The opening scene of The White Lotus spoils the ending: One of its characters will die. Their body is the one being loaded into the freezing cargo hold of a passenger airplane as onlookers needle a cagey, uncooperative man for details. To the people in the airport, the body is a fleeting bit of gossip to wonder about before flying back to their lives, but The White Lotus flashes back one week to imbue that death with a spiraling sense of inevitability. The White Lotus resort, where the death took place, is a decadent utopia in name only. In truth it is a hotel that may as well add startling, constant violence to its list of amenities, right underneath the ocean views.
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Everyone on The White Lotus occupies a space in a social hierarchy that is as intricate as a spider’s web and immutable as a concrete wall. The intrinsically jacked-up dynamics of a Hawaiian resort that serves an ultra-wealthy, overwhelmingly white clientele is the starting point for a power imbalance that transforms social carnage into literal bloodshed, but each character’s space in the hierarchy is far more complex than it first appears. The wealthy newlyweds aren’t on equal footing; the grieving spinster’s vapidity masks an inherited talent for manipulation; the breadwinning Gen X girlboss’ perfect family is anything but; and the hotel staff is helmed by a grinning manager two seconds away from an understandable nervous breakdown. These complications come across in the show’s excellent writing, which draws its characters in broad stereotypes before letting small details emerge that make them grotesquely human.
Everyone on The White Lotus occupies a space in a social hierarchy that is as intricate as a spider’s web and immutable as a concrete wall.
The White Lotus’ captivatingly character-driven whodunnit would not come across as clearly without its excellent cast, all of whom are worthy of note. Actor Jake Lacy (Girls, Fosse/Verdon) reveals the more punchable angles of his face as the textbook entitled rich guy Shawn, whose new wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) just now seems to realize she may have married the wrong guy. Murray Bartlett (Looking, Tales of the City) brings jaw-dropping range to the journey of hotel manager Armand, and Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blonde, American Pie) delivers a career best performance as the fascinatingly pathetic and needy solo traveler Tanya McQuoid.
The White Lotus is not the kind of mystery or comedy where nothing is as it seems. Everyone is exactly as they seem, and much of the humor comes from the plot slowly guiding its characters toward saying what the internet would call “the quiet part out loud.”The little fictions people tell themselves to hold society together — that everyone is always equal, that money doesn’t matter, that having the “right” opinions correlates to morality — go out the window as the stakes rise, and finally seeing people cut the crap and start proudly exploiting each other is both shocking and funny. It’s easy to get so lost watching these people tear each other apart that you forget someone here will literally die until another seemingly obvious clue or red herring crosses the screen to rejuvenate your suspicions.
Everything about The White Lotus — from its tense opening credits (an HBO credit song banger to match the drama of the Succession music); its repeated shots of ocean waves rolling over and almost drowning the camera; and its tight, controlled direction — makes for a top-quality miniseries that will make half the audience chip a molar from jaw-clenching and the other half laugh at how far humanity has fallen. It’s an intense and captivating comedy of manners that skewers the wealthy while reminding the audience that everyone has power over someone, and it only takes a little push to get them to wield it.
The White Lotus is streaming on HBO Max.
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