The Leisure Class Always Wins

The wealthy vacationers in the HBO series The White Lotus assume that the world revolves around them. The show ultimately proves them right.

The hotel manager Armand soothes resort guests in 'The White Lotus.'
Mario Perez / HBO

This article contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of The White Lotus.

“This is a lot of pineapple. Not subtle with the theme.”

Midway through The White Lotus, Mike White’s acerbic satire on HBO, the socialite mother of a guy on his honeymoon pays her son and new daughter-in-law a surprise visit. The drop-in is partly the result of her inability to stop meddling in her son’s life. It is mostly the result, however, of her desire to see the newlyweds installed in the room she booked for them: a suite with a private patio and a plunge pool. The so-named Pineapple Suite occasions an escalating rivalry between Shane, the indignant honeymooner, and Armond, the resort manager who mistakenly assigned the room to another couple but refuses to admit his error. The space—Shane’s drive to occupy it, Armond’s need to squelch Shane’s desire—quickly adopts almost mythic proportions. And last night’s finale revealed the ridiculous room to be both the setting and the cause of the death that loomed as a mystery from the show’s first episode: Shane, with the carving knife, in the Pineapple Suite.

In The White Lotus, architecture often works as its own strain of satire. And one of the jokes about the Pineapple Suite is how undeserving it is of all the melodramatic Darwinism. Shane’s mother is right: The place is lousy with pineapples. It is furnished with pineapple throw pillows and pineapple lamps and pineapple curtains. It is decorated with a hot-pink portrait of a pineapple. The bathroom features a porcelain pineapple placed awkwardly between the sink and the toilet. The fruit-forwardness—conspicuous consumption made teasingly literal—is absurd, but also darkly apt: This is decor that, much like the wealthy guests it is meant to delight, does not know when to stop. It is decor that suggests the voracious appetites of people who will keep consuming not because they want to, but simply because they can. The guests of the White Lotus assume that the world revolves around them. The resort’s decor, gaudy and grim, proves them right.

That idea is reinforced by each episode’s opening sequence, which tells The White Lotus’s story via whimsical, nature-themed wallpaper. Each of the story’s four VIP suites, the Pineapple and the Palm and the Hibiscus and the Tradewinds, are represented in the montage—as fruits and fronds and flowers and zephyrs entwine in stylized order. Soon, though, the neat rows begin to bleed. A boat full of oarsmen is caught in a monstrous wave; a fish, upside down, is tangled in seaweed. The decor hints at danger ahead. It hints at violence. It hints at willful myopia. “Here, self-disclosure is discouraged,” Armond tells Lani, a hotel trainee, in the first episode—“especially with these VIPs who arrive on the boat. You know, you don’t want to be too … specific? … as a presence, as an identity. You want to be more generic.”

What he means is that the White Lotus prefers its employees to function, effectively, as wallpaper: omnipresent, decorative, fading cheerfully into the background. Later episodes literalize this imperative, revealing that Armond’s office is lit by lamps in the form of grass-skirt-clad people, holding up the shades. Scenes are set before the mural that stretches behind the resort’s front desk: native Hawaiians, frozen in pastoral idyll on the land now occupied by the hotel itself. “I think it’s just a way for them to honor their culture,” Nicole, a Sheryl Sandberg–esque tech executive on vacation with her family, says of the locals who dance for guests during the hotel’s luau. She adds, blithely: “And they seemed to be having a really good time.”

Belinda and Armand, two of the hotel's employees, in front of the front desk mural
(Mario Perez / HBO)

Nicole is likely fluent in the language of emotional labor, but she repeatedly proves unable to recognize when that labor is being done for her benefit. She is not alone in that. The White Lotus is a comedy of manners that is also a comedy of errors; on this show, mistakes—misapprehensions, misalignments—proliferate. Category errors abound. Genres chafe. Shane, dissatisfied with the resort’s service but otherwise proud to strut its property with his “hot wife,” thinks he’s living out a rom-com; the hot wife in question, the deeply unhappy Rachel, knows they’re in a psychodrama. Tanya, vacationing alone and seeking solace after her mother’s death, thinks she’s living out a self-help story; she is instead starring in a work of horror. (Tanya, emotionally vampiric, is the monster.) Tanya poses her desires as questions (could she be fit in for a massage? she asks, having failed to make an appointment) but intends them as commands (they will find a way to fit her in).

Tanya’s privilege lets her look at the world—its places, and particularly its people—without really seeing it. She takes for granted that her surroundings will arrange themselves around the gravitational demands of her comfort. She is a metaphor for the luxury resort as a concept, for a place where land will be taken and razed so that the rich might be swathed in the warm assurances of their own exceptionalism. The wallpaper of that opening sequence hints at the hotel guests too: the people for whom all will be sanitized in the name of leisure. Armond, attempting to sell the White Lotus’s snorkeling experience, tells VIP vacationers about a family of sharks that swims in the waters beyond the beach. “But they’re quite small,” he assures them, with a taut grin. In fact: “They’re cute.” Sharks are made adorable in Armond’s extractive Eden.

Even the most blunt-force physics bow, in this setting, to humans’ hierarchies. Quinn, Nicole’s teenage son, goes to sleep on the beach at what would seem to be 10 or 11 p.m.; he does so bathed in the gauzy light of a sunset. Shane, after fighting with a pajama-clad Rachel as she gets ready for bed one night, storms out into … another apparent sunset. The many sunsets and sunrises in this show suggest that the world’s very rhythms are attuned, like Armond, to the needs of humanity’s apex predators. The show’s penultimate episode is titled “The Lotus-Eaters,” and its plot repurposes Tennyson’s poem to explore the chaos of a place that is tilted on its axis:

Is there confusion in the little isle?
Let what is broken so remain.
The Gods are hard to reconcile:
‘Tis hard to settle order once again.

The disorder serves the satire. The whims of the wealthy, in the show’s world as in the real one, become environmental truths. They affect the weather for everyone else. Minor matters for the elite—for people who live their life protected from the harshness of the elements—become, for others, all-encompassing. Tanya dangles the possibility of a business partnership before the resort’s spa manager, Belinda; the one woman’s desire to be coddled chafes against the other’s desire to be professionally independent. The drugs that Nicole’s daughter, Olivia, and her friend Paula bring to the island end Armond’s five-year-long sobriety. Shane’s vacation brings the end of Armond’s life.

The misalignments usually work as one-two punches. Punch one: Kai, an employee who is also a rightful owner of the land the resort occupies, is persuaded by Paula to steal Nicole’s jewelry—gem-encrusted bracelets whose sale would help him hire a lawyer to fight the hotel. Due to a series of events that begins with a tantrum Nicole throws during a family outing, Kai is caught. Punch two: Nicole and her husband, bored with each other but excited by the unexpected drama, treat the attempted robbery as foreplay. This is the show’s satire at its most effective, and most gutting: Kai loses his future. Nicole and her family get their fun.

The White Lotus does not show Kai on-screen again. The series is saturated with surveillance, its spaces full of spying guests and prying eyes; this preoccupation makes it all the more striking how much is left unseen. Local workers, in particular, enter the frame and then leave it, with no fanfare. Lani, Armond’s trainee, goes into labor at the hotel on her first day on the job (she didn’t reveal her pregnancy, because she couldn’t afford not to work) and then, after a soap-operatic delivery, disappears wholesale from the story. You could see her absence, like Kai’s, as an oversight: a show too focused on skewering its appointed VIPs to spare attention for anyone else. You could also see it, though, as another outgrowth of the show’s satire. The locals are unceremoniously nixed from the story; the vacationers, unaware of the consequences of their comforts, fly home, probably in first class. That is how the show resolves. That is also, too often, how the world works.

Another thing The White Lotus leaves unshown is what Shane does in the moments after he transitions from a horrible person into a homicidal one. What viewers witness instead is the character, in the hotel lobby, greeted with handshakes rather than handcuffs. Armond’s death was not foreseen; its aftermath, however, is acutely predictable.

The White Lotus is circular in its plotting, returning in its finale to the scene with which the show began: Shane seated in the liminal space of an airport waiting area, being forced into conversation with a middle-aged couple. The return suggests the world’s plodding inevitabilities. The island has its own circularity. In one of the season’s final scenes, a new group of guests arrives at the resort. The staff of the White Lotus waves at them with frozen smiles. The workers who have been lost have been replaced—humans made expendable, interchangeable, decorative. The depressing tableau is followed by another one: Quinn, having left his family, joins an outrigger crew as they row away from the island and toward the open sea. As a shimmering seascape, the image is beautiful; as an end to the show’s bleak story, though, it hints at more bleakness to come. Quinn, who does not need liberation, finds his giddy freedom. What will his crewmates find, as they fade toward the horizon? What happens to the boat that is frozen against the crushing waves, always about to be consumed?