Director: Mark White
Writer: Mark White
Cast: Murray Bartlett, Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Fred Hechinger, Sydney Sweeney, Brittany O'Grady, Alexandra Daddario, Jake Lacy, Jennifer Coolidge
Cinematographer: Ben Kutchins
Editor: Heather Persons, John M. Valerio
Streaming on: DisneyPlus Hotstar
Greek mythology spoke of the 'lotus-eaters' as a race of islanders lulled into a perpetual state of apathy by the narcotic effects of the lotus fruit and flowers they consumed. The sharp, insightful six-episode series The White Lotus, reworks this myth into a modern-day fable. Wealth is the intoxicant, and apathy, the ensuing fallout of late-stage capitalism.
Just as no one who ventured to the isle of the lotus-eaters ever returned, the island resort that the show is set at also demands a sacrifice. The series begins with talk of a recent death, followed by the opening credits depicting the rot that can gradually seep into scenes of idyll. Images of tropical-patterned wallpaper morph into illustrations of destruction and decay. Fruits wither on the vine, a fish is ensnared by seaweed and boatmen struggle against a tidal wave that threatens to swallow them whole.
When the show flashes back one week, sun-dappled frames of the White Lotus resort in Hawaii mask the insidious nature of its new guests, most of whom are well-etched variations of familiar rich people caricatures. There's newlyweds Shane (Jake Lacy), a real-estate mogul thrilled to have landed a trophy wife, and Rachel Patton, a puff-piece writer who married for money and is now realising she must pay for it. There's girlboss CEO Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), her emasculated husband Mark (Steve Zahn), ultra-woke daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and son Quinn (Fred Hechinger), a teen perpetually glued to his phone. There's also Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), for whom the (short-term) solution to loneliness is just a transaction away. Like the wild animals of the opening credits, the group soon regresses to their baser instincts of lust, greed and anger. Even on vacation, having travelled this far, they can't escape the vortex of their own problems. The only people of colour on the island play supporting roles in their stories, either there to provide them with companionship, as is the case with Olivia's friend Paula (Brittany O'Grady), or as hotel staff, to cater to their every whim and fancy.
There's much satisfaction to be derived from watching these one-percenters react to the word "no" in the first episode. Having taken the insular comforts of their privilege for granted so far, minor inconveniences assume cataclysmic proportions for them. The initial rejections don't matter much in the grand scheme of things — Shane doesn't get the honeymoon suite he wanted, but is lodged in an equally opulent oceanview room, Tanya can't get a massage slot, but is treated to a life-changing relaxation session instead — but still go some way in throwing the new arrivals off kilter. Viewing them with scorn, writer-director Mark White uses these uncomfortable beginnings to gradually amplify their anxieties. Not only does he accompany their private revelations with humiliating visuals, like Mark's worries about cancer being introduced through a close-up of his exposed, hairy testicles, but he also undercuts their joys, like Quinn's glee at spotting a whale soon turning to distress when his electronics are swept away.
The 'eat the rich' genre is pleasurable because it plays into our fantasies of watching the obscenely wealthy get their comeuppance. The White Lotus takes this a step further by having its rich cannibalise themselves. When they're not antagonising each other, they're unselfconsciously revealing just how shallow they are. "Quinn's a straight, white, young man and nobody has any sympathy for them right now…In a way, they're the underdogs now," says Nicole unironically. The show's humour is whip-smart and frequently laced with current cultural references, but the enduring relevance of its themes keeps it from feeling dated.
White, a former contestant on The Amazing Race and Survivor, brings a reality TV-style tension to the series, pushing his characters up against each other in confrontations of increasing hostility until the time comes to edge one of them out of the frame. Still, despite its opening revelation, The White Lotus doesn't adopt a murder-mystery format or invite viewers to guess whose death is impending. Instead, by positioning itself as a class satire and painting each of these guests as unlikeable cogs in classist, capitalist and colonialist machines, it suggests that the problem lies with entire systems, and that their death is well-deserved.