‘The White Lotus’

Eli Zaretsky

Each season of The White Lotus takes place over seven days at a luxury hotel; the first was set in Hawaii, the second in Sicily. I doubt that it is necessary for me to extol the series. Written and directed by Mike White, the first season was the most celebrated TV series of last year and the second, which I will discuss here with spoilers, is likely to outdo it.

A luxury hotel is an ideal setting for understanding contemporary capitalism, since it is occupied by rich elites or ‘guests’, who expect perfect service, and ‘staff’, who do their bidding. The racial and class conflicts between the two groups are prominent in the first (Hawaiian) season, in which a hotel worker is incited to steal a valuable bracelet by a teenage guest with whom he is having sex; and a black spa manager who is thinking of starting her own business is led on by a white would-be investor but then stiffed. The series offers a valuable contrast to shows like Downton Abbey, which portray master-servant relations in organic, mutually satisfying, quasi-medieval terms.

While sex plays an important role in the first series, it is central to the second. A luxury hotel is not only a metaphor for capitalism in the economic sense; it is a place where people go on a ‘moral holiday’, throw off their inhibitions and discover their ‘true’, i.e. sexual selves. By foregrounding the sexual relations and fantasies among and between the staff and the guests, The White Lotus analyses capitalism not only as a system of race and class hierarchies, but also as a libidinal economy.

There is a further twist to this. Hotels, like the entire luxury sector, work by anticipating and calibrating what customers desire. TV viewers are also ‘guests’ – consumers of a quasi-luxury product (HBO). A show like The White Lotus is not only a lens; it is also a mirror. The long, cinematic shots – of the food, the beaches, the scenery, the hotel buildings, the actors – implicate the audience in the fantasy-laden sales pitch of the resort hotel. It often looks more like an ad than a drama. Class does not disappear in the libidinal framework. On the contrary, the show’s array of desires is enmeshed in racial, national and economic hierarchies.

The White Lotus, then, is a modern version of an old narrative technique – Plato’s Ship of Fools, the Decameron, the Canterbury Tales – that purports to describe an entire society by isolating representative types. Where earlier works played with Christian, feudal or classical topoi, The White Lotus riffs on two contemporary theories of the ways that sex, gender and race are enmeshed with power.

The first, derived from popular feminism, argues that children are set on very different paths from the moment they are born, simply because of a relatively minor biological difference. One sex accrues wealth and power while the other is kept subordinate, and this is fundamentally unjust. The feminist idea is complicated by an understanding of race and class. Two substantial pieces in the New York Times have criticised The White Lotus for not being feminist enough: Michelle Goldberg argued that the show ‘didn’t care about toxic masculinity after all’, and Pamela Paul that it is more concerned with the ‘plight of the American man’.

The show also relies, however, on a second theory of sex and power – let’s call it popular Freudianism – according to which, gender is a relatively minor factor when it comes to the important things in life. What all people seek is ‘love’, in the sense of satisfying idiosyncratic, fantasy-laden desires. This is the theory that the luxury goods industry rests on and that feminism has sought to displace, especially since the 1970s. Most people in fact believe versions of both theories, feminism being a correction of popular Freudianism, and both are operative here.

One storyline in Season Two concerns two interlocking and contrasting marriages: Ethan and Harper Spiller, and Cameron and Daphne Sullivan. Ethan has just sold a startup and suddenly become rich, but Harper genuinely doesn’t care about money. What she cares about is that Ethan is sexually uninterested in her, as she realises when she discovers him watching porn and masturbating. Cameron, a financier, was at college with Ethan and rekindled their friendship when Ethan got rich. Cameron is a womaniser, chasing Harper, while Daphne pursues her own liaisons. She is not a caricature – there are no caricatures – but she comes close with her repeated advice to Harper: ‘Don’t allow yourself to be a victim.’

The show has a strong, affirmative theory of marriage. The key to Ethan and Harper’s success in resolving their marital difficulties is that they are honest with one another. Ethan proved this when he confessed to masturbating. When Harper tells Ethan she hasn’t had sex with Cameron he believes her and is right to do so.

A second set of characters comprises a grandfather, father and son. The grandfather, Bert, is a widower; the father, Dominic, is losing his wife because of his philandering; and the son, Albie, a Stanford graduate, is sexually insecure. Dominic blames Bert for passing on the habits that are destroying his marriage, but Bert replies: ‘I loved your mother and your mother loved me.’ Albie learns to become more assertive through a relationship with a sex worker, Lucia, but it turns out she is scamming him. Before he discovers this, however, he persuades Dominic to give her €50,000 and, in return, promises to intervene with his mother to save his parents’ marriage.

The three generations of men have returned to Sicily as the seat of patriarchy – they visit locations from, and argue about, The Godfather – but far from unmasking their patriarchal illusions, the series affirms their masculinity and their paternal and filial relations.

As for Lucia and her friend Mia, far from the ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ stereotype, they are happy and successful businesswomen, one interested in money, the other in a singing career, while their exploits help resolve various conflicts among the hotel staff, all of which revolve around repressed or forbidden sexuality. Prostitution, to be sure, is essentially economic in origin. The White Lotus does not deny this. Still, the show’s basic argument is that prostitution is the counterpart to marriage, its necessary and inevitable complement.

The final story line is the only tragic one, and the one where feminism may have the most to teach us. Tanya is an older rich woman whose husband, Greg, is secretly gay. She has protected her fortune with a pre-nup, so her husband can only get his hands on it by killing her. His lover is part of a circle of older gay men – supposedly friends of Gore Vidal – who play on her vulnerabilities in the attempt to get rid of her. At the end, Tanya kills the men (though not her husband), but dies herself in the effort.

In terms of understanding the libidinal logic of the show, Tanya may be considered a mother-figure. If this interpretation has merit, The White Lotus includes the story of a matricide. What is the relationship between the gang of unmarried gays and the crime of matricide? On the one hand, there are definitely homophobic implications. On the other, the show points up the way male homosexual culture has been transformed by the right to marry.

Taken as a whole, The White Lotus might seem culturally retrograde, relying on outworn stereotypes and discredited conventions. I am sure it sounds that way from my summaries, but it isn’t. The show is very much the product of the feminist and sexual revolutions of our time. However, as with all modern revolutions, not everything is revolutionised. For one thing, the gay rights movement, at least in the United States, evolved in such a way as to prioritise marriage. For another, the mainstream feminist and gay rights movements developed so as to affirm capitalism, and neglect or reject alternative economic systems. For still another, these revolutions occurred against a background of longstanding assumptions concerning gender and sexuality – visible in the Republic, the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales – that were by no means simply negative. The feminist and gay rights movements formulated ideas concerning gender and sex that could hold their own with, and improve on, such assumptions. Society picks and chooses among innovations, affirming some, rejecting others, modifying still others. This is the case with all revolutions, in every sphere.


  • 28 December 2022 at 6:37pm
    Rafael Ferrer says:
    A gift in time, punching the bell prize!

    • 29 December 2022 at 4:20am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Rafael Ferrer
      wow. thank you.

  • 28 December 2022 at 7:41pm
    Max Simpson says:
    'Tanya may be considered a mother-figure'. There is nothing in the White Lotus that frames her character as a mother. If anything, it's the reverse - she is depicted in the role of a child in the first series who hasn't come to terms with the relationshp with her now dead mother.

    • 29 December 2022 at 4:24am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Max Simpson
      that's true enough. she is certainly posed in relation to her mother in the first season. But mothers are not necessarily one psychological type. A lot of my intuition is based on her physicality.

  • 28 December 2022 at 10:50pm
    Ebenezer Boakye says:
    Hmm. There are some curious readings of some of the characters and relationships at play here, none more so than ' The key to Ethan and Harper’s success in resolving their marital difficulties is that they are honest with one another.' I would argue it is their lack of truthfulness that ends up saving their marriage, with Harper hiding the truth about her liaison with Cameron, and Ethan hiding his tryst with Daphne on the beach.

    • 29 December 2022 at 4:27am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ebenezer Boakye
      I can't agree. The Cameron/Daphne marriage is obviously and explicitly based on mutual deception. Can you say that boith marriages are based on deception?, it would be much less interesting..

    • 29 December 2022 at 6:04pm
      Nicholas Rockway says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      But if the relationship is based in honesty because Ethan told his wife he was jacking off, why he didn't he tell her that he cheated on her? That feels somewhat more deceptive to me.

      I agree with you that that does make it less interesting. Frankly that whole storyline was insufferable.

    • 29 December 2022 at 6:27pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Nicholas Rockway
      he didn;t cheat on her, unless you think jacking off is cheating.

    • 4 January 2023 at 10:51am
      Harry Stopes says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I don't think anyone would suggest it is - the commenters above are pointing to the implication made in the final episode that Daphne and Ethan get together on the island.

  • 28 December 2022 at 11:01pm
    Konstantine Matsoukas says:
    For me, the narrative and visual pleasures of the series (both seasons drawn-out murder mysteries, really) outweigh the ideological undercurrents discussed by E.Z. Most clearly of all, the sketchy stereotyping of the background locals gives grounds for thinking M. White only makes token use of post-colonialism. What struck me is how straightforward and prescriptive the actual sex felt, once people did get around to it. Everyone willing and able, lithe and virile, blissfully thrusting away/giving themselves over, never any mess or awkwardness or jokes (w/the welcome exception of Tanya's nervousness with her Sicilian gigolo.) In all, a fairytale depiction of sex or, else, the American canonization of the sexual act, seen ad nauseum in American filmmaking.

    • 29 December 2022 at 4:33am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Konstantine Matsoukas
      Interestingly, the main explicit sex in the second season was Alfie ant he prostitute. Tanya's "sex" was realistically depicted, ie painful. As to post colonialism-- not sure what was missing.

  • 28 December 2022 at 11:04pm
    Vinayak Dewan says:
    ‘When Harper tells Ethan she hasn’t had sex with Cameron he believes her and is right to do so.‘ Quite the contrary. Ethan does not believe her, visibly fantasises about Harper and Cameron having sex in his room, and angrily confronts Harper about the cheating until she confesses to only kissing Cameron. Ethan then proceeds to confront Cameron in a brilliantly homoerotic underwater fight scene. When Ethan and Harper’s dead bed spell eventually ends, it’s after Ethan has taken Daphne’s good advice to ‘do what you have to do not to feel like a victim of life’, and wandered away with her to settle scores with Cameron. If the show gives us a strong, affirmative theory of theory of marriage, then, it’s certainly not the uncommunicative Ethan and Harper!

    • 29 December 2022 at 4:40am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Vinayak Dewan
      Etan turns on to Harper by fantasizing about Cameron and Harper being together. Not only is this what René Girard calls mimetic desire, this is specifically referenced in the show, though not about Ethan and Harper, rather about Ethan and Cameron. That t
      he latter two have a homoerotic relationship is certainly true but it does not contradict what I said about Ethan and Harper. Read DH Lawrence, Sons anLd overs on this.

    • 29 December 2022 at 5:46am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      also Harper's desire is to be desired, Brilliantly porteayed by Aubrey Plaza.

    • 29 December 2022 at 10:15am
      Tiago Santos says: @ Vinayak Dewan
      @ Vinayak Dewan Hear, hear.

  • 29 December 2022 at 10:19am
    Tiago Santos says:
    Quentin describes Greg, under a pseudonym, as unfortunately straight and thus unable to fully reciprocate his affection, I believe.

    • 29 December 2022 at 3:43pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Tiago Santos
      then what motivates the attempted murder by Quentin?

    • 29 December 2022 at 7:15pm
      Tiago Santos says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Greg is the only person he ever loved, and there's the palazzo upkeep, as I understood it.

    • 29 December 2022 at 10:01pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Tiago Santos
      fair enough

  • 29 December 2022 at 11:15pm
    Brian Milton says:
    I’m afraid this review missed the interesting parts of the TV series in order to pidgeon hole it into popular categories.

    • 30 December 2022 at 4:26am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Brian Milton
      how about saying. what you mean. what did i leave out? wwhat were the popular categories?

    • 30 December 2022 at 11:53am
      CarpeDiem says: @ Brian Milton
      That is a vapidly bald assertion. How about offering a proper argument backed by some evidence ?

  • 30 December 2022 at 4:03pm
    Martin Davis says:
    Good to see what really gets the comments column really buzzing. According to Rotten Tomatoes the critics love it - not so much the audiences. The peculiarities of the plutocracy in the safety of your own living room.

    • 30 December 2022 at 6:59pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Martin Davis
      the audiences. love it. The proletariat loves to watch shows about the rich.

  • 2 January 2023 at 3:32am
    Ken Gelder says:
    'The White Lotus 2' is...a 'libidinal economy'! Well spotted. But there are so many errors of judgement and interpretation here. For example: Tanya, as another correspondent notes, is NOT a 'mother figure'. Saying she is because of your male 'intuition' is doesn't mean anything to anyone except you. (She doesn't even 'adopt' the younger women in her orbit: rejecting the black hotel worker in season 1 and waving her assistant away in season 2.) It's another male fantasy to suggest gender is a 'minor factor', it represses the gendered nature of the encounters in almost every scene in the series (e.g. when Bert and his son and grandson arrive at a house full of women who tell them to fuck off). White has said he's 'gay-ish' in an interview; but the two seasons both relish acts of gay sex and kill off their gay protagonists (who are also cast as parasitical in WL2). You could put that into this particular libidinal economy and see where it takes you. The two young girls, a sex worker and an aspirational singer, go room to room and fuck everyone in the hotel, almost. A lot of gender here, you may have noticed; and they win at the end. Hilarious outcome but even this isn't new: the victorious-but-nonetheless-exploited sex worker (you might want to move on from 'prostitute') is a familiar trope. WL is pretty white (so white it glows), it's a lot of fun but it mostly reconciles its aspirational white hetero couples at the end. It doesn't say much to claim it's 'the product of the feminist and sexual revolutions of our time', it would be bizarre if it wasn't.

    • 2 January 2023 at 4:15am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ken Gelder
      I kind of agree with most of this. Of course gender is everywhere. ALso, regarding Tanya: you seem to think that she is not a m0ther figure because she rejects younger women. Anyway

    • 2 January 2023 at 4:18am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ken Gelder
      One other thing-- I rewatched the last episode and I missed something important: Ethan sleeps with Daphne and that is what saves his marriage to Harper-- it arouses him an d builds his confidence. Here is a really important thing that affects my argument about marriage. My basic point remains concerning the relations of feminism and psychoanalysis.

    • 2 January 2023 at 2:22pm
      Ken Gelder says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      'regarding Tanya: you seem to think that she is not a m0ther figure because she rejects younger women...'
      That and the fact that she hasn't got any kids, so far as I'm aware. You on the other hand seem to think she's a mother because of an 'intuition...based on her physicality'. Not much to add here except: intuition isn't doing you any favours!

    • 3 January 2023 at 3:51pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ken Gelder
      intuition combines with a general appreciation of the basis of white lotus in the fantasies of family life leads m e to view Tanya as a mother figure. Here rejecting her daughters is consistent with the idea that she is a mother figure

    • 4 January 2023 at 3:23am
      Ken Gelder says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      I have no idea what this means, sorry to say so but your comments make no sense at all. (Let's not pretend that they ever did. Not even sure what your article is doing on this usually fairly reliable blog...).

    • 6 January 2023 at 5:45pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Ken Gelder
      I think you are reading it ungenerously. Do you know a better reading of white lotus?

  • 2 January 2023 at 7:45am
    Vicki Flannery says:
    Pigeon holing the White Lotus in a feminist Marxist framework doesn't resonate with me... to start with I'm sure elites rom Aristotle to Xi Jinping have enjoyed the pleasure of luxury resorts. The real art of the series is that it nails the hypocrisy of rich liberal elites and the honey pot they provide to everyone else, despite gender or sexual preference. I particularly liked Quinn's END HOMELESSNESS tshirt

    • 2 January 2023 at 10:47am
      Martin Davis says: @ Vicki Flannery
      Well, choose your poison. Liberal hypocrisy or oligarchic distain. The latter often comes with distinctly non-liberal attitudes. And does not welcome exposure, however fictive.

    • 2 January 2023 at 3:53pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Martin Davis
      I dont mean to "pigeon hole." I dont think I have. There is always more going on than is apparent on the surface. I think the show does a lot more than ailing hypocrisy. We all do more than we know about.

    • 2 January 2023 at 3:53pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Vicki Flannery
      i answered Martin Davis rather than you by accident.

  • 3 January 2023 at 1:14pm
    terry sputford says:
    Tanya is the only tragic figure in the show given her history of abuse at the hands of men, straight and gay, but her tragedy is fudged at the end. In the almost ludicrous denouement she is sacrificed for her very brief empowerment and has to see out the series like some kind of beached whale/sea monster. A grotesque end for a character that seldom rose above a grotesque and at times seemed more like an exercise in misogyny, matriarch or not.

    • 4 January 2023 at 4:13am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ terry sputford
      good comment.

    • 4 January 2023 at 8:28am
      terry sputford says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      It's a pity the final episode was such a mess. All the intrigues seemed to conclude in unsatisfying , conventional ways. After a sustained focus on sex in about as progressive a way as could be imagined for mainstream tv, the conclusion offered us 'love'. And Greg 's significance for the plot but absence from the screen left it feeling unbalanced.

    • 6 January 2023 at 5:49pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ terry sputford
      everyone learned something from having sexual repression lifted, except tanya. Even the prostitutes learned something, arguably.

    • 12 January 2023 at 9:39am
      terry sputford says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Was Tanya sexually repressed? I can't think of any evidence for it.

  • 3 January 2023 at 9:22pm
    Camus says:
    You really should have typed a spoiler signal at the beginning. Is this on B.B.C.?

    • 4 January 2023 at 4:12am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Camus
      I say there are spoilers right at the start. I dont know if its on BC.

    • 4 January 2023 at 8:07am
      Karen Forster says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      Yes, unfortunately you did miss the Ethan/Daphne denouement, which though implicit is fairly central. Additionally, as Tiago states above, Greg ( Quentin's 'Steve' ) is specifically characterised as straight. A pair of pretty glaring misreadings.
      The show as a whole is reasonably entertaining fluff; any attempt to elevate it beyond that feels somewhat strained. A piece of fiction populated with the stock figures of whores with hearts of gold, rapacious gays, repressed lesbian career women, chirpy cockney 'rent boys' with a past, rich wife swapping couples etc. etc. would need a little more art than the 'White Lotus' exhibits to transcend its clichés.

    • 4 January 2023 at 8:09am
      steve kay says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      What is not on the BBC is the recording of Lulu in the first performance in three acts in Paris in 1979. Conducted by Boulez, directed by Patrice Chereau. Theresa Stratas as Lulu and Yvonne Minton as Countess Geschwitz. Freely available on YouTube. Just thought I’d mention it.

    • 6 January 2023 at 5:52pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Karen Forster
      I've thought a lot about the Ethan/Daphne episode. Obviously the suggestion is that they have sex. However, in my view this makes no sense. I dont think I misread it, I think its. a flaw in the writing. Neither Harper nor Ethan have sex outside their marriage. THat is the only way to make =sense of the show. As to Greg, he is obviously bisexual.

    • 6 January 2023 at 5:52pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ steve kay

  • 7 January 2023 at 6:38pm
    Patricia Cameron says:
    Interesting read on "The White Lotus." One might want to consider the various ways in which "feminism" is actually a plurality of theories, some of which pose major objections and promising alternatives to capitalism. Indeed, the variety of feminism that did not challenge capitalism seems an early variant - the one portrayed in such movies as "Working Girl" (1988) in which all a woman need dream of is to occupy some femininized version of the business suit and the C-Suite.

    • 8 January 2023 at 10:42pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Patricia Cameron
      excellent point, thank you,

  • 11 January 2023 at 10:54pm
    John Cagan says:
    You're right. It does seem culturally retrograde, relying on sexual stereotypes and discredited conventions. I made it through the first series, wincing in disbelief and feeling sorry for the actors, but thanks to your spoilers I have no need to endure the second.

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