Few people didn’t dream of traveling in August 2020, arguably the craziest moment of the COVID-19 quarantine, with tensions boiling over after a divisive election and widespread protests, all while wildfires looming over the west coast.
Mike White, for his part, channeled escapist fantasy into the ugly reality of beautiful people, translating the tensions of the moment and the zeitgeist into “The White Lotus,” a black comedy about affluent Americans vacationing in a luxurious Hawaiian resort and the staff that look after them. Moving as fast as the flames raging in Southern California at the time, White wrote the pilot for HBO’s six-episode limited series in late summer before heading to Hawaii to begin. to prepare for production.
Filmed in the fall and early winter of the same year, “The White Lotus” follows three guest groups, nearly all of whom are white and identify as progressive. They are pampered by a diverse staff whose mission is to give their wealthy patrons an enjoyable experience while fading away under an “overall impression of haziness,” as station manager Armond (Murray Bartlett) instructs his staff.
“‘White Lotus’ is kind of a wild ride,” says Bartlett, who racked up awards for his increasingly messy performances. “It’s a very dark and fun look at this kind of social construct where you have these very privileged, often obnoxious people at the top of the pyramid and how that affects all the people at the lower levels, and vice versa.”
Speaking of the privileged, Jennifer Coolidge plays Tanya McQuoid, a needy heiress who carries away her mother’s ashes. With seemingly good intentions, she comes up with a business opportunity that inspires spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) to set aside professional boundaries and serve as her companion during her stay. “Mike White is such a good observer of the plight of the very wealthy, and that’s because the very wealthy can put off examining their demons,” Coolidge says. “But [Tanya] has to face herself, and she actually has this incredible moment where she’s brave enough to face everything she’s probably feared her whole life.
One of the resort’s other wealthy guests is hard-working journalist Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), who’s in Hawaii on her honeymoon with her favored husband Shane (Jake Lacy). After a whirlwind romance, her vacation gives her the respite she needs to realize she’s a trophy wife, throwing her into an identity crisis of her own. Daddario notes that many of the storylines that unfold in the series are loosely tied to White’s own experiences – for example, the scene in which Rachel asks for career advice from – and then is scolded by – fellow guest Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), a tireless CEO she once profiled for an assignment.
White offers the experience from both points of view, including through the eyes of the reporter, surprised that her “piece of fluff” was seen as “an ax”.
“[White] has a fascination with who these people really are,” says Daddario. “Who’s the journalist who writes things about him he doesn’t like, who marries the rich and acts like she likes his job now? He finds stuff like that funny – the hypocrisy of life.
Likewise, Rachel’s husband, Shane, can’t pass up the suite he booked has been given to another couple. As it becomes apparent that Armond is lying to her about double-booking the room – and then going to great lengths to sabotage her stay – it’s understandable to resent the character, who is petulant but not entirely wrong.
“Mike has done an amazing job of finding that right amount of humanity in all of these characters. It forces everyone to look in the mirror and see how they relate or how they’re repelled by these characters,” says Brittany O’Grady, who plays Paula, a BIPOC college friend of Nicole Mossbacher’s haughty daughter, Olivia, who is brought on this family vacation.Paula quickly becomes the heart of the series, an aspiring heroine who sees herself as ethically superior to the ridiculous white elitists she is surrounded by.During a luau, the beating of the drums stirs emotions into action by all the characters at the crossroads – especially Paula, who pushes Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), native Hawaiian hotel employee, to steal the Mossbachers’ jewelry in reparations for colonialism.
When her plot fails and it seems likely that Kai will end up in jail, Paula finds that she doesn’t want to “give up her power either.” What would his confession gain? It becomes apparent that the viewer is the roasted luau pig, rotating to see the experiences from all points of view.
With 10 fully realized characters sprinting on a tonal tightrope, their disorder could easily upset the balance of the entire show. However, while the portrayals are extreme, they retain their authenticity, bringing audiences to accept moments perhaps never before seen on a TV show.
“These scenes worked because every moment is grounded and human; Mike never went for shock value,” says executive producer David Bernad. “You believe these characters would really be in these situations and making these decisions.”
While at the White Lotus, Paula and the other guests discover who they really are versus who they thought they were. Everyone ends up making a conscious choice to accept their privileged place, perhaps losing a piece of their soul to enjoy the comfortable life they have grown accustomed to.
Social media flamed after the finale, appalled by a resolution that defies the expectation that characters’ personal growth is meant to end in positive change.
“People’s reactions show why it was exceptional,” says Daddario. “It got people thinking; he stunned people with his dark humor and his ability to make you feel. People describe being unstable, uncertain, but also completely addicted. It’s a tremendous feat – making people go back week after week to something that freaked them out, made them laugh, and made their jaws drop.