The White Lotus, the ambitious HBO series from creator Mike White, finds curious ways to draw us into its uncomfortable atmosphere of high-class dysfunction. Hawaii is attractive and warm, the setting beautiful and full of rich heritage and detail. Opulence covers every frame of this series, and the Hawaiian destination is alluring in its excess. With a score that dodges pigeonholing, swinging from off-kilter chaos to divine serenity, The White Lotus is a frequently beautiful, if unsettling, show. Yet while White’s show manages to nail this hyper-specific tone of deceptive comfort, the series repeatedly misses the mark in other key ways.
With each episode, the question lingers: Why does The White Lotus exist? The show is frequently cited as a satire, but it often bathes in the disorder of its ensemble, avoiding any comment whatsoever. White’s writing also doesn’t stand out as comedic or dramatic, or even an amalgamation of the two. Wry observation is the dominant mode here, nailing bitter truth but offering no real insight.
Emptiness defines The White Lotus, both in the lives of the show’s characters as well as the show itself. This hollow feeling resounds throughout the season finale of the show, titled “Departures.” Hardly a departure from what came before, in the end Mike White’s show circles around itself, portraying repetitive bickering and uninspired characterization. It’s a show that defines the word “indulgence,” not only in its privileged characters, but also in its writing. What White has created here is a show that spirals around rich white people having uninspired conversations, enacting plots that go nowhere, and ultimately ends exactly where you would expect it to. Even the climactic reveals of the finale rang hollow, a dry regurgitation of more successful class satires that came before. The people who served the resorts guests, those stomped on day-in and day-out faced the consequences, to absolutely nobody’s surprise.
Perhaps one of the more interesting plotlines of the season revolves around Paula and Olivia Mossbacher, two friends whose relationship appears to be boiling over. Last episode, we saw Paula’s boyfriend Kai rob the Mossbachers, a bonkers development that fails to really pay off. White’s writing delves into the inherent privilege of Paula and Olivia’s lives, two well-meaning characters, picking apart their outwardly liberal politics that still don’t stop them from taking advantage of a class-based system. White possesses a keen eye for hypocrisy, which is put to interesting use in this storyline. However, Kai’s entry into their lives fails to develop into anything besides a nifty plot twist for White to throw at the audience, a development with no real motivation.
One of the staples of The White Lotus is the long, excruciating, tedious dinnertime conversation. The finale delivered more of these nighttime resort chats, always sharply edited and scored but ultimately going nowhere. The conversations circle the drain, the ensemble arguing race, class, and politics while saying nothing their assigned stock characters wouldn’t be expected to say. The conversations feel all-too true and certainly pulled from life, but what is the point of regurgitating the talking points of uninformed rich people if there is no point to be made?
When Tanya tells Belinda that their previously agreed upon business relationship is dissolved, there is a feeling of inevitability. Surely nobody thought the self-absorbed, distant Tanya would help anybody else out when she can’t help herself? Tanya, one of the show’s more interesting characters, loses her enigmatic quality in the finale, simply aiding White’s tired message by being yet another rich person taking advantage of others. When newlywed Rachel reaches out to Belinda, it is easy to identify with her weariness of Rachel, brought on by her frustration with the other guests. Weariness defines the show at this point, morphing into an endurance test of sitting with some of the most unsavory personalities put to TV.
Rachel’s husband, Shane, exists as possibly the most noxious character on the entire show, which is quite the feat considering the rest of the ensemble. He is self-absorbed, money-obsessed, and downright annoying in a way that makes the rest of the cast tolerable. When White delivers the season’s climax and ending scenes, he puts the world in the hand of Shane, literally letting him get away with murder. It’s a twist that should be shocking, but it lands with a disastrously hollow thud. When the season opened with Shane watching the casket of someone from the White Lotus, viewers were supposed to be intrigued, expecting a murder mystery to cap off the series. But the tension dissipates in the end, with White making the intended themes painfully obvious.
Murray Bartlett from the start of The White Lotus has been the series’ standout performer, delivering a deliciously fun portrait of a resort manager fed up with his role in the world around him. He meddles in the business of others, toying with the rich vacationers he serves every day. Armond feels like a living, breathing, multifaceted character, the only one in the entire show in fact. He is a delight to watch, and hits new highs in the season finale. He devolves into debauchery, simultaneously entertaining and melancholy knowing his addiction history. When Armond is unceremoniously written off, it feels like an anticlimax. It’s a rare feeling to be saying goodbye to a delightful character and not be moved, but White manages to suck any emotion out of this sequence. It feels inevitable in a depressing way, yet another weak plot machination that disappoints.
While The White Lotus is a major disappointment from a talented writer, it is undeniably fascinating, a trainwreck that refuses to let you divert your eyes. White’s dialogue, the plot’s telegraphed movements—all of it felt familiar. The series begs comparison to other shows dealing in similar territory, even HBO’s own offerings such as Succession or Veep. These shows all offer visions of rich white dysfunction, but The White Lotus pales in comparison to these other shows. Where these other shows deploy sharp dialogue and witty characterization, carried along by plots that actually impact the characters, White’s series delivers monotony. While the atmosphere of The White Lotus hypnotized, it ultimately rang hollow. The warm Hawaiian glow fails to illuminate anything within the series, a glimmer in a show that falls into obscurity at every turn.
The White Lotus airs on Sundays 9:00 p.m. EST on HBO and also on HBOMax.