The recently-released second season of HBO’s dark comedy series The White Lotus has been more successful than the first. This clever social satire follows the fortunes of a number of guests of the White Lotus luxury hotel chain, as well as the fates of the hotel staff members employed to make their guests’ dreams come true. Originally intended to be a six-episode limited series, the first season, set in Hawaii, was such a hit that creator Mike White was persuaded to continue the series. The second season is set in stunning Sicily.
In both seasons, the focus is simultaneously placed on both the hotel guests and the hotel staff members, with guests of more humble origins arguably acting as audience surrogates who find themselves — sometimes quite literally — in bed with wealth.
The series incisively points to the vast economic inequalities experienced by its characters, their different worlds intertwining to highlight shocking contrasts. For instance, in the first season, hotel manager Armond, played by Murray Bartlett, has to simultaneously deal with Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge), a wealthy, troubled woman, who is desperate for a massage, and hotel trainee Lani (Jolene Purdy), who feels obliged to disguise her pregnancy to avoid missing the opportunity of getting a job at the White Lotus — and finds herself giving birth in her future boss’ office.
The stark difference between the matters worrying these women is echoed in the second season, in which the personal, often gender-based concerns of the wealthiest American characters are markedly different from those of the local non-wealthy characters, whose choices are restricted by class, culture and context.
The message of the show can barely be missed: money defines and structures all human experiences and relationships, be they familial, professional or personal. Creator Mike White discussed this in an interview about the show:
Mike White (American accent): There’s the creative inspiration for me, which was, I’d always wanted to do a show just that got into money and how money basically can pervert even our most intimate relationships, and how money has such an influence even within marriages, within interactions withstrangers and friends and loved ones.
Another important element in the success of The White Lotus is its use of suspense. Both seasons start with the audience finding out that someone has just died. An aura of mystery and a sense of danger surround all storylines. Starting with a body (or bodies!) being found may be an old trick, but it certainly keeps the audience hooked. The show never ceases to be fun to watch, but there is a lurking darkness throughout it which points to the twisted aspects of the inequality of the economic conditions experienced by its characters.
Mike White: [In] the first couple of episodes you’re just following these tourists and then you shift and start to realise that there’s [ther are] problematic aspects to all of it, and how the vacation is not exactly escapism and that you’re right in the thick of all of these cultural reckonings that are happening.
The White Lotus is very much a product of the Covid-19 pandemic. White conceived of it as a show that could be made in an isolated location, where filming would not be interrupted by the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, and where actors could work in a safe environment.
Mike White: HBO came to me and they were stressing because, a lot of their shows had to shut down for Covid, so they were trying to come up with creators who could create a show that had a lo-fi Covid footprint in the hopes that this show wouldn’t be shut down. So the idea of doing something in one location was kind of the mandate.
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