Is The White Lotus the best drama of '21?

This text is safe for consumption by those who have not seen the show yet.

The White Lotus is a fantasy away from all the bullshit in the world. For real, the finale dropped at a point in time when historically, the world we live in is facing hard crises—Taliban taking over Kabul, Earthquake in Haiti, blackout in Lebanon, Delta on a fucking trip of its own, global warming…you get the gist. Across nations, the terrible stories have marred our respective lives, and the idea of a vacation at a time like this seems criminal. The only way to subvert this crime (of taking the time off) is to watch the world commit more sins. Checking in at The White Lotus counts as one way.

The White Lotus is easily one of the most promising entertainment distractions to have landed on our platters. For what it’s worth, this too points towards a deeply disturbing can of worms. Crawling live in this can are a bunch of privileged white folks and what they do on a holiday—all worthy of a television drama. Closer home, Zoya and Farhan Akhtar have practically fed us with romanticized versions of luxury vacations with friends and family but The White Lotus is not what you can expect from Excel Entertainment. This has more of a Dibakar Banerjee zest than just token trouble in paradise situation.

The HBO Original miniseries is filled with a mix of easter eggs scrambled within the white privilege, colonial damage, and the parallel acts delivered by social justice warriors. All of this is carried on the backs of unsung names and heroes who deliver a life-changing experience to others while being wholly expendable; the hospitality staff upon whom this idea of providing comfort rests is at the bottom of the food chain. In more than one way, Mike White, the director points towards the idea of subjugation and subversion consistently through the all 6 episodes.

At the heart of The White Lotus, hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett), Spa associate Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), along the rest of the hotel staff aim to provide a luxurious holiday away from the madness of the city. What starts off as a typical exercise in damage control, when a newly married couple (Shane and Rachel) are allotted another room instead of the one they booked, ends in a bit of a clusterfuck for the hotel staff and the guests who checked in.

Within this mix, there’s spinster Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge) who behaves like Paris Hilton’s washed-out aunt (no, not Kyle Richards). “Walmart Heiress”, the mean girls assign her this identity upon observing her touching up her make-up during the airport transfer to the hotel. The mean girls accompany the Mossbacher family, a unit so dysfunctional they can put the Mehra’s from Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) to shame. Paula (Brittany O’Grady), guest of the Mossbacher daughter Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), joins their family on this vacation. Together, these girls make Regina George look like a harmless puppy. Between everyone, the newly wedded Rachel Patton (Alexandra Daddario) looks miserable beyond belief, as she realizes she’s married a man who’s rude to the service staff, a total nightmare situation and that she has to possibly endure his antics and bad sex for the rest of her life.

The show kick starts with a hook, as Shane (Jake Lacy), the newly married guy watches the mortal remains of an individual being loaded on the aircraft. Between that and his small talk at the waiting area, we learn that his wife Rachel is nowhere to be seen, that he stayed at the White Lotus where the death took place, and that he is a hot-headed mofo.

While this is no whodunnit, I found myself thinking a lot about Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, and the similarity of writing for characters who have a life of their own but also serve a purpose on the screen. This is to say, that if you watch a film/TV show/whatever else and a side character comes on for even for 10 minutes, both Mike White and Dibakar Banerjee allow their characters to breathe, and not just limit them to doing their job to serve the script. And perhaps, this is my marker for solid writing, when everyone gets to live their lives and play their part, even if that doesn’t correspond to the rest of the show. I say this keeping in mind the hotel workers Lani (Jolene Purdy) and Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), as they play their respective parts in aiding the script but we don’t see any more of them. Reminiscent of the opening hook of Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar where Banerjee opens into a larger-than-life story and rounding his focus slowly on Sandeep and Pinky. In The White Lotus, Lani steps in to push her conniving boss towards a bender unknowingly, through her story, despite him being five years sober. Similarly, Kai comes in to help Paula realize that her SJW actions do not translate into anything for folks like him who are indispensable to the world. Those are as many spoilers as I’m willing to give at this point.

One of the things that stood out for me while watching The White Lotus is that it creates a sense of entrapment. I did not binge-watch the show, since I waited patiently to watch each episode, week after week, and yet, I felt deeply involved and anxious to learn more about those at the resort, despite the point of watching a series set around a beach holiday meant to relax. There was a dreaded sense of gloom and anxiety, especially with the music set in place.

You cannot proceed to talk about the show without acknowledging the solid job done by Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s OST. For the uninitiated, Tapia de Veer’s previous work on shows including Black Mirror (2011-2019) and Utopia (2013-2014) should remind you of the sense of doom of a dystopian world within your comfort zone created through his previous soundscapes. The music in The White Lotus is described as Hawaiian Hitchcock and I don’t think there’s any other way one can describe it. You are led into the visuals with the music; the soundtrack guides your head through the plot points and creates a harmony between the writing and the visuals. In a way, if the soundtrack would have been any different or for that matter, comedic, I don’t think the show could have worked the way it did. Could we call this dark comedy music genre? I don't know, I don't know.

The series was shot at Four Seasons Resort Maui, at Wailea, and the reason this worked just as well in terms of creating a sense of being laid back and yet anxiety-inducing is the takeover of the production team at the resort. The cast and crew nestled themselves for a few months in the resort and carried out the shoot in its entirety by creating a bio-bubble. The production team immersed themselves in the resort and went out and beyond to give the audience a taste of luxury and decadence with the attention to detail in the décor and setting up each suite, for each family/personality type. The Trade Winds suite works for the Mossbacher family’s arch, a lot of space yet dissonance; the Palm/Pineapple suite shapes through the debilitating relationship and the equation between the newlyweds. Rachel, Shane, and Shane’s mom (Molly Shannon as Kitty) in their plot are surrounded by visuals that appear to make things grandiose and the suite scream for attention (much like Shane) with forced curios meant to evoke a sense of “continuity” (large pineapple motifs).  The Hibiscus Suite matches Tanya’s personality—loud and unapologetic, and yet delicate.

With the interior design, there’s also a sense of closure in the last episode, co-relating to the idea of the haves and the have nots. There’s not much I can give without touching upon the obvious spoiler on who dies but if you look closely, and I urge that you do, the production design and the rooms play an important role in telling the story, outside of what is verbally uttered, especially where the dead person lays in the finale.

Much of what is done in the series relies on the work of the actors and I can’t find one person who did not deliver their part. Steve Zahn as Mark Mossbacher has portrayed one of the more important roles that will go down in the history as the white guy who was side-lined since his character is constantly negotiating his narrative. Zahn expertly delivers his reactions and responses each time he faces a situation— whether it is asking Paula and Olivia how should they apologize for the misgivings of whatever took place in the past and again when he navigates a reality plaguing his relationship with his dad, and the one with his wife, and his son. Jennifer Coolidge breathes life into Tanya and you can feel her breathing down your skin, watching you while you rest on the beach. She’s every nosey and lonely guest at any beach holiday, you can smell her desperation for contact with her eyes, more than the words.

The star of the show, however, is Murray Bartlett. With the expressions he delivers and the way he traverses sticky situations with his quick wit, you will not want to see anybody else when he’s on-screen. Armond’s possibly my favourite character, who tries his best to give his all and when he fails, he doesn’t have any remorse. Bartlett’s character on a bender gave me life and released more endorphins in my body than I have had in the last month. You would have to see all of them to believe how convincing each one looks in the role and how Barlett outshines them all with his brilliant performance as a man who's been constantly belittled by the guests to give back to each one with a smile plastered on his face.

There are many conversations around the ending of the show and then some on the character writing. Nobody in the show is all good-good-good and nobody is all bad-mean-ugly. Everyone has their sides and shades and that seems to be a problem with people. However, for me, writing works in a way when people are not painted to be extremes at all times. I also have my two cents on the finale. A lot of the situations in the show seem hard to comprehend including theft, and murder that takes place. The reality is that any situation like this would warrant the CCTV footage from the hotel and yet, no such conversation or dialogue is vaguely talked over.

The ending, too, was definitely rushed and was a bit of a downer. The series was forced to close too soon, without any conversation around what happened between the night and the morning of the murder. It all happens within minutes and you’re forced to make your peace with the resolution without many words. A bit heartbreaking and unrealistic, especially when it’s goodbye for you. I understand the privilege of getting away from a holiday, back to the grind, and I also understand the lack of consequences, but what I don’t gather is rushing through this conclusion in a matter of minutes without words. However, I suppose the point of the series is to highlight how some lives are important than others and that it does succinctly with its finale.

I don’t know about Hotel California, but The White Lotus is certainly worth staying at (Palm Suite, please) until you feel better about whatever is going down around us. For whatever the flaws, the series is most definitely the best thing you’ll see this Summer and you should not deprive yourself of this beach vacation and definitely never want to check out back to the real world.

tl;dr- Yes, indeed The White Lotus makes for solid Summer television.

 The series is available for streaming on Disney+ Hotstar in India.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.