The White Lotus: Meaning, Themes & Characterisation

The White Lotus (2021-) is an HBO anthology TV series created and directed by Mike White. Seasons one and two are each set in different places (Hawaii and Sicily respectively), but in the same chain of luxury hotels. Aside from this connecting tissue, one of the characters from season one (Tanya MacQuoid) reappears in season two, as she is a wealthy San Francisco heiress who spends much of her life being waited on hand and foot. If you’ve seen the reality TV series Below Deck, you’ll be very familiar with the real-life versions of Tanya MacQuoid.

Blue Crush is an early prototype White Lotus

@Brocklesnitch

IS THE WHITE LOTUS A REAL HOTEL?

No, it is not. But it is a highly recognisable location — a heterotopia for rich, white people, who could easily stay at home and have a very similar experience in their own countries.

If you haven’t seen Season Two yet, read no further.

It seems to me that Tanya is modelled on The Queen of Versailles, who appears in several episodes of Below Deck (the reality TV equivalent of Upstairs, Downstairs, but set on a yacht). As one of the seasoned stews points out when a particularly wealthy guest asks for an extreme level of help unpacking her suitcase and arranging the clothes in her closet, there’s a type of ultra-wealthy person who falls into a permanently helpless, childlike state. They lose the ability to do the smallest, mundane thing for themselves, and must be followed by an entourage of paid help or else collapse into themselves. These people mistake paid help for friendship.

Although The White Lotus is an ensemble show, Tanya MacQuoid can perhaps be seen as our ‘main character’ of seasons one and two. Played with depth and humanity by Jennifer Coolidge, it’s worth watching this show for the character of Tanya alone (who is known, even in the subtitles as Tanya MacQuoid, possibly because the name is slightly comical when pronounced ma-quad).

Above: an interaction on reality TV Below Deck: Mediterranean. Below: a similar dynamic playing out on the TV drama The White Lotus.
The team behind Jackie Siegel’s reality TV show are well aware of the similarities.
(If you need to see the thread, click the image.)
The “Tanya MacQuoid character trope” has been around for a long time.

Mike White is previously known for shows such as The One and Only Ivan screenplay (2020), Enlightened (2011), Year of the Dog (2007), Orange County (2002) and Freaks & Geeks (1999), which he helped write. Incidentally, he cameoed as the character Chip Kelly, who you may remember as the cousin who sleeps on Kim Kelly’s sofa all day. Mike White has also worked on The Emoji Movie and Thomas & Friends: All Engines Go.

He’s also been a contestant on Survivor.

In short, this guy has worked on stories for literally all of the age groups, across many different genres. While it would be unusual for any single audience member to be in love with every aspect of White’s work, I really admire his breadth and his storytelling skills, so it’s been great to see this creator granted so much creative control in The White Lotus after decades in the screenwriting and teleplay business. The result is ‘prestige TV’ which is original, quirky, smart, propulsive and binge-worthy.

There’s so much to say about The White Lotus, it’s hard to pick a specific angle for a post. One could write an entire book.

PARATEXT OF THE WHITE LOTUS

It’s all in the title (intended or otherwise): The White Lotus is a show about white people, for white people.

WHAT WAS THE PURPOSE OF LANI IN THE WHITE LOTUS?

Many viewers were disappointed to see the character Lani disappear after the pilot episode. Applying a Watsonian reading, Lani would have left her job to care for the baby she gave birth to on her first day of work. But why did the writers use her like this? For that we need a Doylist reading. Possibilities:

  1. The series will end with the ending of a life. The audience already knows this from the first scene (a flash forward, in the airport). If a narrative begins with a birth and ends with a death, this works nicely at a symbolic level, creating a circle-of-life type vibe for the audience, helping us feel the story has come to its natural conclusion. Full-circle, so to speak.
  2. The actor who plays Lani is a great slapstick actress. The way she side-steps her own broken water puddle on the flaw is chef’s kiss.
  3. It is always helpful to have a character new to the scene because then other characters can realistically explain how everything works to the audience by explaining it to the new person. Armond advises Lani that staff at The White Lotus are expected to self-efface, emulating traditional Japanese service. As the series progresses, this will feel increasingly ironic and hypocritical. Armond may aim for self-effacement, but fails miserably. He is very soon shown to avoid owning up to his own, easily-remedied mistake in assigning the wrong room.
  4. Mostly, though, Lani serves as a quick insight into Armond’s character. We very quickly understand that Armond is gay (by the way he deals with the ‘tuna’ on Lani’s shirt). When Armond learns that he’s been callous to Lani all day without even noticing she was giving birth, he feels regret. He’s not an unfeeling character at all. His reaction to Lani endears us to the audience somewhat. Even if we don’t like him, we understand how he operates. Others have picked up that Armond’s guilt regarding Lani is what sends Armond back into his cycle of addiction (Doylist reading).

Characters who are used in this way, to set up a story for other characters, are what I call ‘McGuffin Characters‘, though there may be some more widely-known terminology I’m yet to hear about. Audiences sort of forget about them. Except Hawaiians, of course, and people of colour, who are especially starved for on-screen representation, so it is always disappointing when under-represented characters are disappeared, especially when they are used to explicate the characterisation of yet another white guy.

Is this realistic? Yes. Escapism? No. However, this is in keeping with the satire behind the whole show: A skewering of rich, white people’s notion of a Perfect Holiday Escape.

HAWAIIANS IN THE WHITE LOTUS

As Season One progresses, we meet more Hawaiian characters and learn a little of the injustice and politics behind the very existence of The White Lotus hotel. This may feel a little like box-ticking, as it would be disingenuous of a show to shine a light on toxic wokeness (exemplified by Olivia) while dodging the land theft and destruction of a community. White audiences may find Olivia and Paula hilariously spot-on, whereas people of colour may want to smash the screen.

Belinda is a Black woman who works at the spa.

Belinda’s character may aim to counterbalance the lack of Hawaiian rep somewhat, especially since she gets her happy ending.

Since this is a white people show written by a white person, we don’t get the full story behind the Hawaiian guy who tragically gets drawn into retributive crime by Paula, and you may find yourself craving more.

(Apparently at least one of the swinging dicks is not prosthetic at all. According to the actor himself. But then, he would say that.)

As for any messaging about racism, the show does basically nothing to address colonialism and labour exploitation. As mentioned above, this is a show about white people, by white people, featuring Stuff White People Like.

(You’ll see a lot from that list in this show: Taking a year off, promising to learn a new language, being offended, scarves, San Francisco, having gay friends, shorts, hating corporations, divorce, expensive sandwiches, knowing what’s best for poor people, natural medicine, living by the water, irony, vintage, Apple products, breakfast places, assists, coffee.)

Valentina, the Hotel Manager of Season Two
For context, this is the breakfast bar.

See also: The White Lotus is as clueless about Native Hawaiians as its characters from Mitchell Kuga at Vox. Kuga feels uneasy about the soundtrack — songs from childhood used as counterpoint to the disarming soundtrack by Cristobal Tapia de Veer. Also, to Hawaiians, this show feels like pastiche rather than satire:

We’re four episodes in, but it’s the first time we really hear Kai speak, and he’s feeling nostalgic. He tells Paula about his childhood spent picking seashells, feeding pigs, and pulling taro — a Hawaiian 101 pastiche so basic, I half expected him to break into a spontaneous fire dance.

Mitchell Kuga
Kai from The White Lotus

The guys on the canoe are used to further 16-year-old Quinn’s enlightenment, which may feel like comedy to white people, but uncomfortably familiar as an earnest storytelling technique to Hawaiians, who’ve been enduring the straight-told version of this for generations.

For what it’s worth, the writer, Mike White, bought a house in Hawaii and has been living there for some years himself. His story evinces understanding of the political issues, but hits Hawaiians differently. Kuga asks, “It’s good to know your limits, but how successful can a piece of satire be if it replicates the very power structures it purports to satirize?”

SYMBOLISM OF THE LOTUS

Perhaps the best place to find how something is regarded in current culture is in the tattoo community. Why might people choose to ink themselves with a lotus?

[A] popular tattoo in the mental health community is the lotus flower. This can represent a spiritual connection and the ability to overcome anything. Or, since the lotus grows in muddy water, some people also get it inked to represent their rise from hardships.

Others use the idea of breathing in their tattoo. Tattoos such as ‘just breathe’ can remind people to take slow, mindful breaths when in times of stress or panic, or when things seem overwhelming.

Aruma

Tanya MacQuoid is the uber-representation of someone who would be into the spiritual meanings of a lotus, co-opted from cultures which are not her own, of course.

Tanya doesn’t like what the ‘gypsy’ has to say. (Turns out the tarot woman is spot-on, in keeping with a witchy thread throughout Season Two, culminating in the three witch archetypes who shoo out the American Italian men who come to establish a family connection.)
Tanya from The White Lotus in three words, conveniently written on a wine bottle.

See also: The Hidden Meanings Behind the Wallpapers from HBO’s The White Lotus from House Beautiful.

The penultimate episode of The White Lotus prominently quotes Tennyson’s “The Lotos-Eaters,” a poem based on the lotus-eaters, apathetic creatures from Greek mythology who lost all care for anything except pleasure once they’re drunk on the power of the lotus. The obvious connection the series draws between this myth and its characters is one of money. Rachel, having had just a taste of wealth, doesn’t want to go back to her old life. The series’ conclusion is depressing — but it also might be realistic.

Emily St. James at Vox

LOG LINE OF THE WHITE LOTUS

A logline is a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of a story that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest.

Whoever wrote the IMDb logline clearly struggled to encapsulate the show, as I have. The result is a sentence which doesn’t sound especially hooky:

Set in a tropical resort, it follows the exploits of various guests and employees over the span of a week.

The White Lotus on IMDb

This is very much a character driven show. But what does that even mean? In this case, I mean the morality evinced by the character dynamics is surprising and complex. The archetypes are not quite archetypes — they’re a perfect blend of recognisable and unique.

CHARACTERS IN THE WHITE LOTUS

One of the most interesting aspects of The White Lotus: Characters in Season Two are extensions, expansions and different iterations of characters we saw in Season One. There’s a Cinderella story in Season One and another in Season Two. There’s a (minor, off-stage) character who appears super straight but who is actually having sex with men in Season One, but an on-stage version of this archetype in Season Two. (We get both an older and younger version in Season Two.) We see various permutations of Wealthy, Privileged White Boys, as you might expect of a story set at a luxury resort. We get the full spectrum of ‘female empowerment’, and are also shown how it’s possible to be both powerful and vulnerable at the same time.

Basically, although you don’t need to see Season One before you watch Season Two, Season Two is very much a complement and extension of Season One. Without Season One, Season Two will be read differently, partly because Season One earns some of its ‘edgy’ licence, cashed in during Season Two.

RICH POOR DIVIDE

It is common for writers to put rich and poor(er) people together, to contrast their morality. Insta conflict. A luxury hotel is the perfect place for this, because wealthy people require waged staff. Instant juxtaposition. But The White Lotus goes further, and creates a new juxtaposition of character. We’re likely to see more of this one going forward: Caring versus not caring (about politics and climate change and institutionalised injustices etc.) In Season Two, count how many times you hear “I don’t care.”

It’s also worth taking a look at which characters are punished for caring. In this world, whether you care or not does not affect outcome, even when caring leads to caring actions, not just caring words.

THE CARE DON’T-CARE DIVIDE

The show also investigates what it even means to care. Does Olivia really care about the marginalisation of native Hawaiians? For that matter, how much does Paula know about it, despite being a young woman of colour herself? In Season One, is Jack justified in telling Portia she’s basically spoilt and ungrateful if she’s in this beautiful environment and still thinks the world is falling down around her?

The “don’t care” versus “care deeply” juxtaposition is evinced most clearly in the difference between The Sullivans and The Spillers. Harper is horrified to learn their holiday friends deliberately avoid the news, and that Daphne can’t even remember if she voted.

Valentina, like Armond, is sick and tired of her job. We see this jading set in for the real-life workers on the luxury yachts in Below Deck. If you spend your 20s self-effacing and bending over backwards for rich people tips, you’re done by about 30. You can’t keep doing that forever without sacrificing something of yourself.
Harper makes the conscious decision to ‘not care’ for the sake of enjoying the rest of her holiday with a couple she can’t stand. She’s taking a leaf out of their book, seeing if it works.
The Don’t Care pose for the ages.

TANYA MACQUOID

Tanya MacQuoid: The rich, emotionally dependent and vulnerable heiress who is a sitting duck for exploitation, but who also recognises her own weaknesses and has ‘had every therapy available’, including the dodgy ones, but also including some decent talk therapies.

We know by the end of season one that she understands the tendency in herself to surround herself with people who are dependent on her. She understands that unless she makes friends as wealthy as herself, it’s likely her own massive fortune will prove an impediment in one way or another. Ironically, though, her self-insight does end up saving her, only for cruel stochasticity to kill her a minute later, since no amount of money in the world saves anyone from eventual demise.

GREG HUNT

Greg Hunt is also the name of an Australian health minister mentioned regularly during in media during the early years of the pandemic, and I can tell you for sure and certain that this is not a name you want to pronounce quickly. Or maybe, in this case, that is the entire point.

Greg was introduced during Season One and appears to be a nice guy. His evil side is fully masked (for the audience) by a great gag: Tanya mistakes his work at the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) for work at Black Lives Matter. The gag is played beautifully by Jennifer Connelly, who exemplifies Tanya MacQuoid’s earnest gullibility. (Why, the audience also wonders, would a white man be employed at ‘Black Lives Matter’ — a movement, not a company).

DOES GREG HUNT DIE AT THE END OF SEASON TWO?

For those of you who watch TV with subtitles on, who was this bit of dialogue attributed to?

This isn’t what everyone sees. Another person in the thread saw this:

Someone else’s closed captioning attributes the line to Quentin.

This shows how closed-captioners are not just translators, but have a role to play in the telling of a story. (Someone else pointed out that Greg Hunt is included in the final credits of this episode, but I’m not sure if that means anything.) It would make sense if Greg never left Sicily, but is instead hiding out on the yacht so that he can:

  1. Ensure Tanya really does die
  2. Do the paperwork to secure Tanya’s fortune, then divvy it out to the other guys involved in her murder. It is highly likely that Quentin would want him there. Otherwise, what’s to stop Greg Hunt disappearing forever, without coughing up for the murder?

I think the captioner who attributes the line to Greg has the most likely take.

ARMOND

The Crocodile Dundee Australian larrikin who is also vindictive and gay (cf. the family of sharks: “They’re cute!”) It’s fun to see him lose the plot. Anyone who has worked in customer service will feel great empathy for this guy. His Hawaiian shirts are also great.

NICOLE

The Lean In Mom who is successful at work but whose family is falling apart. She’s an old-school feminist who, like the feminism of her daughter, is a mass of contradictions.

This is apparent from her very first scene. Instead of clapping back at her daughters who accuse her very own son of being a perv, she instead reassures both girls that they do have beautiful bodies.

OLIVIA AND PAULA

The bitchy teenage BFFs who appear in cahoots against the world — and the entire world is less stylish and stupider than they are — but who are nowhere near as close they appear to outsiders. (Other viewers have read Olivia as lesbian but I don’t see that at all. Instead, I think viewers are very keen to read beautiful young women as lesbian and will grasp at straws, even when said ‘straws’ are addressed directly in the text.)

Olivia reads ironic 90s frames of the kind I associate with elderly men. This actress plays a very different character in Euphoria.

QUINN

The rich white boy addicted to screens, even on holiday. Olivia’s younger brother.

Despite his privileges, Quinn is having trouble finding his place in the world. He has a Chris McCandless character arc, where he wishes to ditch all of his material possessions and live permanently in Hawaii, imagining he belongs here.

In the end, he is not allowed to stay. Characters don’t tend to change in The White Lotus because they are comedic archetypes and, as Emily St. James writes at Vox, That’s the point.

MARK

The emasculated father of Olivia and Quinn whose wife earns far more than he does.

Mark is a also mass of contradictions, and the natural product of a man in this situation: He is married to a Lean In Feminist, has a smart teenage daughter and also a disaffected white son. This conflict is magnified by the big reveal: His own father had a secret life. Despite presenting as an alpha type, Marks’ father died of AIDs after a lifetime of having sex with men.

Now Mark is wondering how much of his life has been a lie, but he’s also forced to confront his own homophobia. It’s much easier to be fully accepting if you don’t feel you’re related to any gays.

SHANE

The newly married rich white boy who shouldn’t, by rights, have a care in the world, but for the fact he can’t let things go. The story is complicated by the fact that he is correct about the hotel manager ripping off his family by allocating a cheaper room. He’s like a male Karen archetype, but what happens with the Karens of this world are right?

What if a Karen really does need to speak to the manager?

RACHEL

The young Cinderella who has married into a super-wealthy family and is only now realising she’s expected to be a trophy wife.

Again the morality is complicated by the reality that Rachel really should’ve known what she was getting into. The audience assesses this couple’s situation in an instant. Also, Rachel really does seem to be the worst kind of Internet ‘journalist’ (read: click-baiter) whose work is doing damage, at best. The world really would be better off if Rachel followed her husband and mother-in-law’s advice, redirecting her efforts into charity.

Rachel doesn’t seem to realise that Shane would not find that family obnoxious because he is just like them.

THE SULLIVANS

In Season Two we have a different version of the Cinderella story, which makes sense because audiences can’t seem to get enough of Cinderella rags-to-riches plots. Daphne and Cam, the Brad and Stacey couple, are clear candidates for an consensual, polyamorous marriage, if only they could break free of their conservative, idealised version of what happy, heterosexual marriage looks like. Daphne Sullivan has probably grown up on Disney fodder, and we get the sense she is still very childlike in her interactions with her kids. At home, I imagine her snuggling on the couch with her kids, re-watching Frozen 2 after asking the paid help to pop a bowl of buttered corn.

The Internet loves this scene, nominating the actress for all the awards because of facial expressions.

Having absorbed Disney’s main message to little girls: If you believe, it will happen! Daphne is determined to have her happy ending. She only need balance the scales of power within her relationship to a good-looking Alpha type, Cameron, who uses sex with other women — including, competitively, his college friend’s wife — to maintain his own position at the top of the masculine hierarchy. While nothing about The Sullivans’ story is so far pushing beyond archetype, story-interest derives from the manifold ways Daphne has ‘reclaimed justice and power’ within the marriage, including having a blond and blue-eyed son by her personal trainer.

Subtly and effectively, the show lets us know that Cameron is fully aware that his son is not his own, but because of the unspoken truce of silence between the couple, Shane is forced to play a long-term charade. This couple is an extreme example of the unspoken secrets and fantasies that exist in all relationships, to hugely varying degrees. We all half-know things about our partners, and half-knowing takes effort.

THE SPILLERS

Sometimes ‘bromance’ is used to describe when men are obsessed with each other. (We’ve seen plenty of the female version of this in other stories.) I see it as a commentary of how patriarchy works. Cameron isn’t obsessed with his newly rich friend, Ethan. He’s obsessed with the pecking order, and keeping himself at the top of it.

The Spillers are the Silicon Valley couple, who met each other and fell in love before becoming super nouveau tech riche. The Spillers (a meaningful name) juxtapose beautifully against Daphne and Cameron because they pride themselves on their open communication. As Harper says to the fake Stacey-and-Brad Sullivans over a meal, Ethan is ‘honest to a fault’. In an accidentally-caught-in-the-act masturbation scene, we see what Daphne means for ourselves. However, for the Spillers, radical honesty may have cost them their sexual ‘spark’ (attraction).

The story provides an answer to this problem: It is only when Harper is left forever not-knowing whether Ethan really had sex with a hooker that she can reclaim some of that original spark for her own husband.

Ethan’s mind doesn’t work like that at all. It is only once he can convince himself his wife has remained faithful that he can bear to touch her again.

Is this the show itself propagating a conservative message about ‘how men work’ versus ‘how women work’? (Men need complete loyalty whereas women need mystery, and in order for mystery to happen, as Daphne puts it, women must avoid ‘cutting off their husbands’ balls.) Or is this an example of how enculturation has really done a number on our fictional subjects?

Do Ethan and Harper react this way precisely because society has conditioned them to react in this way? A conservative audience will walk away from this show with an affirmation of their pre-existing essentialist take, but this entire holiday with a completely different couple has been an example of rapid enculturation in action. Whether they like it or not, Harper and Ethan have been forever changed by their one week holiday with The Sullivans.

The soundtrack to Flowers is excellent. If you enjoy the quirky soundtrack to The White Lotus, you’ll (coincidentally) likely enjoy the soundtrack to Flowers, which was composed by Will Sharpe’s musician brother, Arthur Sharpe.
DO HARPER AND CAMERON CHEAT?

We’re not actually supposed to know this. Word of God has it (Mike White has said) that we don’t even know if Ethan and Daphne cheat.

(I like this take.)

THE DI GRASSO MEN

Then there’s the philandering American-born Italian father and son, who come under fire from their more enlightened, Stanford educated son for their open (objectifying) ‘appreciation’ of women. The two older men are later revealed to be heavily dependent on the approval of women, which challenges a basic reading of misogyny (but which lines up perfectly with the complex and accurate meaning of misogyny, cf. Kate Manne’s explanation in Down Girl).

Moreover, when we see all three men at the airport, all of them are now turning their heads towards a conventionally attractive young woman walking past. The grandson has become like his father and grandfather, despite his efforts to distance himself from them.

In a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels twist ending, it is revealed to the audience, but not to the hapless male characters, that the enlightened grandson has been played by the sex worker precisely because of his own (benevolently) sexist weakness: Albie has projected his own narrative onto Lucia (one of the poor, victimised sex worker, abused by her so-called pimp).

Here was me thinking, “Wait, Lucia has a pimp? That’s an interesting story choice.” I believed it, too, for a moment because Mike White includes that scene in which we see Lucia crying about how she’s going to hell for doing sex work. That scene is necessary because it’s a red herring. Sure, she has moments like this, but she sure doesn’t have a pimp.

If you re-watch Season Two, keep an eye out for Alessio, who Lucia presents as her pimp, but who is just a bell boy. When we first meet these characters, Lucia says “Hi Alessio!”. Alessio says, “Hey, I’ll call you later.” She says something like “sure, call me”.

This is an excellent storytelling example of a scene which audiences are supposed to forget, but which are all the same necessary. Audiences feel cheated when offered zero clues about a big reveal, but we feel a story is clever if we were successfully duped, too. (By the way, this is not an example of foreshadowing. This is simple set-up and pay-off, since it is not working at a metaphorical level.)

If you want examples of foreshadowing, though, the colour orange, maybe? According to some, this may serve as a subcategory of foreshadowing which relies on allusions and insider-knowledge. Albert Pritchard had this to say:

THE WHITE LOTUS already let us know who is going to die in last week’s Episode 6 “Abductions”.

It’s revealed in the colors and history of cinema. In THE GODFATHER trilogy, oranges are used as an omen for death. Everyone dies in the sight of oranges. The legacy of this symbolism has been carried through film and television across the years.

It’s important to note that ‘orange death’ as omen isn’t just restricted to a physical demise – it can be relational, spiritual, or psychological. In CHILDREN OF MEN, we see a character eating an orange in the backseat right before the apocalyptic car attack.

In MAD MEN Roger Sterling is seen juggling oranges.

In BREAKING BAD, Ted Beneke slips and falls to his demise.

The list of examples can go on forever. From THE WIRE to LOST to REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and more. In last week’s episode, Portia and Tanya have breakfast together. Portia is wearing a GODFATHER shirt, and sitting in front of her is a bowl or ORANGES (the reverse cut of this shot).

Posters are a forgotten art form. They tell us A LOT about a film or series. Two ORANGE slices dominate with the ensemble cast in the middle, but Tanya is the ONLY character who “pops” out from the panel, everyone else sits inside. Tanya is literally touching the orange slice.

Albert Pritchard on Twitter

What do you think?

Albert Pritchard was almost so very right, but probably figured Tanya touching the orange in the poster design was too on the nose. (It’s only one the nose if you are a cinephile and know that the oranges are basically a screenwriter’s in-joke, and if we assume poster designers are motivated by allusive literary foreshadowing rather than good poster design.) The other problem is, pretty much all of the characters can be associated with the colour orange. (See, for instance, the picture of Albie, above, who wears an orange and black shirt. We might read ‘prison uniform’ into that also if we’re close reading for colour.)

Tanya’s husband is missing from the poster art. I believe this foreshadows Greg will be murdered. I also believe Cameron and Daphne will have some sort of relational death. There’s too many shots where he’s specifically dressed in orange while other characters wear muted tones.

Albert Pritchard on Twitter

There’s also some popular wisdom (urban legend?) that smelling oranges (when there are no oranges) predicts a stroke i.e. death.

Back to Albie. Is the grandson really any different from his womanising father and grandfather? In his own way, Albie is objectifying Lucia by failing to appreciate her own agency. An alternative word for ‘objectification’ is ‘derivatization’ (being flattened to a projected single dimension by an unwelcome subject), which skirts the tricky reality that (allosexual) people occasionally like to be objectified, by people they in turn find attractive.

LUCIA AND MIA

It is an interesting social phenomenon to see a number of woman viewers see sex workers Lucia and Mia, and also the venerable version of that (the married version, Daphne) as icons of female empowerment.

With irony:

Without irony?

VALENTINA

The lesbian, straight-talking hotel manager who — like Armond of Season One — has had enough of rich people and their crap.

PORTIA

Portia is Tanya MacQuoid’s “cheugy” millennial assistant who (to her downfall) is attracted to manly men, who she feels is a dying breed in San Francisco. (More on that below.)

Others (probably millennials) parse Portia as Gen Z:

Fashionistas have pointed out that Portia’s hodge-podge fashion seems to indicate she doesn’t know her own style, and extrapolate from this that she doesn’t know her own mind.

While this works in storytelling, I would push back against such extrapolation in real life (I’ll admit, Portia and I seem to shop at the same store). Push back because, in real life, people are either interested in fashion or they are not, yet we are all required to wear clothes. Portia can be seen wearing a Godfather sweater after a trip to see the filming sites. She was never interested in the Godfather yet here she is, wearing the literal shirt, which suggests to me that Portia isn’t motivated to express herself via fashion. But it may also show that she is easily led. Perhaps she fancies she has an interest in The Godfather franchise, now? Or perhaps by wearing the shirt, she’s trying to bring interest on.

There’s a fan theory that Portia is a ghost at the end of Season Two:

Portia left outside Catania Airport with her phone:

  1. Hotel doesn’t call her to check out
  2. Luggage left at hotel
  3. She spends the night there instead ubering 50min to Taormina
  4. Police don’t call her the morning after

This read is fun, but a complete stretch. (I believe she has all her luggage with her, for starters. The passport’s likely in her little drawstring bag when she goes out to dinner with Jack.

The hotel wouldn’t call Portia to check out — they have her boss’s name and credit card. The police probably wouldn’t have her name, let alone her number. Also, young people generally keep their phones on silent because it’s always close enough to be felt buzzing.)

GENRE BLEND OF THE WHITE LOTUS

Like any black comedy, you’re either going to find this funny or you’re not. Black comedy, more than other genres, tends to divide. Some people have the viewing experience that ‘nothing happens’, which I find remarkable. There’s not a wasted interaction. Dialogue is multi-layered. The set-ups have pay-offs, the world is a snapshot of a wider milieu, the web of conflict is complex. There’s plenty happening, often multiple things happening at the same time.

The White Lotus is also described as anthropological drama with an added layer of comedy:

The anthropological sub-genre focuses on the drama derived from human behavior and society at large, and while the story may feature a central protagonist, the story might focus on a specific culture or a broad representation of society.

City of God (2002) is a great example along with some of Spike Lee’s best movies.

Ultimate Guide to Movie Genres — 90+ Genre Examples for Film & TV, StudioBinder

The White Lotus is a classic example of a story about a community rather than an individual, or ‘protagonist’ (a term I don’t like to use because it technically refers to the character who ‘starts the drama’, and belongs more firmly in Aristotelian discourse).

HUMOUR IN THE WHITE LOTUS

Let’s talk about the comedy of The White Lotus, which presents ideas parsed as conservative by conservative audiences and as progressive by progressive audiences — the perennial problem with satire.

BLACK COMEDY

First, what does it mean for comedy to be ‘black’ or ‘dark’? Sometimes, any humour which happens in a crime drama is called ‘black’, probably because any humour at all in a story about murder can feel like an inappropriate uncle wise-cracking at your grandmother’s funeral. Except shows like Breaking Bad and Six Feet Under, and films like Fargo wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular if the comedy elements were sacrificed for deeper darkness.

This is where Animal Kingdom and Ray Donovan fall short. Sure, Animal Kingdom contains some levity in the first few seasons, mostly via the ‘bimbo’, carefree lifestyle of Craig Cody, but when Craig gets sucked back into his addictions, there’s no levity left. By the time Smurf dies, the brothers walk around in a depressive fugue state, caught forever in the machinations of Smurf’s makings, playing out the life of crime she primed them for, as beefcake automata.

An alternative definition of black comedy: the comedy of (il)logic, designed to point out the illogic of a system. These stories are invariably tragedies, because the characters are fatalistically caught in the machinations of a system set up to make them fail (the storytelling aspect Animal Kingdom has down pat). Tragic characters don’t get an anagnorisis — no self-revelation. The story ends or they die (literally or metaphorically) without redemption.

If the writer has done a good job of a black comedy, the audience will see very clearly exactly what characters are doing to self-sabotage. The audience will see characters as negative role models, and may even take the lessons away from the story and apply new insight to their own lives. Or, in an ‘anthropological drama’ like The White Lotus, we’ll likely get to thinking about the times we live in, and how this impacts people’s decisions and morality. The White Lotus does an especially good job of this, but it does require the right audience to avoid a damaging take.

SATIRE

In Season One, the gay man is murdered (though not on purpose, so we can argue his being gay has nothing to do with it). In Season Two, all of the gays are a gang of murderous, greedy villains. This storyline could not have happened 20 or 30 years ago without a different result entirely. It can happen now because characters like Benoit Blanc also exist. (Knives Out)

Someone has created another inversion meme, inverting the “Be gay, do crimes” slogan which encourages the rainbow community to live authentically, regardless of legislation made with bigotry.

We are not at a point where we can have a flipped take on the Bury Your Gays trope and an audience will see it for what it is: A satirical reclamation.

Sure enough, that’s how it’s been parsed by LGBTQ+ news outlets. This is the gay equivalent of the ‘strong, badass female heroine’, who goes around killing people, because ‘women deserve fictional complexity, too’.

But as I keep saying, inversion does not equal subversion. Before we get true subversion, storytellers tend to give us inversion. It’s an evolutionary thing. We are getting more and more complex gay characters in fiction, and writers must, at some point, ask, “Who am I writing for? The absolute bigots?” In the case of The White Lotus, the answer is clearly, no. Audiences are trusted to know (helped by wonderful lines such as the one above) that this is an inversion of a problematic trope, which is now considered history (whether gay marginalisation by means of villainy really is ‘historical’ is beyond the scope of this essay).

Does the gay murder plot of The White Lotus season two subvert gay stereotypes? The villains are stereotypically into froufrou and ostentatious lifestyles they can ill-afford (hence their villainy). This would seem to reinforce the stereotype that gay men (alongside women and especially trans women) are frivolous, appearance driven and not to be taken seriously. However, season one gave us an example of a completely different kind of gay man — an Australian Gen-Xer who absolutely hated the image-based position he was put in as hotel manager, and who ultimately could not live with it. In this season, the yacht captain is revealed to be gay, though not a frivolous type, and then we have the ‘nephew’, who we are not actually encouraged to read as gay, but as as a possible victim of child molestation who has found himself exploited and captured by this wealthy benefactor who is his protector and abuser at once.

“There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

Gore Vidal (who is quoted by Quentin, apparently a friend)

On January 1, 2023, the evil gay meme was created on Twitter:

behind every gay person is a gayer, more evil gay person

@Anania00 (TikTok star Anania Williams

The White Lotus Season Two is very much a part of this meme, being extremely meme-able in the first place.

The Pink News published an article called The viral ‘evil gay’ meme is the chaotic energy we need for 2023.

LGBTQIA+ REPRESENTATION: BALANCING THE SCALES?

However we read these storylines, the writing team behind The White Lotus have been careful to include a broad range of LGBTQ+ characters, and their wish to ‘balance the scales of villainy rep’ explains the subplot of season two’s lesbian subplot involving the hotel manager and the sex worker who would like to secure the job of live musician. The writers seem to be balancing the story in the same way Daphne Sullivan balances out the narrative of her own marriage, in an effort not to villainize.

There is even (possibly) some (gray) asexual representation with the character of Ethan, whose attraction to his wife is more tenuous than culturally dictated for a young, virile American man living in the 2020s. (I wonder how many asexual men in relationships utilise p*rn for physiological release without ever identifying as ace.)

Another interesting insight into the separation of romance and sex comes from the villain, Quentin, who quotes (real-life) American author Gore Vidal: “I can understand companionship. I can understand bored sex in the afternoon. But I cannot understand the love affair.” The separation of sex and other forms of attraction is better understood by the LGBTQIA+ community than by the straight community, and understood best of all by aroaces, who see it the most clearly.

CASUAL TRANSPHOBIA OR CUTTING INSIGHT? SPOILER: IT’S BOTH

When Portia is being wooed by Jack, whose job it is to get Tanya MacQuoid’s assistant out of the way, Portia confides in Tanya that the Di Grasso boy is perfect on paper. He is Stanford educated, employed, wealthy, handsome and nice — and that although there’s nothing wrong with him, that she can put her finger on. Then she throws in something which seems to come out of nowhere, to the point where I wondered if I’d missed something. She says, “He’s not non-binary.”

I wasn’t the only one to feel this way:

[S2E4] what does Portia mean by “and he’s not non-binary”?

When Portia is explaining to Tanya why she what’s to hang out with Albie, she lists a bunch of (mediocre) reasons and finishes with “and he’s not non-binary”. Did I miss something in an earlier episode? Eg. Did she just break up with a nonbinary person or something? Or is it a random throwaway line?

The White Lotus subreddit

Earlier, Portia told Jack he could do with being a bit more aggressive, then rapidly changed the subject, suggesting she doesn’t feel she’s socially permitted to say such a thing. But with Tanya, who is older, she feels safe enough to voice the nature of her attraction. This tells the audience, in case we have not picked it up already, that Portia is attracted to exactly Jack’s type. Whereas Albie is tall and thin (at least, that’s how he presents until he takes his clothes off), Jack has a labourer’s body (or a gym-goer’s body). Even Jack’s name suggests he’s your archetypal lad, compared to the infantilizing diminutive ‘Albie’. As the story progresses we see Jack burp, scratch his bum, addressing a waiter as ‘Hey, geezer’, doing all the lad things. He speaks with a Cockney accent which no doubt appeals to American-born Portia. He exudes sexual confidence. This works.

It is only later that the audience sees the extent to which Portia’s attraction to bad boys has ruined her week, to put it mildly. If she hadn’t been taken in by Jack the Lad, Tanya may even still be alive.

By this reading, the ‘not non-binary’ comment makes sense. But it does lead to a moral question about the responsibility of writers. When fictional characters show their bias, is this the story promoting, accepting and normalising said bias in the real world?

The answer is always this: Bigoted audiences will remain bigots, and cannot be redeemed by anthropological satire. Some viewers will be entirely of Portia’s same ‘type’ and attitude, in which case they will not see that Portia’s biased attitude is the exact thing that leads to her downfall.

If you go to that White Lotus subreddit mentioned above and scan through the replies, you’ll see those conservative takes, from misguided to outright bigotry:

  • It means [Portia’s] relieved he isn’t yet another narcissistic poser.
  • Nonbinary isn’t really a meaningful category. Most people who declare themselves non-binary are saying “I don’t fit into the stereotype of my sex.” Which is extremely narcissistic because nobody fits any stereotype perfectly, and actually most of us don’t fit sex stereotypes to a high degree at all. Most of us don’t “feel like” a man or a woman, it’s just something we are and don’t pay much mind to it except when biology forces us to. This is the reason so many Gen Z are “non-binary.” Because they’re not special for feeling that way, but they don’t realize they’re not special for feeling that way. Portia is vocalizing what we all feel.
  • I think it was just short-hand for “he’s not complicated at all”
  • Just joking about the overabundance of non binary people in the bay area, I suppose.
  • It’s funny because non-binary is the in, new thing for people her age.

Each of these reads evinces the stereotypes which Portia holds herself, to her detriment: Non-binary people are narcissistic, looking for an unfair proportion of attention, “overabundant” (there should be fewer — casual eugenics), not a legitimate gender, complicated and laughable.

One commenter had this to say:

I thought [the non-binary line] was a commentary on the way gen Z tries to be woke (hence knows the terminology) but isn’t actually as respectful as they pretend to be? She felt comfortable making this comment to Tanya as she’s older, but would she have said something like this to Albie or someone else their age?

Dizzy_Amphibian_7465

This aspect of Portia mirrors the false kindness of Olivia from Season One, who, as her mother points out, expresses manifold social justice concerns concerning groups of marginalised identities she has never met, but who is manifestly unkind to her own brother, even though Olivia thinks her brother is autistic (for which she mocks him, rather than supports).

This is actually a right-wing talking point, as can be seen in the headline quoted below:

The White Lotus is not shying away from conservative politics, instead asking self-identified progressives to interrogate how much they actually have in common with the right. By extension, progressive viewers are also prompted to consider how much we have in common with the right. If we can say this about Olivia, where is the line? At what point do we morph into Dennis Prager? Like every point made in this TV show, a conservative viewer won’t experience the same levels.

I have seen on other shows, jokes between women who are perpetually single that it’s difficult to find a good-looking, nice man who is not gay. (See: All The Good Men Are Gay at TV Tropes).

Look out for the set-up and pay-offs in character one-liners. Characters will frequently contradict what they said earlier, or their actions contradict their words. Characters are perfectly at home sitting with two contradictory ideas.

Non-binary gender was never conceptualised by colonised, mainstream straights until Portia’s generation (whether we read her as millennial or Gen Z), and so this is akin to an older version of Portia saying, “He’s not gay,” though even this analogy isn’t perfect, because we can safely presume a gay man is not interested in a sexual relationship with a cishet woman, whereas we can make no such generalisation about a non-binary person, who may in fact be perfect for Portia, were she able to expand her notion of ‘attractive’.

Portia’s non-binary comment is, ironically, a swipe at men like Jack the Lad — the very man she falls for, hook, line and sinker. In the final episode, near the end, we will see Portia approaching Albie in the airport with newfound respect. Although Albie is “not non-binary”, he is still the sort of “feminized” man Portia has been acculturated to reject, so this brief interaction represents a character arc. It’s very likely that Portia will do better in the dating market when she returns home to San Francisco because she has learned from bitter experience to examine the way her own attraction works.

The bigger issue is this: TV shows are still failing to feature a proportionate number of queer characters. That number is currently going down, not up. When there is queer representation, it is overwhelmingly likely to be gay men. In 2021, there was was precisely no representation of non-binary characters. So when a show features plenty of gay men but only a derisive, dismissive mention of a hypothetical non-binary character a character has hypothetically met (but who we have not met), then it feels off. This isn’t anything to do with the show inherently, in that if other shows were making a good job of non-binary rep, this wouldn’t be a problem. No story exists in isolation, and showrunners are responsible for understanding and addressing this.

For more on queer representation on screen, see: In a surprise to absolutely no one, GLAAD has found film studios are still failing the LGBTQ+ community from Pink News.

A direct link to the 2022 Studio Responsibility Index (by GLAAD).

Me, understanding Jennifer Coolidge won’t be back for Season Three (unless as a ghost)