Snobbery, ignorance, petty feuds and a relative lack of likable characters: HBO’s “The White Lotus” is unpleasant and frustrating to watch, and yet it leaves viewers engaged and wanting more after six-hour-long episodes.
“The White Lotus” follows a group of guests and employees at a high-end beach resort in Hawaii called the White Lotus. The show begins with a short teaser making it clear to the audience that in a week’s time, a murder will occur. The involved parties and the circumstances behind the death remain unclear until the show’s conclusion. The rest of the show is a linear chain of events spanning familial squabbles, gross displays of classism, spousal abuse, wacky hijinks and so much more.
A murder mystery, if done remotely well, is built-in tension. “The White Lotus” establishes its murder plotline very well. Despite the murderer and victim meeting quite early on in the show, this feud did not seem to lead up to any violence until the moment a central character was bleeding out. A major factor in the show’s constant tension and uncertainty surrounding the murder is its consistency in pettiness. No argument or drama seems more valid than the rest, and by the climax, most characters seem completely capable of severely overreacting. The viewer is bound to come up with a dozen rationalities throughout the show for why every character could possibly be involved, everyone being suspect until the bitter end.
One of the show’s most memorable aspects is its score. Traditional Hawaiian music is composed in such a way that it sets an atmosphere with oftentimes minimal dialogical support. Scenes of complete tension and serenity alike are both set and punctuated by beautifully chilling instrumentals that communicate emotion in ways a character’s actions could not. The music, in addition to being an effective striking score, serves “The White Lotus” in symbolic ways as well. This show deals heavily with concepts of classism and identity, so the usage of instrumentals based heavily in Hawaiian tradition in order to elevate primarily the stories of wealthy White people from the coastal United States expresses a deeper history of the misuse of native Hawaiian heritage.
This show would be truly unwatchable without its fascinating characters and the incredible actors bringing them to life. While the captivating quality of the characters stems heavily from the script, the acting demonstrated in “The White Lotus” forces the audience to constantly live in the world presented to them. Despite following 10 complex individuals, every character has completed a fleshed-out personal arc by the end of the show. Few characters have many appealing qualities and almost everyone commits immoral acts, yet they are all compelling and their experiences feel significant. With the exception of Shane, a guest on honeymoon who may just be the most unlikeable character on television, the audience cares or at least is morbidly curious as to what everyone’s fate will hold. These characters, who are established with such haste, manage to avoid relying too heavily on stereotypes or their relationships to others. While most characters’ stories intermingle, they all remain individuals. The characters are dramatized but manage to keep their humanity. No one is effortlessly charismatic, everyone is a little awkward; No evil character is thoughtlessly evil, with the exception of Shane who is truly the worst.
“The White Lotus” is difficult to suggest as a general recommendation because some people do not enjoy such cynical dramas. There are few characters to root for and the likelihood of those few amiable characters ending the show on a high note is slim. That is what makes this show ultimately so important and notable it never breaks from the painful reality it takes place in, and its reality is that those with privilege rarely atone for or suffer from their actions. When the wealthy guests’ stay at the White Lotus is done, they can return home to their money and privilege. The resort employees have to stay where they are. The White Lotus is their unavoidable daily reality that strangers with money can dismantle as they please. This show effortlessly captures such important aspects of the world today succinctly and without sacrificing plot or entertainment, but that does not mean it’s always very fun to watch.