TV

Finding New Life at The White Lotus

When the Perfect Vacation Becomes More of a Crucible

Blake Nail / 9.13.21

If you were to stroll past a blooming white lotus, you’d likely not notice it as anything out of the ordinary. At least, I wouldn’t. However, this flower is a symbol of purity, hope and sometimes even rebirth/new life. It’s also the name of the latest hit show on HBO Max. You’ve probably seen reviews, previews and praise for this new series that’s already been greenlit for a second season. If you’re like me, you might’ve even begun the first episode and thought to yourself: “What am I watching?” The goldish tint to every scene and the riveting (sometimes anxiety producing) music is uniquely entertaining. But the hook for the show is undoubtedly it’s cast of characters who lack any self-awareness.

The show comes from a Mockingbird favorite, Mike White, the writer of School of Rock. White is obviously familiar with the power of the Law and the good news of being loved as one is, School of Rock highlighting that change comes from being taken as you are and not gold stars on the wall. But in this show we see a cast of characters that could be best described as deplorable. These are not somewhat innocent school children under the oppressive regime of a private school. No, these are privileged, upper-class travelers looking for the benefits of purification at the spa and resort called The White Lotus in Hawaii.

But the sense of deplorableness doesn’t make them unwatchable. In fact, they aren’t exactly anomalies. All of us desire the picture perfect vacation shown in advertisements and movies, only to find out that the realities of life we tried to escape have snuck into our luggage. For example, the entire cast of hotel attendees are caught up in doing something. Whether it’s the man fighting to get the room he paid for, which begins as a justified battle and ends up being a vacation ruining war. Or the new wife second guessing her decision after seeing her husband’s true colors. Then there’s another husband having a mid-life crisis after finding out he doesn’t have cancer, who then becomes privy to information about his father that spirals him into an identity crisis. All the while, his wife debates where to position her camera for her important business meeting with China. And along for the ride is the woman preparing to spread her mother’s ashes and the two teenagers on the hunt for drugs, or perhaps a boy. In a sense, the characters are human. Flawed, preoccupied with self and unable to rest even in a setting designed to be relaxing.

The White Lotus resort might promise new life, but it merely preserves the status quo (or worse).

In their wake, these characters torment the staff and other hotel goers with their obliviousness towards self-awareness. They practically drive a drug addict back to his DOC, mislead someone about a prospective business deal and bait someone to burglarize a guest only for them to get arrested resulting in their life being ruined. The show deals with the issues of colonialism, racial dynamics, and white privilege. But underneath it all is this sense of a completely flawed humanity. Everyone has something dysfunctional about them and they are all too busy to see it. That’s one way the law tends to work. Sure, it can be heavy, slamming you down into the ground. It’s a cruel ruler when you’re attempting to better yourself. But another aspect is the distractive nature. Not only does it not provide true change; it also steers your vision away from the devastation you leave behind in your attempts at it.

This unable-to-rest-on-vacation trope is extremely common and a well-known human quality. In today’s world we are inundated with news stories, work opportunities, social media, and a constant flow of new content for our entertainment pleasure. But on the show, one character stands out among the rest. Quinn is on vacation with his dad (the one having a mid-life crisis), his mother (important business woman), as well as his sister and her friend (teenagers looking for drugs). He plays the typical disengaged teenager absorbed with his devices, clinging to them even in his sleep. His father tries to get him to be involved, but he only does so begrudgingly.

Quinn’s story becomes particularly interesting when he’s forced to sleep on the beach because his sister won’t let him sleep in the living room.

How or why his parents allow such a thing to happen only shows how self-preoccupied the parents are. The beach slumber leads to Quinn’s metaphorical death when his devices are ruined by the ocean’s creeping waves on the shore. After finding them ruined, he storms into his parent’s hotel room demanding new ones immediately. Quinn is helpless and hopeless, unaware of how he’ll survive the terrible beauty of the island. His parents refused to give in to his technological addiction and he’s left alone to do, well, nothing.

Quinn is forced to be. To actually rest. And while he does so, he witnesses the wonder of the island. As the sun sets one night, he watches a whale burst out from the ocean before him. This is the spark for the passion he will soon have, a resurrection of sorts. Later, he observes a Hawaiian rowing team meet for practice every morning on the sandy shore. As he watches this, he’s drawn out of his death into a new life. Much to his surprise, he’s called on to participate when a fellow rower is missing from the team. He continues to practice with them daily, his family completely ignorant to his whereabouts.

The closing scene of the series shows Quinn paddling out again with the team, having snuck away from his family at the airport and leaving them behind. Going back with them would be a return to what he died to already. Or as Saint Peter puts it, like a dog going back to his vomit. Quinn seems to be the only one who truly found peace and new life at The White Lotus. Not only that, he’s found freedom. Creator Mike White puts it like this:

I thought it’d be interesting to have a kid who doesn’t have much of a life, and is a creature of this time, have this numinous experience and see going back [to his previous life] as a kind of death. I’m not necessarily fantasizing about paddling to Fiji, but being somewhere where I’m free from my devices, free of the discourse, free of all the conversations that he’s experiencing at dinner between his mom and his sister.

It’s comical how that tends to happen. One must die in order to find life. As Jesus said: those who lose their life will find it. We learn to be something when we finally stop trying to enact it by our own actions. All our attempts at purifying ourselves and we still come out with dirt under our fingernails. Real purification is not a byproduct of our actions, but God’s. And so we are called to die to our self, the giving up of ‘doing’. The invitation to bear fruit, or blossom, if you will, isn’t found in our manic attempts at purifying ourselves or creating our own hope through our incessant need to be the doer. Actually, there’s good news on that note. God’s gratuitous grace is found six feet under, buried like a seed awaiting its new life. Or, in this case, a pure, bright white lotus with petals aplenty.