Photo from Mario Perez | HBO
“What do you care? You make shit money. They exploit me, I exploit you.” — Armond
My fianceé and I just finished watching The White Lotus, and were both simultaneously fascinated and horrified at the show’s outcome and ending.
The show starts with one of the main characters, Shane, incredibly distraught over a dead body on a plane from his vacation. The scene implies the dead body is Shane’s wife, given how distraught he is, and given how much he shuts down an older couple wanting to make small talk about his honeymoon.
However, by the end, we realize the dead body isn’t Shane’s wife, but the central character and show-stopper of the ensemble cast: Armond. Armond, played by Murray Bartlett, is the most fascinating character of the show. He is the hotel manager of the White Lotus, the hotel the show is named after, after much curiosity over who died in the show.
In the first episode, Armond comes off as unlikeable. He is completely oblivious to the difficulties of a trainee’s pregnancy when she goes into labor on the same day she starts the job. He tells her to give an “impression of vagueness” and be a completely generic person who serves to coddle the rich, privileged, and overwhelmingly white hotel guests like spoiled children. As anyone’s job is within the service industry, Armond serves initially just to please his guests: in the first episode, we know absolutely nothing about him.
But we see the strain of pleasing overly privileged and entitled guests in the rivalry between himself and Shane. Shane’s mother pays for the entire honeymoon between himself and his newlywed wife, Rachel. Shane is upset at not getting the honeymoon suite his wife ordered, despite the suite they do have including a premium ocean view. Instead, Shane insists on having a room with a private pool.
Rachel starts to doubt the marriage the whole time, and at the end, she contemplates leaving Shane. Not wanting to be the trophy life, Rachel wants much more of a life for herself. But ultimately, she goes back to being with Shane, promising she will be happy.
Instead of the Palm Suite he got, he insists on getting into the Pineapple Suite, which forbids him from enjoying his honeymoon with his wife. Shane is a completely unlikeable character as he passive-aggressively hassles Armond on the availability of the Pineapple Suite and complains nonstop despite having it really good already.
With Shane being a horrible pain in the ass throughout the show, we see Armond unravel. But the show is not just about Shane and Armond. It’s about exploitation — exploitation of the local Hawaiian staff, exploitation of the non-Hawaiian staff, and ways in which the rich, privileged clientele are so blind to the way their actions affect others.
The Mossbachers are a family of four with a billionaire mother matriarch, a father who is very generic and forgettable, a son who doesn’t have interest in anything, and a daughter who is ultra-woke and in tune to the politics of privilege and exploitation, but completely blind to her own privilege. Other characters in the show include Tanya, who is an alcoholic rich woman grieving the loss of her mother.
One hotel staff member who runs a spa, Belinda (a Black woman), tends to Tanya’s needs and gives her a massage and therapy session that makes Tanya very attached and clingy to Belinda, to an uncomfortable amount. Tanya supports Belinda’s efforts to own her own business and be a benefactor who bankrolls the entire ambition. However, once Tanya finds someone else to cling to, a man she develops a relationship to, she pulls the rug from Belinda’s business proposal (giving her a wad of cash instead), showing her relationship with Belinda was solely derived from what Belinda could do for her, not what she could do for Belinda.
Paula is Olivia’s friend who tags along for the trip, paid for by the Mossbacher family. She is a woman of color, and her actress, Brittany O’Grady, is mixed in real life. Paula and Olivia are two peas in a pod for the majority of the show, until Paula starts to have a clandestine relationship while on the Hawaiian resort with Kai, a local Hawaiian staff member who works at the hotel. She later chafes against the Mossbacher father’s defense of his own privilege.
Almost everyone exploits in the show, but they’re all relatable
At the end of the day, everyone in The White Lotus is an exploiter to some degree. Yes, we have the traditional punching bags of white men who feel entitled to everything they want, including Shane.
But Shane is not a very likable character, nor is he a very complex villain. We don’t see beyond his silver spoon, and the only humanizing factor about him is his domineering mother who made him the way he was and made sure he annoyingly advocated for absolutely everything he wanted.
Otherwise, Rachel, who throughout the show struggles with her expected role as Shane’s trophy wife, is in a profession where she exploits others as a freelance, clickbait journalist. This all comes to fruition when she approaches Nicole Mossbacher about an article she wrote about Mossbacher’s success — Mossbacher admits to hating the article and depicting her as someone who exploited the #MeToo movement for her own personal gain.
Nicole Mossbacher is not much better herself. While she is sympathetic as the person holding her whole family together amidst her husband’s health concerns and her apathetic children, Mossbacher is an ardent defender of privilege and the struggles of white male children in this day and age, which tends to be a tone-deaf statement in this day and age.
Mark Mossbacher, Nicole’s husband, is dealing with a mid-life crisis. The first real impression we have with him is a camera shot at his penis (which I hope is prosthetic) and Mark asking whether he has testicular cancer. He is awaiting a biopsy from his doctors and constantly wondering whether he’s about to die. The reason he’s worried about testicular cancer is his father died of testicular cancer.
Or so he thought. Mark talks to a family friend after being assured he does not have cancer. The family friend finally lets a family secret slip — Mark’s father did not die of cancer. He died of AIDS. “How did he get AIDS?” Mark asks. “Well, by having sex with men,” the family friend responds. Apparently, Mark’s father lived a double life where he attended to his family and then had sex with other men.
Mark is then obsessive over the fact that he never really knew his father, and talks to everyone within earshot over how he just found out his father was gay. Nicole pressures Mark to have a deeper relationship with his son, Quinn, who is apathetic and seems not to have any passions. Mark starts to tell Quinn all sorts of private details about their marriage that Nicole clearly didn’t want to leak out — how he doesn’t enjoy their time in the bedroom anymore, and how he once cheated on Nicole and then made it up to her by buying a $75,000 ring with his own money.
Meanwhile, Shane’s grating of Armond for the Pineapple Suite continues to wear on him, leading him to forgo five years of sobriety. He finds a green bag of drugs from Paula and Olivia on the beach and keeps the Adderall and ketamine to himself, and in his drug-fueled craze, Armond becomes more and more behaviorally inhibited. He starts drinking again, and at the bar, Armond and Mark stumble into the conversation.
Mark asks Armond whether he’s drinking on the job, to which Armond denies the question. Mark then starts talking to Armond about the revelation of his father and how he felt betrayed about his father having sex with other men. Both very inebriated at this point, the next point of dialogue includes some of the most savage lines in The White Lotus:
“I wonder what it’s like to be fucked in the ass,” Mark says.
“Do you want to find out?” Armond responds.
There’s a very, very long and awkward pause, where we can imagine Mark actually contemplating the proposition.
Mark is a very relatable character. No, I didn’t find out my father was secretly having a double life where he had sex with men. I wouldn’t judge him, but I would certainly be very shocked because of the machismo brand of masculinity he’s always sought to portray. I think it’s just relatable to find some revelation about a parent later in life that shocks and dismantles your previous perception of them.
But Mark is not as likable whenever he talks about and defends his privilege as a billionaire and a white man. He asks Paula, straight up, what he’s supposed to do with his privilege. Give it away? Who gives away their privilege?
Perhaps Mark is right about how the world works. I certainly never knew many people who would choose to give their privilege away. But these events lead to Paula’s anger and subsequent machinations to bring the Mossbacher family down.
Paula is enraged at the optics of a dinner: a group of local Hawaiians dancing and singing for rich white folk. It enrages her to her core and she plots to get back at the Mossbacher family, for their blindness to their privilege, but also more personally because of Olivia taking what Paula believes to be hers. At the dinner, Olivia, jealous that Kai is getting a significant amount of Paula’s attention, starts hitting on Kai herself.
Paula, upon seeing this scene, wants to get back at Olivia. She gets the code to the combination safe where the Mossbacher family hides all their obscenely expensive jewelry, feigning the sentimental value of her own necklace.
She then approaches Kai, asking him to steal from the Mossbachers and use the money from the jewelry to pay for a lawsuit against the government where his family’s land was stolen from them. But Kai doesn’t want to do it. He tells Paula she’s not a thief. He pushes back at her proposition since it just doesn’t feel right — “aren’t these your friends?” he asks her.
But Paula says no. And she continues to pressure Kai into breaking into the Mossbacher suite and stealing their stuff until Kai relents. After all, the Mossbacher family is supposed to be away and on a boat when Kai takes from their safe.
However, while he attempts to steal, Mark and Nicole get into a fight. They storm off back to the room, and Paula does nothing to stop them from coming back even though she knows Kai is in the act of going into the room and taking from the safe. What happens next is predictable. Mark and Nicole stumble upon the room as Kai is breaking in, and a fight ensues that gets messy — Mark tries to defend Kai as Nicole sits there frightened, and Kai beats up Mark and runs away.
Later, Kai is arrested and the valuables are returned to the Mossbachers. Olivia is aware Paula orchestrated the attempt and holds it against her for the rest of the trip. Olivia promises not to tell anyone. But unless Paula expresses remorse and realizes Olivia could blackmail her any time.
Olivia exploits Paula. Paula exploits Kai. It is a downward stream of exploitation.
Shane exploits Armond, and although Armond is our charismatic showstopper, Armond exploits too. In his drug-fueled craze, he corners a younger male member of the staff he’s attracted to. He makes comments about how hot the man, Dillon is, and on one occasion, he has Dillon come into his office, lock the door, and promises him favorable shifts if Dillon agrees to have sex with him.
There is a massive power imbalance between Armond and Dillon. Armond is Dillon’s boss, and he clearly takes advantage of him, drug and alcohol-motivated or not. The two do get naked and have sex with each other, but Shane barges into Armond’s office at just the worst time, as Armond has his mouth in the worst possible place you could imagine (from an optics perspective).
Shane then holds this blackmail over Armond for the rest of the vacation. And the rivalry descends from there as Shane gets Armond fired, and Armond plans one final act of revenge when he poops into Shane’s suitcase. Unfortunately, as Armond finishes pooping into Shane’s suitcase, Shane walks into the room, realizes someone is there, and then stabs Armond with a pineapple knife, killing him.
Almost everyone is relatable (besides Shane), but at the end of the day, almost everyone is a villain as well. Besides Kai and Belinda, everyone exploits someone else, no matter how relatable or virtuous they might come off. It is a toxic island where wealth and power corrupt everything, and if you can describe The White Lotus in one word, it’s messy. Very messy.
I think the show does a terrific job of developing complex and nuanced characters. Every character in the show believes in their righteous virtuosity and is completely blind to how they intentionally or unintentionally harm others.
While the show is satirical, it points to many of the blind spots of white privilege and liberal discourse: the character of Olivia is as privileged as privileged gets, and yet she is a hyper-liberal and progressive crusader. Paula points out this contradiction at the end by telling her she’s just like the rest of her ultra-privileged family. But then there’s Paula herself, who uses Kai and then ultimately makes him expendable just so she could get back at Olivia’s family.
It is a brilliant exploration of human nature. There’s no clear-cut villain or hero because almost everyone is a villain and hero. And it’s a fascinating watch you can’t keep your eyes off of.
Originally published on September 22, 2021 on Vulnerable Man
This is original content from NewsBreak’s Creator Program. Join today to publish and share your own content.