‘The White Lotus’ Is One Of The Funniest (And Most Acidic) Shows In Years

This is moral rot at its most delectable - the lives of the one-percenters turned into glittering, awful art.

the white lotus review

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The first sign that there’s something foul about the world of The White Lotus, the new HBO smash hit, starts stinking before the title cards are up.

It’s the score. Arrhythmic, strange and distorted, it sounds like a choir of robots who’ve had water poured over their circuitry, wailing as they melt down. Ignore the pleasing visuals, a series of murals painted onto a hotel wall — they’re just a distraction from the real, deep moral rot that’s eating up the show from the inside, solidifying and deepening like the possible cancer in doomed hero Mark’s balls.

Indeed, distraction is the name of The White Lotus‘ game. The show is the most Freudian exercise mainstream television has seen in years, an act of constant, desperate ego-repression. Every one of its dysfunctional main characters is in some kind of denial. There’s Armond, the Australian manager of the Hawaiian hotel that gives the series its title, an ex-addict who is in charge of maintaining a veneer of politeness, even has his world slips into chaos. There’s Tanya, expertly played by Jennifer Coolidge in a performance that keeps hysteria bubbling just out of sight, who is reeling from a recent loss and moving through life in a quasi-coma. And there’s Lani, the resort assistant who is attempting to keep secret the child growing in her belly.

Each of these characters, though distinct in their troubles, have the same, “don’t look at it, don’t say its name” approach to trauma. They are on holiday, after all, living a life of luxury and wealth in a country divided and decimated by colonialism, keeping their eyes trained on the floor so they don’t have to deal with either their pain, or the money they use to desperately paper over it.

In any other show, such horrors could only be suppressed for so long. But the genius of The White Lotus is its sense of ominous, ever-approaching collapse — a decimation that is threatened but never quite materialises. Like a bad dream in which a stampede of hungry cattle get louder without seeming to get any closer,  the chaos keeps building up; the structures keep buckling. But the easy release of total collapse is denied. You don’t get easy endings, either happy or sad. Instead, you get a deep, dyed-in-the-wool sense of abject, unwavering horror.

The White Lotus Is Oddly Timeless

Of course, The White Lotus is also very funny. Creator Mike White not only knows when to drop a joke to counterbalance the sense of impending doom, he knows how to make those jokes part of the promised destruction too. This isn’t a tragi-comedy that alternates between those two extremes; somehow, it achieves both at once.

What it doesn’t do is inject heart into the proceedings. At least, not without following the tenderness up immediately with viciousness, exposing the characters wounds only to smear them with the thick, salty skin of a fish. White is a scientist, not an artist, filming his doomed heroes with a sense of remove that borders on the anthropological. His gaze is closest to that of Olivia and Paula, the two adolescent protagonists of the show, who are first introduced via a game they play in which they guess the backstories of the people around them, cruelly filling their imagined lives with torment and heartache. White has that same sense of hideous curiosity, that same desire to poke roadkill with a stick.

That desire to guess at the lives of the one percenters gives the show a veneer of timeliness.

That desire to guess at the lives of the one-percenters gives the show a veneer of timeliness. White wrote the series in a matter of four months, and it is dotted with reference to all kinds of socio-political trends — Olivia and Paula are clearly modelled on the protagonists of the wildly popular podcast Red Scare, for instance.

But underneath this contemporary sheen is a historical trend of exploitation that is as old as capitalism itself. This is a critique that could be aimed at any age: after all, the arc of affluence bends towards corruption, and the heroes of The White Lotus resemble ancient kings and queens, waited on by servants tied in place by tradition and history. It’s the kind of satire with antagonists broad and wild enough to apply to most cultures in history; a series of arrows fired high, finding targets wherever they land.

Mysteries, Breathing Blood

It’s also, first and foremost, a mystery show, opening with the promise of death. But the genius of White’s approach is that these answers spawn only more questions.

David Lynch, the creator of Twin Peaks, once wished that the show could begin with an enigma that slowly gets moved out of sight, casting aside Laura Palmer’s death in favour of an exploration of the inner lives of its main characters. The White Lotus is the fulfilment of that wish. Though the threat of murder is the taut line pulling the plot out of the sand, it’s a mechanistic gambit that leaves room for the true, entirely bland evil that inhabits the “heroes” to bloom.

The final episode of the show, which airs today, threatens to settle at least some of the show’s central tension. But if past episodes have been anything to go by, there will be as many character arcs left messily open as those that are resolved. That is the sign, above anything else, that The White Lotus is here to stay, its unanswered questions embedded deep into the social imaginary, like some elegant, awful creature, lying dormant under the sun-blasted Hawaiian sand.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.