The White Lotus review: A scathing dissection of privilege
James R | On 16, Aug 2021
Season 2 premieres on 31st October. This is a spoiler-free review based on all of Season 1.
Sun, surf, sea, racism, bigotry. Not all of those words are painted on the brightly coloured wall at the airport near The White Lotus, but that’s not because they don’t apply – it’s because they go without saying. The holiday resort for the wealthy is already set up as a place where inequality to an almost parasitic degree is a given part of the infrastructure – a playground for the well-off that’s only possible thanks to put-upon employees racing to meet their every need. Mike White’s series begins with the revelation that a dead body has been found at the hotel, but rather than shock or surprise us, it’s a matter-of-fact disclosure that comes with the territory – not just the prestigious HBO box set territory, but the very melting pot of self-entitlement into which guests check in. Of course someone ended up murdered – this is less a whodunnit to stun us with logical deduction and more a queasy whydunnit in which the answer is already writ large across the screen.
The cast are impeccably chosen. Jake Lacy’s hotheaded spoilt brat, Shane, is newly married to Rachel (an excellent Alexandra Daddario, clearly relishing the best role of her career) but is less interested in her than complaining about the room they haven’t been given. Connie Britton is equally horrible as CEO Nicole Mossbacher, who finds herself drifting apart from her husband, Mark (Steve Zahn), who is hung up on not earning as much money as she does. Their son, Quinn (Fred Hechinger), pays more attention to his Nintendo Switch than anyone else around him. And Jennifer Coolidge is remarkable as Tanya, a lone traveller looking for a place to scatter her mother’s ashes.
Trying to keep them all happy is an equally formidable ensemble, including the sharp and self-aware masseuse Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), who is latched upon by Tanya to be her emotional crutch for the duration of her stay, and MVP Murray Bartlett as the resort manager Armond, who rightly describes the guests as “demanding children”.
But the show excels because the characters are not as clearly drawn as you expect; shades of grey abound between the gorgeous sunsets and pastel Instagram-friendly walls. While the guests are uniformly terrible people, they are not redneck cliches and some even fancy themselves as progressive. Mark’s homophobic reaction to another character’s closeted sexuality is defended by their partner as “visceral” and “valid”, while their daughter, Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) presents herself as woke but is only happy when she has things that her tolerant friend, Paula (Brittany O’Grady), doesn’t. The toxic Shane is technically correct that he’s not in the room he booked. Even Armond, who works hard to be a dutiful manager, isn’t above exploiting his workers – telling the staff to be “pleasant interchangeable helpers” is only the start of a gasp-inducing opening episode, as we follow an overlooked trainee on her first day. And, by the end of the season, as his fixed smile starts to wane and he slips into old habits, we see a much more depraved side of his constantly boiling frustration.
The result is more purgatory than paradise, a claustrophobic bubble in which conversations that are all too plausible and, at their best and worst, all too recognisable. It’s a deliciously awkward dissection of the big issues shaping society right now, from racism and unconscious bias to excessive capitalism, corruption and entitled appropriation – all of them sliced and diced with the most delicate, smallest and lightest of touches. By the time people are saying things like “colonialism is obviously a bad thing”, and defecating in each other’s suitcases, you’ll be cackling and cringing in equal measure – in Mike White’s hands, even the words “Pineapple Suite” are hilarious.
The result is an unsettling, gripping and entertaining tableau of modern humanity – but one that recognises the unchanging imbalances that have kept things the same for too long. There’s every thrilling and unnerving chance that the dead body we’re warned about upfront could be from that imbalance swinging too far in either direction, but one thing’s for sure – when things finally reach breaking point, only one group of people will be asked to clean up the mess.
The White Lotus is available on Sky Atlantic. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.