- Evan Laslo
The White Lotus: When Trouble Meets Paradise, by Caroline Cruise
I’ve often heard you don’t truly know someone until you travel with them. Close quarters and new environments bring out different sides of people, for better or for worse.
HBO’s new mini-series, The White Lotus, pushes this idea to the extreme, depicting the dramatic internal conflicts of the White Lotus, a luxurious Hawaiian resort. This satirical comedy-drama portrays the intersections of race, class, and gender when people from different backgrounds gather under unusual circumstances. One of my favorite storylines, following the wealthy Mossbacher family, turns Gen Z stereotypes on their head by discussing how the upper class of our socially conscious generation reckons with its own privilege.
We’re first introduced to the Mossbacher family on the boat ride to the White Lotus. Louis Armstrong’s On A Coconut Island echoes as college sophomores Olivia Mossbacher and her friend, Paula, craft elaborate—and entirely fictitious—backstories for their fellow vacationers. As the girls judge the guests, the camera pans to the rest of the family: parents Nicole and Mark, and their technology-obsessed, youngest son, Quinn. Carrying their superiority complexes with them throughout the episode, the girls read Freud and Nietzsche by the poolside, roll their eyes at Mark and Nicole’s “First World problems,” and bully Quinn, all the while having their petty disputes.
When Paula connects with Kai, a busboy at the resort, a deep divide forms between the girls. Paula tries to hide the relationship from Olivia, who becomes jealous and flirts with Kai behind her back. Olivia’s easygoing facade fades when her friend has something that she cannot take. As the show progresses, her actions reveal her selfishness and lack of self-awareness. For example, she criticizes her mother for being the CFO of a large SEO company despite her mother paying for the vacation.
Even her friendship with Paula, the only hotel guest who’s a person of color, seems like an attempt to increase Olivia’s social capital. During a family dinner, Olivia puts Paula on the spot by using her as an example to prove a point about race and diversity in the workplace. She uses Paula as a prop and doesn’t consider whether Paula wants to be the center of the conversation. Going to college might’ve made Olivia more aware of the privilege her family holds, but it didn’t give her any self-awareness. Olivia is willfully oblivious to the privilege she carries and how she benefits from it.
On the other hand, Paula recognizes and wants to fix the injustices around her. She sympathizes with Kai after learning that the hotel lies on land that was stolen from his family. She’s a character that you want to root for, up until the moment she convinces Kai to steal from the Mossbachers’s safe. Naturally, the plan goes horribly wrong and Kai is arrested. Paula, meanwhile, sits in silence and faces no consequences for her actions. Though well-intentioned, Paula’s plan was largely fueled by her own guilt and desire for revenge, as opposed to any real sense of justice.
During the end of the trip, Olivia attempts to salvage their friendship by vowing she’s different from her family. Paula responds that as much as she pretends otherwise, the Mossbachers are Olivia’s “tribe,” or the people that hold similar morals and values to her. However, Paula’s selfish actions suggest that the Mossbachers might be her tribe too. In one of the final scenes of the show, Paula is sandwiched between the Mossbachers on the plane as she reads Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism. While Paula is more socially aware than the Mossbachers, who see no problem with being served from people whose land and culture was stolen from them, she still carries the power and privilege to walk away from situations that others have to live.
Olivia and Paula’s storylines leave a lot to unpack. Olivia’s character closely mirrors the performative allyship demonstrated by many members of Gen Z, especially on social media. With technology at our fingertips, we’re very aware of the injustices around the world. However, it’s much easier to feign sympathy than actually help others. On the other hand, Paula’s storyline demonstrates that meddling sometimes does more harm than good. I never expected her character, who showed much more promise, to cause more harm than Olivia.
The closing scene of The White Lotus shows the hotel staff, sans Kai, welcoming a new group of vacationers. The show doesn’t offer a satisfying resolution, but it wasn’t supposed to. At the end of the day, the people with money have control. And chances are, they’re not going to give it up.