[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “The White Lotus” Episode 6, “Departures” — the season finale.]
Despite the wrenching twists and stinging hilarity peppered throughout an exemplary “White Lotus” finale, a moment from Episode 5 hovered over the ending chapter.
Sitting at the breakfast table (pre-robbery), Mark Mossbacher (Steve Zahn) tries to improvise a sage, discomforting response to Paula (Brittany O’Grady), who left dinner the night prior when, per Olivia (Sydney Sweeney), she was upset that “[Native] Hawaiians had to dance for a bunch of white people.” Acknowledging her objection while plowing ahead with his own half-assed take on why she’s wrong, Mark admits “imperialism was bad,” before asking, “But it’s humanity. Welcome to history. Welcome to America. I mean, what are we going to do? Nobody cedes their privilege. That’s absurd.”
And yet, just a day later, his son Quinn tries to do just that. Fed up with his lonely life back home and excited at the prospect of having friends, Quinn tells his family he wants to stay in Hawaii. “The guys need a sixth for their crossing […] and in the spring, we’re all going to do a Hōkūle‘a through all of Polynesia, which sounds amazing,” he says. Once obsessed with handheld screens, Quinn now claims he doesn’t even want a phone; he just wants to row with his new buds, and that’s exactly what he does to end the season — fleeing the airport, heading back to the shore, and canoeing into the sunset.
Now, there’s no use pretending that a 16-year-old kid paddling away from home equates to ceding his privilege; odds are his mom (Connie Britton) and dad yanked him back to the mainland within a day or two, and even if they didn’t Quinn is still a teenager. He’s just seen the real-world for the first time (rather than whatever he caught in his peripheral vision), and he’s probably not equipped to handle it. Odds are high that in a few years, Quinn will be bragging about the time he canoed around Hawaii to a sorority pledge at his Cornell frat party.
Still, Quinn’s ending offers the slightest glimpse of hope. The closing shot’s parting message isn’t as simple as “the children are our future” or as easy as paddling away from the hotel’s inherent problems. It’s also notable that when the resort vacation comes to a close, only two of writer-director Mike White’s characters are changed for the better. One is Quinn and the other is Belinda (Natasha Rothwell), whose transactional relationship with Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) turned out to be one-way. It was no surprise that Ms. McQuoid ended up prioritizing a fleeting personal obsession (one-foot-in-the-grave Greg, played by Jon Gries) over a professional endeavor intended to help others. It was no surprise to Belinda, either, considering how carefully she danced around the subject whenever she and Tanya got together, ostensibly to discuss their business.
But that didn’t make the final decision ache any less. “Hurt people hurt people,” the old saying goes, and while the message certainly applies to the no-longer-grieving Tanya and Belinda’s week-long relationship, it’s missing the power dynamic that made this betrayal more than just bad timing. Tanya did use her money to control Belinda, dangling the chance to run her own business like a brick of cash on the end of retracting fishing line. Whenever Tanya needed a shoulder to cry on she’d mention their prospective healing parlor, knowing that Belinda couldn’t ignore the opportunity, which means Belinda couldn’t ignore the person controlling that opportunity. Tanya knew this deep down, in the same nearly buried space where Belinda knew this offer was too good to be true.
Money makes all the difference. Tanya is a guest at the hotel and Belinda’s job is to take care of her. That was always at the core of their relationship, and when Tanya needed a favor, a little extra special care, she instinctively fell back on the one asset that never lets her down: her money. I don’t believe Tanya to be a cruel person, but what she did was exactly that. Understanding how her privilege affects others could’ve saved Belinda a lot of pain. Instead, she learned the hard way, and she did learn: When another hotel guest came crying to Belinda (Alexandra Daddario’s Rachel), the spa manager walked away. “Want my advice?” she asks, almost to herself. “I’m all out.”
Could a kind word in that moment have kept Rachel from going back to her horrible, super-rich husband, Shane (Jake Lacy)? Maybe, but Belinda wasn’t going to let another guest treat her like a prop — like she has to help them, not because it’s her job but because “helping” is her identifying characteristic as a human being. She’s done with that, even if she still has to wave like she means it for the next group of guests.
As is so painfully illustrated throughout “The White Lotus,” the service industry hinges on those in service going above and beyond their job description to make sure patrons are happy. Often that can lead to the privileged crossing lines and the disadvantaged smiling through it. Maybe it starts within the customer-vendor relationship — something seemingly innocent like asking for a massage to help with a sudden flare-up. Maybe there’s even a benefit for the masseuse to make the extra time, like a generous tip. But if the patron isn’t aware of their power it’s too easy to conflate good service with friendship — for the person who has money to take advantage of the person who needs money — and things only spiral downward from there. (Just ask Armond — oh wait, you can’t.)
When I spoke to Mike White at “The White Lotus” premiere he said the creative inspiration for the first season stemmed from his interest in money’s power over people. “I’d always wanted to do a show that kind of got into money and how money can pervert even our most intimate relationships — how money has such an influence within marriages, interactions with strangers, friends, and loved ones, and all of that,” he said. “I thought it would be interesting to talk about the ethics of vacationing in other people’s realities.”
That last line relates more to how Mark Mossbacher’s imperialist ancestors overran Native Hawaiians to take control of their islands, but it’s still a story of those in power abusing those without it to get what they want. “The White Lotus” makes clear how exploitation continues today, in the macro and the micro, on the island and off of it. This is humanity. This is history. This is America. But acknowledging as much doesn’t mean accepting it, just as recognizing your privilege isn’t the same as reckoning with it. Without change, more people are going to end up hurt — or worse.
Rest easy, Armond. Your tour of service is over. But the cycle of privilege rolls on.
“The White Lotus” Season 1 is now available to stream in full via HBO Max. Season 2, which will be set at a different White Lotus destination and feature a new cast of characters, has been ordered at HBO.