“The Lotos-eaters” is a poem penned in 1832 by the British Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. A piece already referencing Homer’s Odyssey, a nesting effect of references occurs when Armond (Murray Bartlett) quotes Tennyson’s poem in the latest episode of Mike White’s series, The White Lotus. “Should life all labour be?” Armond quotes, leading the audience to wonder where he sees his own position within the narrative of Tennyson’s poem. Does he envision himself as one of the lotus-eaters from Homer’s Odyssey, offering pleasure and leisure to the guests of The White Lotus, enabling their lives of mindless indulgence and meaninglessness? Or perhaps Armond is more in line with the mariners of Homer’s epic, looking for a place to rest after laboring over others’ needs for so long, only to indulge in toxicity and addiction. It’s no wonder that this episode of The White Lotus takes its name from Tennyson’s Odyssey-referencing poem, as the inhabitants of the titular resort hit rock-bottom against a floor of disappointment and resentment, reaching the end of their journey for release.
“The Lotus-Eaters” sees The White Lotus hurtling towards the finish line, delivering a penultimate episode both heavy on gloom and engulfed in chaos. Last week’s episode ended on quite the cliffhanger, with Armond caught having sex with one of the resort’s employees in his office, a new low for the backsliding addict and general trickster. Bouncing between Armond’s panic following this interruption, we see the relationship between Kai (Kekoa Kekumano) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady) develop into something unexpected. Hatching a Robin Hood-esque plot, the two lovers enact a bold plan to rob the Mossbachers blind, with Kai breaking into the family’s safe. However, the would-be plan to help those the resort trods over, the indigenous Hawaiians, falls apart as Kai is discovered in the act. The confrontation that follows is one of the series’ more chaotic sequences, a genuine surprise as the events of the series take a major turn for the worse. As Mark (Steve Zahn) basks in the glow of his heroism in confronting Kai, eating up the new luxuries the apologetic resort bestows upon him and his family, Kai is left on the run.
Nicole Mossbacher (Connie Britton), when confronted about indigenous employees of the resort (like Kai) having to perform their cultural rituals for the rich and white residents of the resort, becomes defensive. She spins the kicked-out natives’ performances in a positive light only she can see, claiming the performances are “just a way for them to honor their culture.” Even more eerie, her husband Mark claims, “Obviously imperialism was bad … But it’s humanity. Welcome to history. Welcome to America.” Kai’s robbing of the Mossabachers feels absolutely justified if a bit misguided. However, Mike White’s writing leaves actual stances murky when it comes to topics of imperialism and appropriation from the privileged elite. Clearly critical of the rich at The White Lotus, White still, even at episode five of his series, fails to provide a cogent point for the events of the series. White excels at illustrating in subtle ways how wealth and elitism work, providing an all-encompassing force-field around those who pass within the ranks of extreme privilege. While subtlety is appreciated, at a certain point there must be some kind of purpose behind the chaos of what transpires at The White Lotus.
While the Mossbachers face incredible upheaval in “The Lotus-Eaters,” other guests experience a dizzying array of events as well. The dynamic between Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) continues to evolve, and Jennifer Coolidge continues to find intriguing new wrinkles in the ever-changing character that is Tanya. Coolidge manages to make Tanya, a character who should be off-putting in the extreme, sympathetic in her awkwardness. She’s vulnerable and open, and self-sabotaging to the point that we can’t help but want the best for her. While Tanya falls head-first into a love affair, Belinda falls to the wayside in the duo’s shared business plan. It’s easy to wonder why Belinda goes along with Tanya’s half-baked business plan. However, when viewed from the environment of The White Lotus, it isn’t hard to understand the monotony of the resort. A chance at escape of some kind, of a way to take control of the situation and gain access to a land of opportunity and relaxation, is surely tempting to someone like Belinda who has suffered day-in and day-out working at the resort.
“What is it that will last?” reads the last line of Tennyson’s poem, providing a perfect punctuation for the struggles facing Armond and Belinda at The White Lotus. In the eyes of the resort employees, surely the worlds of these rich guests bear the most impact on their lives. Privy to the worlds of privilege these guests inhabit every day of their lives, the temptation to give in to this lifestyle, to fall for the traps the rich lay for them grows stronger. When Armond toys with Shane (Jake Lacy), he seems to enjoy being a disruptor of Shane’s easy-going life, wielding some kind of power when he usually bears none. The same goes for Belinda, falling for a hopeless business endeavor to humor a rich woman. In the world of The White Lotus, wealth is the greatest force of power, and when the lotus-eaters come bearing the intoxication it provides, the vulnerable are sure to succumb. But White’s show seems to beg the question, who is truly vulnerable in this situation?
The White Lotus airs on Sundays 9:00 p.m. EST on HBO and also on HBOMax.