Editor's Note: This article contains spoilers for Season 1 of 'The White Lotus.'
There’s trouble in paradise, and it’s starting to show. HBO’s series The White Lotus took the summer by storm, but it’s time to examine the case study it presents about white privilege, wealth inequality, and colonization.
The title itself is an allusion to the lotus–eaters of Greek mythology, who live their lives in a state of ignorant bliss induced by the lotus fruits on which they indulge. In the show, the lotus–eaters in question are the wealthy white tourists at an exclusive Hawaiian resort, oblivious to the world around them and only tuned in to their own problems.
The White Lotus features a slew of stereotypical vacationers: First there’s the Mossbacher family, with a #girlboss tech CEO mom, Nicole (Connie Britton), who's blind to her family’s needs; a confused father, Mark (Steve Zahn), who's experiencing a superficial midlife crisis; a snarky teenage daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), who's accompanied by her equally snarky but less wealthy BFF, Paula (Brittany O’Grady), and an awkward son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), who’s an easy target for his sister’s antics. Then, you have your classic honeymooners, the Pattons; Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) is a struggling journalist from a poor family, and Shane (Jake Lacy) is ready to provide luxury, sex, and nothing of substance. Finally, wacky solo traveler Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) spoils herself in an attempt to cope with her mother’s passing, as she comes to Hawaii to spread her ashes.
While these characters have the entire island on which to play, the hotel employees exist only to serve the guests and are directly affected by their actions. Armond (Murray Bartlett) is the eccentric hotel manager, bearing the (eventually physical) brunt of Shane’s frequent tantrums. Spa director Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) ends up managing Tanya’s grief and bonding with her, only to be ultimately let down by Tanya’s flakiness. Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), a Hawaiian native, gets romantically involved with Paula, the only non–white visitor. Ironically, in an attempt to help him, it is Paula who permanently screws him over.
Paula and Kai’s interactions are the only moments in the series that truly showcase the truth behind Hawaiian tourism: Kai expresses to Paula that his family’s life was uprooted when the resort was built, but in order to provide for them, he must work there. He spends his evenings performing traditional dances at lavish dinners, exploited and fetishized by the very people who stole the land from his family. This cruel irony is true beyond the confines of The White Lotus fantasy.
Paula feels immense sympathy for Kai and proposes a risky solution. While she and the Mossbachers are out for the afternoon, he will enter their room, unlock the safe, and steal Nicole’s jewelry. This way, he can sell the pieces and use the money to quit his job at the hotel and help his family. However, the plan is a major failure, and Kai gets caught. He is taken into custody and fired from his job, left with nothing but a legal record of his actions. Kai doesn’t rat Paula out, but Olivia figures out the puzzle. Only the three of them know what really happened.
As each character embarks on a rapid downward spiral, their trajectories intertwine. This is truly where the privilege comes into play: No matter how emotionally discontent, the tourists return home unscathed, leaving the hotel employees and natives to suffer in the wake of their selfish decisions. Shane—who fatally stabs Armond in an ambiguous act of self–defense—somehow gets to leave with a clean record after minimal investigation. Rachel, after an internal debate that morphs into a major fight, decides to stay with Shane and sacrifices her independence for a life of comfort.
Tanya gives Belinda hope that she might amount to more than her current status, but she leaves her stranded in the end, after she proposes a life–changing business partnership and then backs out of it. She continues to travel with a man she met at the hotel, bidding farewell to the spa director with an insulting envelope of cash. The Mossbachers board their flight home, with relationships tarnished beyond fixing, yet Paula’s secret is still safe with Olivia. Though she isn’t white, she is secure beneath the umbrella of white privilege provided by her vacation family, and the only consequences she will face are her own guilt and Olivia’s potential torment.
But it doesn’t stop there—the show succumbs to the very same concepts it attempts to critique. Hawaiian Mitchell Kuga writes in Vox that the show “uses its few Native Hawaiian characters as hollow plot devices in service of illuminating the inner lives of the series’s mostly white protagonists.” Similarly, “excessively Black” Brooke Obie writes that creator, writer, and director Mike White “ate his own lotus,” making money off of a show that “takes place on stolen land, using [marginalized] characters and [colonization] as props.” As she puts it, The White Lotus is “a satire of a satire within a satire.”
The White Lotus has been renewed for a second season, and perhaps Mike White will be receptive to his critics and highlight oppressed voices, rather than exploit them, in the next installment.