I think I’ve said it in this space before, but just in case I haven’t, the pandemic has turned me into a real-life Wanda Maximoff who copes with the big and small anxieties of her life by turning to comfort TV. Prior to the pandemic, I was already an anxious TV watcher--for example, it takes me years to start shows like Game Of Thrones, and I often cover my face or leave the room when I cannot handle the suspense (or violence).
But this anxiety is not unique to dramas. I get major second-hand embarrassment from real people, and I also get it from those on TV comedies. So it makes sense that during this time of great uncertainty, I wash dishes, cook meals or fall asleep to shows (mostly sitcoms) that I’ve already seen before. I watch comedies and dramas with which I am familiar because it gives me great comfort to know what’s coming. And I know I am not alone.
The White Lotus is everything I am not supposed to want to watch right now. With its dark humor, it presents me with a world in which the characters’ own anxieties give way to my own. It is a show in which I feel great pain when I witness people acting like fools. At a time in which my personal and professional lives (along with the state of the world) are making me feel overwhelmed and sad, I often turn to an Ugly Betty or a Mindy Project episode to help me cope. But for the last five weeks, on Sunday nights, strangely, with all of the anxieties it can produce in me, I have been looking forward to my weekly, cringy, anxiety-ridden date nights with The White Lotus.
The White Lotus is a show that feels painfully true. It is a show that reminds me of how I have felt about my profession or about my writing (cue Rachel: “I’m not great. I’m not excellent”). It is a show that reminds me of uncomfortable dinners or meetings or trips when I’ve been the only one of me. It reminds me of the privilege I’ve lacked, but it also reminds me of the privilege I now hold. It makes painfully obvious the trips I could never take when I was a child living in Mexico, and the trips (pre-pandemic) I’ve been able to afford and share with my family since I became a US citizen, and now that I have a good-paying job.
The White Lotus is a show that calls out the privileges of race and class, a show that (as I wrote in a post when the series began to air) shows the ugliness of tourism against the beauty of Maui. This is a show that is meant to make those of us with the privilege to travel to examine how and why we travel. It makes us confront the violence we have committed and continue to commit against the lands and the people of the beautiful destinations we claim as our own as we check off items from our itineraries and post on our social media timelines.
While I also believe this is a show about moments of crises or transitions in our lives (hello, Rachel!), ultimately, this show examines power dynamics in various relationships, and I think it underlines one of the most systemic and oldest of power dynamics: that of the colonizer and colonized. When we witness (uncomfortably, hopefully) Kai literally dancing for white people’s entertainment, it’s another reminder of the violence of colonization still present in the present. SPOILERS FOLLOW.
At the top of that episode, Kai shares with Paula the story of how the land was stolen from his people by the owners of The White Lotus, how his people have tried to fight for the land that is rightly theirs, but they do not have the money to engage in the legal battle. Later, when Paula discovers that some of the Mossbacher jewelry might be worth tens of thousands of dollars, and after witnessing and being subjected to the Mossbachers’ extreme racial and class privilege, she proposes to Kai that he break into their safe. I started screaming to the TV asking Kai not to listen, knowing (damn you, series preview!) full well that he would. When a fight on the scuba boat leads to Nicole (and eventually Mark) going back to the hotel room, I ran out of my own living room. I couldn’t watch.
When I came back into the room, I was somewhat relieved by the fact that no one had died. But that does not mean that there is no damage done. Prior to the robbery, Nicole and Mark were at an all time low as a couple, and the interactions with their kids were less than pleasant. I don’t want to deny the traumatic experience of being burglarized or robbed, but at the end of the episode, the show seems to signal that they will be OK, that this experience, however awful, will bring the Mossbachers closer together. I wonder if viewers (privileged due to race and/or class) watching this episode will empathize so much with the Mossbachers after their experience that it will redeem/whitewash what the characters have literally done and said throughout the series, along with the systems (white supremacy, capitalism) they are meant to symbolize.
And of course there will be major consequences for Kai and Paula. I was mad at Paula for putting Kai in that position, for being so naive to think that this could be the answer, as if a bag of stolen jewelry could undo racial and economic systems of oppression that made The White Lotus possible. But I also understand the desire to fight back, even as Kai says, the Mossbachers are not literally the ones who stole his people’s land. But it is the Mossbachers’ (and the rest of the “guests”) presence at The White Lotus that is complicit in the continued oppression of his people, that legitimizes the occupied land, leaving him to dance for them and serve them, as one of the few employment options in a land that could be so different if it had never been taken. So if you find yourself being outraged at the Mossbacher robbery, I hope you find yourself rabid when you think of the original theft experienced by Kai and his people.
I worry that others will not see this injustice. I worry that when we watch The White Lotus, our respective positionalities will let us see only what we are willing to confront about ourselves. I worry that we will watch the show and continue to fantasize about going (or going back) to Hawaii knowing the pain we have and are inflicting on it, especially during the pandemic. Please scroll through the carousel to see, if you haven’t already, the ways we are currently hurting Hawaii:
The White Lotus makes me laugh and cringe with my husband on Sunday nights, and in its own weird way, it helps us escape our own personal and professional realities. But the escape is not one that lets me zone out or forget all of reality. The White Lotus makes me think. And like Lainey, it makes me want to keep talking about it. After watching the finale, I’ll write some more about the cringiest and most thought-provoking moments of the series for me, the things I wished we had more of (more Belinda/Natasha Rothwell! More Lani!), and of my lingering question about Shane and Rachel’s relationship since episode 1 (Lainey: pretty sure we all have this lingering question about their relationship - like… HOW?!). I wish I had less work to do this weekend because a part of me wants to rewatch the first 5 episodes in preparation for the finale. And my rewatch would have nothing to do with the comfort I usually get late at night from my TV, and it would have nothing to do with trying to identify who is going to die in the last episode (although after last week’s episode, a part of me wonders if it’s Paula). This rewatch would be to mentally take notes and marvel at the damn good storytelling that is making me confront some sh*t. I hope if you’re watching, you feel the same way, too.
The White Lotus has been my weird escape for the last five weeks. What else am I going to do on Sunday nights besides feel the dread of Monday mornings?