‘The White Lotus’ Was Always Going to End This Way

Though it opened with a mystery-box setup—who’s in the coffin getting loaded onto the airplane?—The White Lotus was far from a whodunit, or a who-died. It was, instead, a pretty matter-of-fact show, plain and harrowing in its depiction of cruel and witless wealth and its effects on those at the disposal of the people who have it. Mike White, who wrote and directed every episode, did not waste much time on coyness or cliffhanger serializing. His series, among the best of the year so far, had urgent themes to attend to, a gallows-humor rumination on America past, present, and future.

We did still want to know who was in that coffin, though. Which is why, when I first watched the finale, I immediately felt the glum little dip of anticlimax. I can sometimes be a gullible TV watcher, and so had spent much of the series wondering if it might be Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) in the box, somehow killed on her depressing honeymoon with husband Shane (Jake Lacy). Or maybe it was Connie Britton’s character, Nicole, felled by an infuriated, shamed Rachel, or by Nicole’s self-conscious husband, Mark (Steve Zahn). Many television viewers, like me, are now primed to watch series as cases to be cracked, constructing elaborate theories based on only the merest of suggestions. 

The more I thought about the sad end of hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), though, the more I began to see its inevitability. Of course the blithe richies were going to pack up and leave the hotel almost entirely unscathed, folding back into the relative ease of their lives, leaving the dead and injured and scarred behind them. It’s not a subtle point, but it’s a valuable one—one I should have seen coming, and now understand as probably the only way things could have gone. 

The bookend scenes of the series, with Shane pouting and testy in the airport terminal, made up the third part of an important triptych inlaid into The White Lotus. Tellingly, gallingly, we never saw Shane interrogated about why he stabbed a hotel manager in his room; even the possibility of consequence was elided, skipped right over as the minor detail it was. That omission echoed the disappearances of Lani (Jolene Purdy), who desperately tried to conceal her pregnancy in the first episode, and Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), who was never seen again after the robbery gone wrong—but was presumably in a great deal of trouble. 

Look how uneventful the loss of these people—their push into poverty, their probable incarceration, their death—was in the show’s deliberately narrow purview, working class people shuffled in and out of the frame until their utility was expended. There was also, of course, Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), one of the hotel employees preyed upon by the vampire guests (particularly by Tanya, a mess of a manipulator played by Jennifer Coolidge) who did, actually, get a small moment to assert herself toward the end of the series. But it was a weary rebuke, not triumphant, and the last we saw of Belinda was her plastering on another wan smile as a new horde of potential bloodsuckers made their way toward her. 

In all that lopsided shape, The White Lotus told a deeply tragic story, and an angry one. It’s tricky to assess the show on thematic terms without wondering if it was a copout to focus so heavily on the rich white characters in the name of point-making. Should we have seen more of Lani and Kai? Should Rothwell have had more to play? Maybe so. But as it was, the show’s purpose was to depict the collision between classes and the stark inequity of the subsequent effects. The hotel’s employees were sent reeling into ruin while the guests gathered themselves up and figured themselves changed for the better for having had an experience. It brings to mind the “anecdote” monologue from the end of Six Degrees of Separation—a crushing lament about rich people’s indifference to others, viewed as novelties and spoken about at dinner parties with a faraway, inexact regard. Though no one in The White Lotus had the reality-quaking epiphany that Ouisa of Six Degrees had. 

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