The White Lotus’ first season was the most-awarded series at the Emmy Awards in 2021 – it received 20 nominations, and won ten of them! – and earlier this year, it won two Golden Globes for its second season.
Let’s give it up for Mike White, the mastermind behind the limited HBO series.
The series is a sharp social satire that follows the exploits of wealthy guests in the White Lotus resort chain, whose stay becomes affected by their dysfunctions. The guests that arrive on the island in the hopes of escaping their everyday life soon realise that there are some parts to themselves that they simply cannot hide forever.
Here’s a list of a few things that make The White Lotus so worthy of watching:
From the get-go, we learn that the rich, American tourists – even if they have all the money in the world and are on what’s basically a dream vacation – have a lot of their own issues. Some are more superficial than others.
The reason they go somewhere beautiful is to escape their depressing lives. Ironically, though, this vacation only seems to amplify their problems and personality defects. While on the surface everything seems fine, really, they are all empty inside and so are their relationships.
Some of these rich people seem completely torn off from the rest of the world, like Daphne (Meghann Fahy) and Cameron (Theo James) who admitted that they don’t vote and don’t even watch the news anymore. Yet according to them, the world “is not that bad!”
But even though there are some unbearable and annoying characters (I think Shane and Cameron take the cake), they still make for an entertaining watch.
My favourite character has to be Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge). She’s clumsy, unstable and ridiculous but that’s what makes her so lovable. She is the embodiment of The White Lotus’ satire about power. Specifically how power is wielded, how power changes us and why systems of power never seem to change.
Take the first season. Tanya dangles an attractive business opportunity in front of the Black spa manager, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), before predictably leaving her out to dry. You’re just waiting for it to happen, but Tanya keeps Belinda’s hopes raised for so long it hurts.
In the second season, Tanya hasn’t learned her lesson (because why would she?) and uses her power of wealth against Portia, her personal assistant, by telling her to “stay in her room” for the entirety of their vacation in Sicily. She only uses Portia for emotional labour.
The characters’ power struggles don’t only come with class – but also with race, and gender.
While The White Lotus is satirical and fun, each season sees an interesting and influential subtext to the plot.
The first season focused more on imperialism, colonialism and the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ dynamic that comes with class, which we see play out between the guests and those that run the resort.
Most of The White Lotus workers in Hawaii are Native Hawaiians, who perform their folk dances and songs in one episode while their rich, white guests eat their dinner. There’s a parallel between the performance and the guests talking about how “it’s all about the money” and “how tough things are” for straight white men who are being “alienated from the culture right now.”
I felt the contrast in that scene was loud and clear, and the fact that the characters didn’t even pay attention to the performing Native Hawaiians also speaks for itself.
How men treat and talk about women is also a big theme that The White Lotus covers. We mainly saw this through the newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy). Shane saw his wife as purely a status symbol in his life. She was nothing more than an arm candy to him that had no interior thoughts or needs.
In the second season, relationship dynamics and gender roles are two of the most dominant themes, shown especially through the three generations of the Di Grasso family. Bert (F. Murray Abraham), Dominic (Michael Imperioli) and Albie (Adam DiMarco) are the perfect examples of how actions are taught and passed through family – specifically in regard to women and how to treat them.
Albie, a self-proclaimed lover of women, treats women like they are magical beings who can do no wrong, which is quite condescending behaviour. His niceness is more of a protective shield that makes it harder for women to reject him, making his behaviour a little manipulative. Albie does have good intentions, though; he’s an interesting, three-dimensional character.
Then there is the duo: Cameron and Daphne. When they are together, they go above and beyond to be performatively nice to one another, but when they are apart, we learn how each of them actually feels about their partner. Particularly Daphne and Cameron, who like to play “games” with one another that keep their flame alive.
Although Daphne talks about how she manipulates her husband and how it gives her a thrill, it really is more of a coping mechanism for Cameron’s infidelity. We see that the moment Cameron’s apart from Daphne, he doesn’t waste a breath to cheat on her with Lucia (Simona Tabasco) and Mia (Beatrice Grannò), the two escorts.
These games they play are all built on making the other person jealous so they can value each other more.
Nothing in The White Lotus is done accidentally. As you watch the show, you’ll come to realise that everything is just a symbol for something.
Firstly, let’s start with the natural symbolism. Throughout the series, there are many shots of water burbling and waves crashing and, in season two, Mount Etna erupting. Even the scores are used to amplify the uncertainties and worries the characters feel with their hypnotic, mysterious melodies.
There’s a sense of animalistic and foreboding shrieks in the opening theme song as well, which is meant to feel eerie and uncomfortable but I personally always jam to it (and I guarantee you will, too).
It turns out that that subtle nudge of anxiety is intentional. Laura Fox, the production designer of the show, said that each set was created to ooze tropical-vacation glamour, but also to help convey the anxiety, rage, and distress that the characters are experiencing.
Then there is the symbolism of art, mainly in season two.
In the aforementioned opening credits (created by Mark Bashore and Katrina Crawford), every second of the sequence tells a piece of the show’s story. Each credit shows a different artwork for different characters, which has a direct relation to their character on-screen and how their story will unfold.
Take Haley Lu Richardson’s character, Portia, as an example. She is literally depicted as a lost lamb.
Or Jennifer Coolidge’s title card, which displays a woman clinging to a chained monkey. In art history, this has been attributed to men being trapped in their sexuality. The symbolism here is that Coolidge’s character desires sexual validation from her husband, Greg (Jon Gries), but she also pursues the grand lives of the men who take her away on extravagant expeditions, showing her being pulled by a variety of men and their lifestyles.
And then there’s the story of Testa Di Moro, which I believe is the clearest symbol of all this season.
The story goes: Moor seduced a local girl, but she soon found out that he had a wife and kids back home. She becomes jealous and enraged and decapitates him as a result, turning his head into a clay pot so that he can stay with her forever.
The pots scattered around the hotel are reminiscent of this story, which is intriguing given the themes of possessive love explored throughout the series. Daphne jokingly warns that this is a tale that warns husbands not to “screw around” or else they’ll “end up buried in the garden.”
There is a lot to analyse in The White Lotus. It is one of the best shows with some of the best story-telling I’ve seen in a while. I couldn’t recommend watching the show enough!
Featured Image Credit: HBO