The White Lotus: Lessons on Black Lives Matter, Reparations and Queer Liberation

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In the fall of 2020, filmmaker Mike White wrote and directed The White Lotus (TWL), a six-episode HBO miniseries focused on several VIP guests and few hapless employees at an exclusive (fictional) Hawaiian resort called The White Lotus. The guests come to escape reality; the employees facilitate the guests’ escape. Through interlinked tragicomedic storylines, each central character is trapped by a particular problem or obstacle. But given their vastly unequal positionalities, strategies to resolve their problems diverge widely as do their outcomes.

Only one character achieves authentic freedom: Quinn Mossbacher (Fred Hechinger), the 16-year-old white, upper class, sexually ambiguous and possibly neuro-divergent (aka “queer”) son of Nicole (Connie Britton) and Mark (Steve Zahn). Quinn, whose gender-neutral name means “wise” or “counsel,” evolves from an obsessive technophile into someone dedicated to ocean life and a team of Hawaiian men paddlers training for a hokulea.

Examining Quinn’s transformation in contrast to the storylines of other entitled resort guests can serve as constructive curriculum for white progressives.

Previous Reviews

This summer’s finale of TWL garnered 1.9 million viewers and has been renewed by HBO for a second season (with a different cast and location). Overall, critics cast the first season of TWL as an entertaining, if bleak, satire of wealthy whiteness. In the words of one headline, “Nothing changes on The White Lotus. That’s the point.”

Critics did diverge somewhat in their perspectives: The New York Times lauded its satire of class conflict and power, while others critiqued the centering of wealthy whiteness, and for not diving deeper into colonialism and Hawaiian culture. Twittersphere seemed focused on the gay sex themes of the show—especially the rimming scene between Armond, the resort manager, and Dillan, his subordinate. (Meanwhile, virtual silence from all on how killing off Armond, the only gay character in the show, seemingly feeds the old “bury your gays” trope.)

What’s missing from previous critical reviews is how TWL explores themes related to Black Lives Matter, reparations and queer liberation—or how TWL offers useful lessons for white progressives.

Black Lives Matter

In TWL, Black Lives Matter themes are most amplified via Tanya McQuoid (Jennifer Coolidge), Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) and Greg (John Gries).

Tanya McQuoid (pronounced “Mic WAD”) is a disturbed, wealthy white woman who travels to The White Lotus to spread her dead mother’s ashes. Belinda is a Black woman and manager of the spa at The White Lotus. Greg, a literally “care-free” older white man guest with an unnamed health condition, is Tanya’s love interest.

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Belinda, played by Natasha Rothwell.

After Tanya receives a spiritually transformative spa treatment from Belinda, she becomes obsessed with Belinda and urges her to start up her own wellness center. Tanya promises that she will fund the business, because after all, she “will have a lot of fun too.” As Belinda pins her hopes on this dream, Tanya tasks Belinda with increasingly intimate and free emotional labor. Just as Belinda creates a formal business proposal, planning to discuss it with Tanya over dinner, Tanya meets Greg, who tells her that he works for “BLM.” Tanya cancels her work-dinner plans with Belinda under the premise Greg works for “Black Lives Matter.”

Tanya soon learns that Greg’s BLM is the Bureau of Land Management. (In real life, Black Lives Matter activists have proposed that reparations to Black Americans be funded through the sale of land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.)

As Tanya’s gaze shifts from Belinda to Greg, she withdraws her business offer to Belinda and takes off with Greg who warns: “Don’t be surprised if someday I just drop dead.” Symbolizing the impending death of white patriarchal colonialism—the antithesis of Black Lives Matter—Tanya still chooses Greg over Belinda to “keep the party going.” No longer having any more need for Belinda, Tanya thanks Belinda for healing her and sheepishly hands her a wad of cash.

While Belinda’s material world is unchanged, her perspective shifts. When the next disturbed, privileged white woman guest comes crying for advice, Belinda flatly states: “I’m out.”

Reparations

If TWL hints at BLM reparations, it is explicit in its nod toward Hawaiian reparations—specifically illuminated through Paula (Brittany O’Grady), Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), and Olivia (Sydney Sweeney). (Note: While TWL was in production, Hawaiian activists were marking 25 years of failed reparations to the Hawaiian people).

Paula is a young woman of color vacationing with her wealthy white college friend Olivia, and Olivia’s family (parents Nicole and Mark, and brother, Quinn). Kai is a Hawaiian resort worker who becomes Paula’s lover.

Paula and Olivia are introduced as haughty undergraduates who take pleasure in throwing shade. An early scene shows Olivia performing erotic drug-referencing A.S.M.R. on Paula, yet Paula does not fully trust Olivia, as she stole her previous boyfriend.

Paula targets Kai as a vacation fling, but her sympathy for him expands when she discovers that he and his Hawaiian family were illegally evicted by white colonialists from the land on which the resort now sits. After learning that Olivia’s mother (Nicole) owns two bracelets worth $75,000 each—gifts from Olivia’s father, Mark, as reparations for cheating on Nicole—Paula tells Kai to take them so that he can sell them to “hire a good lawyer to fight those fuckers.” Kai states that he doesn’t steal from people, but Paula argues: “All of these people at some point have stolen from someone like you.”

Paula gives Kai the code to the safe with the bracelets, and he follows Paula’s cue. But Nicole returns to the room unexpectedly, finding Kai. Mark follows, fights with Kai, and “saves” Nicole. (This act of macho heroism against a man of color also saves Mark and Nicole’s rocky marriage.) Kai is later arrested.

Knowing that Paula was Kai’s accomplice, Olivia confronts her: “Something bad could have happened. My mom could’ve gotten really hurt.” Paula responds: “Something bad did happen.”

Indeed, Kai’s incarceration and lost wages will change his and his family’s situation for the worse.

Meanwhile, Olivia tells Paula that she won’t “rat” her out; she spoons her in bed, assuring her that it’s “okay.” Perhaps Olivia’s love for Paula will move her to a deepened understanding of colonial oppression. But Olivia’s potential awakening comes at great cost: Kai’s pursuit of individual reparations lands him in jail, and because Olivia holds Paula’s criminal secret, the power differential between them may increase.

Queer Liberation

Queer liberation themes can be gleaned in TWL through the juxtaposition of Quinn’s dead grandfather, Armond, and Quinn. Much of this theme is infused with Christian symbolism, undoubtedly due to director Mike White’s sexual and religious background. (White identifies as bisexual and his father came out as gay after serving as a right-wing Christian ghost writer for high profile preachers).  

Quinn’s Dead Grandfather

Viewers know Quinn’s dead grandfather only through the narrative of Mark, Quinn’s father. Mark arrives at The White Lotus with swollen testicles, a metaphor for his masculinity crisis. He thinks he’s dying of cancer.

When Mark realizes that his son Quinn is the same age as he was when his father died, Mark starts to “bro out” with Quinn, like his father did with him. Mark believed that his father died of cancer, but during own health scare he learns that his father died of AIDS. Indeed, Quinn’s grandfather had lived a double life, closeted until his death and beyond.

Armond

Armond (Murray Bartlett) is a charming gay white Australian man, and the resort’s manager. Unlike Quinn’s grandfather, Armond is out. But his gay liberation does not shield him from being both racially oppressive and class oppressed. Armond’s inability to effectively confront his complicated positionality lands him into a self-destructive spiral.

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Lani, played by Jolene Purdy, and Armond, played by Murray Bartlett.

Armond’s role as a racial oppressor is embodied in his relationship with Lani (Jolene Purdy), a local Hawaiian woman and new employee. Armond instructs Lani to stay invisible around the guests: “Self-disclosure is discouraged. You don’t want to be too specific, as a presence, as an identity.” Lani hides from Armond that she is pregnant, but on her first day of work she goes into early labor and births her baby in Armond’s office. This event is Armond’s first trigger toward self-destruction. He laments: “I just thought she was chunky. Poor woman was having a baby and I didn’t even notice.”

The second prompt for Armond’s demise is via his class-subordinate relationship to Shane (Jake Lacy), a white newlywed man whose inherited wealth makes him the most entitled of all the guests. When Shane realizes that Armond had mistakenly given his reserved honeymoon suite (the Pineapple Suite) to another couple, Shane becomes Armond’s nemesis. With no way to resolve the situation, Armond, who had previously struggled with addiction, spins into erratic, destructive behavior. He drinks heavily, steals drugs from Paula and Olivia, and maliciously sends Shane and his unhappy bride, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario), on a supposedly private romantic cruise which is actually a wake for Tanya’s mother.

Armond’s destiny turns further downward when Shane and Belinda interrupt him having drug-infused sex in his office with his young employee, Dillon (Lukas Gage). Armond scrambles to bribe Shane from exposing his misdeed by offering him the Pineapple Suite. But it’s too late: Shane will still tell Armond’s boss. This sets up the climax scene for TWL.

Knowing that he will be fired, Armond gets high and sets his “last dinner.” Set in slow motion to the orchestral music of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Armond is gleaming, serving the resort’s guests with dramatic elegance. Afterward, he returns to his office to party with Dillon and two other men employees, announcing: “I nailed dinner. That was the best seating ever.”

These “last supper” and “nailing” references establish Armond as a metaphorical Jesus.

With the soundtrack of “Jesu” returning, Armond rises, smiles and saunters from his office to Shane and Rachel’s Pineapple Suite. As the music swells, Armond defecates into Shane’s suitcase.

Mirroring the earlier scene when Nicole discovers Kai in her room, Shane returns. Armond hides in the closet, but it cannot protect him. Shane hears a noise, picks up a pineapple knife—symbolizing the tool of white colonizers in Hawaii—points it forward and turns the corner. From the other side, Armond turns the same corner into the knife. Shane, eyes wide with shock, exclaims: “Oh, Jesus Christ.”

Armond dies from his stab wound. Rachel, who was pondering leaving her marriage, subsequently promises Shane: “I’ll be happy, I promise.” Shane responds: “Oh, thank God.”

Armond may fall into the “bury your gays” trope, but at least he gets to be gay Jesus, saving the institution of upper-class white heterosexuality.

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Armond, played by Murray Bartlett.

Quinn

Unlike Armond, Quinn’s sexual identity is never named. But there are several signifiers that he may be emerging into queer liberation.

This begins in the first episode Quinn’s father, Mark, orders him to get out of the “closet” where Olivia and Paula had forced him to sleep.

Disenfranchised from his resting place, Quinn takes his blanket and sleeps on a lounge chair on the beach. On his first night outside, he witnesses with amazement a whale breaching its tail. The next morning, his phone and tablet are both ruined by the rising tide. Initially this digital disconnection makes Quinn frantic. But as his gaze moves away from technology, he recognizes the mysterious beauty of the ocean, and in so doing begins to develop his own deeper environmental values and queer desires.

After his second night sleeping on the beach, Quinn is awakened by six Hawaiian men paddling toward shore in a long canoe. The camera focuses first on Quinn, who looks at the men with delight, surprise and yearning. The camera then cuts to Quinn’s line of vision, focusing on one handsome, shirtless man—the tallest and most muscular man in the group. Quinn realizes that he is staring and looks down, but cannot stop peeking. The camera cuts again to Quinn’s line of vision which now faces the first man along with three other shirtless and muscular men.

In a later scene, Quinn is peacefully floating on his back in the ocean, suggesting his baptism into new life. He sees the men heading out for another canoe trip, gingerly walks toward them and introduces himself. (Camera cut to Armond sneaking a drink on the job; juxtaposing Quinn’s and Armond’s diverging choices in response to their stressors.)

Quinn’s third beach awakening shows the men galloping down the beach, ready to row. One shouts: “Oh, brother Quinn, what’s good? … We got space for one more guy. Desi’s still all fucking drunk. Wanna come? Get in.”

The shot tightens on the hunky tall muscular man, who says: “Come on, you fucker, what you waiting for? Get in.” Quinn replies: “I won’t be any good you know, I’d just slow you all down.” The hunky guy replies: “We could use the dead weight. Make us stronger. Come on bro, get in.”

Quinn gets in. His T-shirt reads, “End homelessness.”

On the final morning of Quinn’s beach awakening, the sun is rising, and the paddlers are coming. One shouts: “Wake up, you dumb fucker! What, you homeless? Let’s go, brother. We need you.  Don’t keep us waiting, you fucker!” Quinn smiles, skips his way into the ocean, and jumps into the canoe.

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Quinn, played by Fred Hechinger.

Afterward, Quinn announces to his parents that he doesn’t want to go home: “I don’t want to go home … Everything sucks at home, it’s all dead. … I just wanna live.”

Unlike his grandfather and Armond, Quinn both lives and finds freedom. Just before boarding the plane home with his family, Quinn runs the other direction. The last scene of TWL shows Quinn paddling into the sunset, one of a team of six men.

White Lotus Lessons

In the end, the white affluent heterosexual tourists leave unscathed, if not better off than when they arrived, due to the sacrificed minoritized staff: Rachel and Shane (Armond); Tanya and Greg (Belinda), Nicole and Mark (Kai). Olivia may have started a path toward deeper understanding of oppression; Paula may be worse off as a result. And Belinda no longer offers free emotional labor to white women.

Quinn is the only central character in TWL to find expansive freedom, by connecting to his deeper values and desires and working with colonized BIPOC people for a joint effort. Quinn’s escape from his privileged Lotus eating status begs the question for white people visiting or living in lands taken from Indigenous people: Once awakened to how White privilege comes via sacrificing minoritized people and the planet, what should you do?

Here’s what I see as TWL’s lessons for white progressives: Recognize Indigenous places and people. Look for joint goals which address overlapping points of oppression. Release your loyalties to white, patriarchal, colonialist structures. Keep your promises and be accountable to BIPOC people. Put your skin in the game—don’t just drop a wad of guilty cash or put BIPOC people at higher risk for incarceration.

And if you are invited to take an empty seat in an Indigenous boat, be like Quinn and jump in.

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About

Kari Lerum is a researcher, scholar, educator and social justice advocate. She is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences at University of Washington Bothell, an adjunct professor in gender, women and sexuality studies at University of Washington Seattle. For more information about her work, see: www.karilerum.com