Mike White’s web series The White Lotus finale just hit the screens this December. The show’s title is eponymous with a luxury beach resort where rich, white people vacation and somehow manage to leave themselves worse off than how they were before arriving at the location. There has always been an unironical, universal pull towards comedy-drama around rich, white people living their ludicrously expensive, luxurious lives.
The White Lotus retains most of the characteristic features of these shows but rather than telling a sympathetic story about sad rich people wallowing in their misery, it satirises them with detachment and apathy.
The show is subtle in its execution but precise with its agenda. However, at first glance, the show might come off slightly confusing to the viewers as to what it wants to achieve. It is scattered with morally righteous rich people juxtaposed with audaciously pompous rich people, sipping beach cocktails and butting their heads together on dubious ideological grounds. It is unclear whom to root for, and what to expect in a show like this.
The title track of the show features eerie vocal music that we most often associate with cultures that have been exoticised and ‘other-ed’ by the dominant, white culture. But who is the other here? Who is the ‘exotic’?
To date, the exoticising lens of the viewer has always been constructed through an exclusively white gaze which allowed white people to exist on higher terrain, free of curious, unsympathetic, watchful eyes, and placed them above all accountability. The White Lotus subverts that gaze by subjecting white people who occupy the top tier of the capitalist pyramid to be the subject of their very own white gaze. It is the reversal of exoticizing, white gaze that situates us on the other side of it for the very first time. Thus, it makes for spectacular television that we devour with almost a vindictive appetite.
The first season of the show deals with the question of ‘race’ while the second season of the show deals with ‘sex’. The first season takes place in Hawaii where interestingly it is the race of the white people that time and again becomes the subject of contention. Inherited guilt, discomfiting awareness of complicity, and an intrinsic need to prove that ‘they are not like other white people or that all white people are not the same’ characterise the protagonists of the show. It is strangely peculiar and quite fascinating for us to witness these characters navigate their lives as we watch with absolutely no investment in their character growth.
In season 1, Mark (played by Steve Zahn), comes undone when he fears a diagnosis of fatal prostate cancer but his worry and anxiety are brushed aside by his own family as they get engaged with their own lives. Paired with unsympathetic music, Mark’s suffering appears irrational and exaggerated to a comical extent.
When it comes to ‘othering’ a whole race from ourselves, sex too plays an important role in its construction. Sex becomes perverse when it is performed by the subject of our exoticising gaze no matter what sexual act it involves. That is what the second season elaborates on with deft humour and clever subtlety.
The second sex portrays sex as an illicit act with the potential to mend or break relationships already verging on ruins. Everyone is thinking about sex or having sex while the show portrays their desire and sexual appetite as absurd.
Two couples find being sexually unfaithful to each other is the only way to save their respective marriages. They go through ridiculous efforts to maintain a civil image while their private lives are anything but. A family of three generational men, who despite their best efforts, quite literally ‘can’t keep it in their pants‘. While the sex worker, Lucia, rips off the DiGrasso family and takes off with a big sum of their money by simply posing as a helpless woman, we realise that it hardly makes a dent in the DiGrasso generational wealth.
Lucia wins but the DiGrassos hardly lose anything. Such insurmountable wealth renders them invincible and makes them a species that we can neither sympathise with nor relate to. It is suggested that the younger son Albie, despite all his textbook political correctness, is just the same as his father and grandfather, as they all perversely eye a woman passing by in the airport. When the exceptionally whiny and pathetic, rich lady Tanya (brilliantly portrayed by Jennifer Coolidge), finds herself in the company of a group of gay men, who want to murder her and take her money, the suspense keeps us on the edge of our seats but we do not find ourselves invested in her safety.
The White Lotus does the opposite of what most TV series do when they revolve around the lives of rich people- it makes richness seem undesirable. It is a knock-on-the-head reminder that these people are only a tiny percentage of the population, and if you are not already them, you will probably never be them. So it is alright to keep laughing at them!