The Awful Secret of Wealth Privilege

Mike White’s caustic six-part HBO series, The White Lotus, tackles the stickiest American addiction of all.

Still from HBO's "The White Lotus"
HBO; The Atlantic

In the first episode of HBO’s new miniseries The White Lotus, Shane (played by Jake Lacy) and his new wife, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), arrive on their honeymoon, on an unspecified Hawaiian island, with bagfuls of silk resort-wear and books by Malcolm Gladwell. Alone in their suite, Jake moves in to kiss Rachel, but he’s suddenly gripped by a suspicion that all might not be entirely copacetic. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait wait wait,” he says, detaching himself from his bride and lifting his face up to better sniff out the scent of deficiency. “This is the wrong room.” Thus begins a kind of one-man Waterloo, a furious and eventually bloody war between a luxury hotel and a wealthy guy who suspects he hasn’t gotten absolutely everything he’s paid for.

The White Lotus was created by Mike White, a veteran screenwriter and an occasional reality-show contestant (he appeared on both The Amazing Race and the David-versus-Goliath-themed season of Survivor in 2018) whose work tends to be preoccupied with the foibles of human nature, the tragicomedy of modern life, and the costs that inevitably come with self-actualization. So the setup—a cluster of wealthy guests tries to escape their troubles on vacation at a five-star resort—seems made for satire. White’s previous show, Enlightened, was a critically beloved and little-watched series co-created with Laura Dern, who starred as a divorcée seeking out meaning after a personal breakdown. More recently, his indie films Beatriz at Dinner and Brad’s Status mine the fault lines of class and ambition in satirical, squirmy fashion. The White Lotus seems to fit within a spate of recent HBO shows about rich people rotting in their own toxic privilege—Succession, The Undoing, Big Little Lies—but it’s baggier than those shows while also being, in fleeting moments, more insightful. Across all six episodes, a convincing thesis emerges: The curse of the privileged is that they would rather be miserable than lose even a tiny fraction of the things they’ve been given.

I didn’t entirely love The White Lotus, maybe because I spent seven years working in the service industry and the psychic wounds from absorbing people’s power plays night after night still haven’t healed. The series begins with a flash-forward to an airport, where a gloomy Shane watches a mysterious box labeled HUMAN REMAINS get loaded onto a plane. The question of which entitled holidaymaker at the White Lotus resort has died—and how—hangs vaguely over the series as it unfolds, but not intrusively. The show doesn’t expect us to get absorbed in a central mystery or even gawk at the spectacular vistas of American wealth. Rather, it wants us to stew inside the cauldron of moneyed disaffection—to understand why these characters are so doomed by their competitive impulses that they can’t even enjoy a trip to a tropical paradise.

White filmed the series on location during the pandemic, using a spectacular cast of players. Murray Bartlett (Looking) plays Armond, the ferociously tense manager of the hotel, with a mustache and a rictus grin that’s beginning to crack. During the first episode, he coaches a new hire, Lani (Jolene Purdy), on the dynamics of catering to super-rich vacationers; every one of them, he explains, is a sensitive, overgrown hothouse flower who desperately wants to feel like “the special chosen baby child of the hotel.” Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) is a caftan-clad alcoholic whose voice is a whiny whisper, and whose residual pain engulfs the hotel’s staff virtually the second she steps off the boat. Nicole (Connie Britton) and Mark (Steve Zahn) are a Sheryl Sandberg–esque tech-company CFO and her emasculated husband. Their college-student daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), and her friend Paula (Brittany O’Grady) sneer at the luxury around them without being willing to disavow it altogether.

With a different kind of director, The White Lotus could have been a more sensuous and sumptuous product entirely, all sunsets and succulent walls and dewy boat drinks. The thrill of a show like Succession, with its wealth consultants and shinily sterile interiors, is partly in its voyeuristic immersion in the fabulous lives of the 0.001 percent—it’s easy to understand why luxury might be addictive. But White seems intent on making his island resort feel more like an ordeal. Exterior scenes have a jaundiced tone. Green leafy prints crawl invasively over curtains and bedspreads. Scenes play out against a nightmarish score by the dystopia specialist Cristobal Tapia de Veer (Black Mirror, Humans, The Third Day), which incorporates shrieking instruments over a relentless drumbeat. At the end of the first episode, Shane and Rachel go to bed together, and the camera films them for far too long through a frame of fluttering drapes on the balcony, implicating viewers for peeping in a discomfiting way.

The show has notes of absurd humor, but they tend to be loaded with ugliness. “Would you like a second toilet?” Armond asks Shane, who’s demanding to know what other upgrades are available. “I dreamed I was on top of this beautiful mountain range in Asia and I had a cyanide pill,” Tanya tells Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), the spa manager, whose equilibrium and care she feeds off of like a succubus. At one point, Mark is floored by a health crisis and a revelation about his father; the scene is played for laughs and yet feels disturbingly unfunny. White isn’t unsympathetic toward his characters—Coolidge, in particular, delivers an extraordinary performance and tenderizes a woman who, in lesser hands, could have been a ghoulish caricature. Still, he seems stuck between acknowledging their unhappiness and skewering them for their toxic behavior, never quite extending all the way in one direction or another, never allowing the show to be purely funny or purely tragic for a minute. Everything is a push-pull between feeling for his rich, monstrous characters and loathing them for not seeing the truth about themselves.

But if The White Lotus is clear on the sins of the elite, it doesn’t let its below-stairs characters off the hook either, or patronize their virtuous labor in a Downton Abbey kind of way. Armond can be as tyrannical, abusive, and petty as the guests he caters to. The series is most sympathetic toward Belinda, who is consumed by the vampiric emotional demands of wealthy women, but it also makes clear that she has her own agenda in getting close to them. Every interaction in the series is an exchange of power, and even when people try their hardest to use that power in benevolent ways, or to redistribute it, things go awry. “Nobody cedes their privilege,” Mark tells his wife and kids during a tense dinner debate. “That’s absurd. It goes against human nature. We’re all just trying to win the game of life.”

And that, The White Lotus suggests, is exactly the problem. We’re so hardwired to want to accumulate things—possessions, money, experiences, even people—that sacrificing any of them feels harder and more painful than unhappiness itself. As Mark and Nicole’s son says toward the end of the series,“We’re all just parasites eating the last fish and throwing our plastic crap in the ocean.”