch of related rich people hanging out on a small yacht. “We can waterboard,” he adds, making his obliviousness somehow more egregious. When Olivia corrects him, laughing — “It’s wakeboard, Dad” — he says, “Same thing.” It is not. It is not the same thing.
In a recent episode of Ted Lasso, Ted asserts that the best way to forge bonds between people is to give them a common enemy. The finale of The White Lotus demonstrates that there is perhaps no enemy more capable of bringing the Mossbachers together than a poor, non-white person who wants to steal what they have. The supposedly woke Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) makes that very clear in an accusatory conversation with Paula. “Something bad could have happened,” she says, referring to her mother. Paula, heartbroken for Kai and struck by Olivia’s lack of perspective, replies: “Something bad did happen.”
In that same conversation, Olivia also manages to contradictorily suggest she’s Paula’s ally, telling her friend, “I’m not my parents, Paula.”
“But you are,” Paula tells her. “Actually, you are. You think you’re like this rebel but in the end, this is your tribe.”
While Paula is right to say this to Olivia, she also could be speaking directly to herself. Paula doesn’t really encourage Kai to lift items from the Mossbachers’ safe because it’s in his best interest. It is not in his interest at all. But it will ease Paula’s conscience and make her feel like less of a sell-out if she, via Kai, sticks it to the Mossbachers even though she’s enjoying a vacation on their dime. Paula, who walks around in a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt even though all she mostly does is side-eye the Machine, accuses Olivia of using Paula as a prop to give herself cred. But didn’t Paula do a version of the same thing with Kai?
In the finale, Paula has to choose her tribe. When she throws the necklace Kai gave her into the ocean and, later, weeps while Olivia comforts her, their dynamic returning to one where Olivia has the upper hand, Paula has made her choice. Like Rachel, she’d ultimately rather be at least adjacent to and benefitting from the Man, even if it means she’s a sell-out. It’s too hard to do the ethical thing all the time.
The one person in the Mossbacher group who veers off the status quo course is Quinn. After insisting that he wants to stay in Hawaii so he can go on Hōkūleʻa with his new canoeing friends and being shut down by his parents, Quinn makes a break for it, running away after the rest of his family has already boarded the plane to Honolulu. The final image of the finale is a lovely sunset shot of Quinn paddling alongside the only people who say things to him like, “Let’s go, brother. We need you,” as he realizes his dream.
The obvious way to interpret that closer is that Quinn, the alienated Mossbacher and the one who truly (and surprisingly) communes with nature, is the only one capable of choosing a simpler, non-status quo life and as such, gets to live one. I find it challenging to think that Quinn actually gets to stay and go on that Hōkūleʻa, though. It seems to me that Mark and Nicole would have realized pretty quickly that Quinn wasn’t on the plane and that they would have thrown their weight around to stop it from taking off until they dragged their son onboard. It’s hard to believe Quinn got even one foot out of the airport before somebody stopped him.
It also feels completely divorced from the tone of the rest of The White Lotus to have such a happy ending for just one character. This entire series is about how the fantasy of vacationing in such a beautiful place brushes up against the messy reality of the colonialism, classism, and racism that allow that beautiful place to exist and be accessed, mostly by those who have the money to afford it.
The shot of all the White Lotus staffers waving to the next set of guests — evidence that the fantasy will be acted out all over again, presumably until the end of time — fits in with that theme. That image immediately segues into the one of Quinn and his canoe partners, paddling as a unit, which suggests to me that this is also a fantasy. It’s a representation of some unattainable ideal where a rich, wealthy, white young man gets to be accepted by the natives and thereby have a foot in two tribes. But everything in The White Lotus tells us that’s not possible.
Which is why I believe that final moment is a fantasy sequence, a dream that Quinn never gets to realize. In reality, he winds up back on the plane. He flies home. His parents get him a new phone, and he goes back to burying his head in digital devices, wondering occasionally what it would be like if he could, literally and figuratively, paddle his own canoe. Meanwhile, the world, as run by the Man, keeps on turning, just as it always has.
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