Trouble in Paradise

Living your best life does not prevent it from unraveling.

Sam Bush / 1.12.23

Any murder mystery that is worth its salt will keep you guessing who the killer is. Is it the glittering diva or the unassuming doctor; the taxi driver or the opera singer? There may be an obvious suspect, but be wary of the character with no evidence stacked against her. Things are rarely as they seem!

So it goes with the latest buzzworthy show, The White Lotus. If ridiculously attractive people galivanting around stunningly exotic locations isn’t a big enough a hook, try a storyline where every single beautiful person is probably the murderer. Even the characters who are genuinely trying to make the world a better place eventually seem capable of killing someone.

On the surface, the White Lotus, an international luxury hotel chain, offers a 21st-century heaven. Armond, the hotel manager in the first season, orders his bellhops and maitre-d’s to attend each guest as if they are “the special, chosen baby child of the hotel.” The resort is both cushy and authentic. “I was told that the cheese here was made by a blind nun in a basement!” says Tanya, the hilariously self-absorbed heiress and loyal customer. Truly, life at any White Lotus hotel is as fulfilling as money can buy.

To be honest, the best the world can offer actually sounds pretty good. As the essayist L.P. Smith once said, “There are few sorrows, however poignant, in which a good income is of no avail.” It’s a reasonable argument, that even your crumbling marriage could be assuaged by a seaside foot massage, at least for an hour or two. In that sense, these characters are the world’s least likely murder suspects. They are the success stories of society. And yet, living their best lives does not prevent them from unraveling. As Aristotle once said, people who have great beauty, strength, or wealth “find it difficult to follow rational principles” and are likely to grow “into violent and great criminals.” It’s almost as if he’s seen the show.

Despite the Insta-worthy scenery, the show’s writer and director Mike White has a knack for presenting human nature without a filter. In the New York Times, Alexis Soloski aptly described White’s talent for depicting “the gulf between the people we imagine ourselves to be and the people we actually are.” White’s cast of characters are compellingly miserable and conflicted. From Portia, the recent college grad who is desperate “to be satisfied” to Mark, the aimless dad who wants nothing more than to be respected, each person is dealing with sorrows that run deeper than the deepest of pockets. No matter how exquisite the scenery is, no matter how impeccable the makeup, the integrity of each person is staged in the natural, unflattering light of day. In that kind of light, there is only one thing needed: justification.

In the light of day, sin is evenly distributed among every character. Each person is either trying to right their wrongs, justify their wrongs, or reveal someone else’s wrongs. “We’re all just trying to win the game of life,” one of them says, but, from where we sit, it’s quite clear that all of them are losing.

In every character’s fight to be justified, they are thoroughly convinced of being the only innocent person in the room. Everyone is simultaneously the protagonist in their own story and the antagonist in someone else’s story. In each person’s eyes, they are simply “doing their best.” Each person’s sin — whether it’s lust, self-pity, entitlement or self-righteousness — can be easily explained and pardoned in their own minds. Meanwhile, the speck in their neighbor’s eye is undeniable and unforgivable. Everyone has an enemy disguised as a friend and, more often than not, it’s oneself.

What gives the show its brilliant stroke of dark-comedy is the lack of control every character has over their lives. Truth be told, we don’t know who the killer or the casualty is until the end of each season (both seasons open with an unidentified body and it’s anyone’s guess which character it is). In the meantime, accidents and plot twists happen regularly. The morally corrupt become repentant. The honorable become incensed. It is hard to keep track of whose side you’re on when characters change according to the surprises that life throws their way.

In this way, The White Lotus is a dramatized, fantasy version of reality. The killer is not a sinister, all-powerful, evil fiend. On the contrary, he (or she) walks among us! The enemy is all-together human. Likewise, while most of us assume otherwise, we are all capable of doing the thing we never thought we would do or becoming the person we never thought we would be. Whether it’s our own mother, an adulterer or somewhere in between, there may be a day when we don’t recognize the figure staring back at us in the mirror.

If you are looking for hope, you will probably need to look elsewhere than The White Lotus (with one exception). While it will surely make you laugh, the show’s message is dark: life is seemingly random, people are capable of terrible things, and you are not in control.

Only the stunning beauty of the natural landscape stands in stark contrast to self-inflicted human sorrow. In between the petty bickering of a young married couple and the woeful grumblings of a lonely heiress, we are given a short scene of waves swelling in a brooding ocean or the peak of Mount Etna billowing smoke. These clips are more than just palate cleansers in between scenes. They symbolize a power that exists outside and beyond human schemes and struggles. A power that cannot be bought and sold, but continually offers itself as a pure gift. The resort may be hell, but it is surrounded by heaven on earth. Were the vacationers to look, if only for a moment, beyond themselves to what lies on the horizon, they might actually be found by the salvation they seek. After all, things are rarely as they seem.

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