Misery in Paradise
The Philosophy of The White Lotus
In one of the more memorable scenes of Plato’s Republic, a bickering match takes place between Socrates and a curmudgeon named Thrasymachus about justice: while Socrates is certain that justice is something real, universal and intrinsically valuable, his philosophical foe thinks that all talk of justice is bullshit because it “is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” In other words, justice, from this cynical point of view, is merely an arbitrary set of rules determined by the most powerful in a society as a means to preserve their power while ensuring that those who are powerless continue to flounder in failure.
As a reader, it’s clear enough which side Plato wants us to side with and as a decent human being which side we are supposed to side with; but let’s face it: the very fabric of the economic system that we are woven into sure looks a hell of a lot more like Thrasymachus’ vision of justice than that of Socrates. After all, what else is success in a capitalist society besides the ruthless pursuit to the top of the food chain while making sure that your ruthlessness is “just” enough to not cross the line of legality or social acceptance? And while criticizing the failings — both moral and practical — of capitalism is nothing new, what makes the first season of the show The White Lotus so gripping is that it satirizes the capitalist insanity of our times scathingly without ever descending into sanctimony, and is exceedingly more nuanced than the formulaic class critiques we typically see in pop culture.
For starters, for a series that runs about six hours in total, its plot is surprisingly sparse; instead, the show prioritizes developing its many, multi-faceted characters over bogging us down with narrative details. Of these characters, we are introduced to an assortment of rich guests and working-class employees who cross paths with each other at a luxurious resort in Hawaii called The White Lotus. There’s your plot. Among the guests, there is the Mossbacher family — the mom, Nicole, the dad, Mark, their sixteen-year-old son Quinn, and their university sophomore daughter Olivia who also brings along her friend Paula. Next, we have newlyweds Shane and Rachel. And the final guest main character we meet is a middle-aged woman named Tanya who is in Hawaii to spread her mother’s ashes.
What caught my attention about these characters right away was how each of them looked the part of a different archetypical wealthy person in the world today: Nicole is the manically driven CFO who represents the post-#MeToo trailblazer who “does it all” as a family woman; Mark is the white-collar dad, latently creepy and a little too obsessed with proving his manliness in whatever way he can. Quinn is an introverted Gen Z nightmare who exists in a digitized solipsistic bubble of porn and video-games; Olivia is the sarcastic, obnoxiously socially-aware college kid who at one moment is pondering Nietzschean aphorisms by the pool and the next is blowing through a medicine cabinet’s worth of drugs prescribed for “anxiety” with her equally sardonically woke friend, Paula. Shane is the narcissist a la trust-fund-kid-turned-real-estate-agent who has never been told the word “no” in his life, while Rachel is the understated, deer in the headlights girl from modest means who apparently won the lottery for marrying a guy like Shane because she won’t have to work another day in her life. And poor Tanya exhibits the kind of hysteria that, if penniless, would repel anyone within earshot, but on account of the size of her bank account is labeled “eccentric” and is given free rein to do whatever the hell she wants.
Collectively, these guests roughly make up that glamorous societal upper echelon that all of us mere mortals spend our time envying when we see them post about their outrageously expensive lives on Instagram; the kind of people that we wish we could trade places with when we see them vacationing at picturesque islands or fantastically idyllic resorts miles away from all of those monochromatic normal people problems that beset the rest of us.
Or so you’d think, because as the show unfolds, the lives of each guest at The White Lotus looks less like the lavish utopia that we’d expect it to be than the Sartrean maxim that hell is other people brought to life! Nicole, for example, might have already “made it” and can theoretically treat her vacation at The White Lotus as the perfect opportunity to bask in her trailblazing glory, relax by the beach and spend some meaningful time with her beloved family. The only problem is that the same workaholism that got her this far, it turns out, can’t be turned off so easily, transforming a coveted vacation spot into nothing more than an exotic new office space to field infinite business calls from China. It’s too bad that Nicole can’t enjoy her vacation, but at least the rest of her family can, right? Perhaps even noticing you’re outside of your bedroom, let alone on a tropical island, is a tall order for someone who can’t unglue himself from a rectangular screen; and if you’re in Olivia’s shoes, aren’t you going to feel like a phony going around decrying white privilege when you yourself are on a vacation that this very same privilege granted you? And for the Marks of the world… let’s just say that insecurities about your perceived lack of manliness tend to follow you wherever you go.
That’s too bad for the Mossbachers. The good news is that, if you’re Shane, it’s your lucky day because you get to order the resort staff around all day! The bad news, though, is that when you’ve spent your whole life being given everything you’ve asked for, it turns out that appreciating what you do have isn’t going to come as easily to you; spending your whole vacation complaining about every little thing that doesn’t go your way is the much easier option. And if you’re Rachel, at some point you’re going to have to ask yourself: is being pampered for the rest of your life really worth being married to an asshole like Shane? As for Tanya, the idea of being able to part ways with your mother’s ashes in the immaculately blue ocean off of Hawaii while being taken care of by the staff at the resort you’re staying at sounds ideal. But, then again, can there really be much closure about your mother when she was so cruel to you when she was alive and when deep down you know that no one would be taking care of you if you weren’t tipping them? Are problems like family dysfunction, narcissism, and post-traumatic stress really so solvable with money?
In addition to exposing the tortured imbecility of each of these archetypically rich resort guests, White Lotus really separates itself from the usual class critique by exposing the flaws of less privileged characters. In some other version of the show, for example, as the only guest at The White Lotus that we see who is neither white nor extremely wealthy, Paula could easily fit into the role of the honourable truth-seeker who sees the rich for who they really are and finds some way to undermine them from the inside. And, in fact, the show teases us in this direction when Paula falls for a Hawaiian local named Kai who tells her that the resort displaced him and his family from their land, leaving him no choice to but to work for the very same resort for a dismal wage. But then, angry at Kai’s displacement, when Paula gives him the Mossbachers’ room safe code so he can steal a pair of exorbitantly expensive bracelets to symbolically reverse this injustice, the plan goes disastrously wrong and Kai gets caught by the police. What good, we might ask ourselves, did Paula’s anger about injustice really accomplish in the end?
There’s also the spa manager Belinda who, after forming a bond with Tanya, is promised money to start a wellness business of her own. As one of the show’s more sympathetic characters (which actually isn’t saying much), there’s something both unsurprising and disappointing about how Tanya eventually goes back on this promise at the end of her trip; but, nevertheless, there’s also something clearly manipulative going on when Belinda seems to be capitalizing on the grieving Tanya’s vulnerability which leads her to make that promise in the first place.
While both the rich and non-rich characters we meet on White Lotus ultimately don’t come off as very likable, the show is still very careful to point out that there really is an unfair power imbalance that is going on when it comes to class that shouldn’t be taken lightly. In this respect, just as Kai and Belinda’s efforts to move up the socio-economic ranks fail horribly, so too does Rachel decide to ultimately stay married to Shane even though she briefly takes the stand to leave him and his financial security behind so she can make it as an independent journalist. The rich win without even batting an eye while the poor continue to be stifled no matter how hard they may try to work their way up the hierarchy: same old, same old.
What exactly are the rich “winning” in this case, though? The power to do whatever they want? The luxury of being able to relax in the most grandiose ways humanly possible? What does any of that really amount to when, as we see with the cocktail of miserable guests at hand, possessing things like power or luxury just makes you even thirstier for more power and luxury ad infinitum, leaving you no hope of ever feeling like you have enough of them? Would the wounded resort employees even be happier, ultimately, if they got what they wanted and traded places with those who they’re resentfully working for? I doubt it. And if all the players in this capitalist system of ours are doomed to either face the hell of being rich or the hell of trying to be rich, like the show suggests, and the system itself isn’t going to change any time soon, are we all just hopelessly screwed?
Thankfully, White Lotus keeps itself from slipping into sheer nihilism by directing us to a hidden escape route amidst the mania of chasing money. As far as I can tell, throughout the entire show, there are only two brief moments of real happiness between all of the guests of The White Lotus, but both are pivotal in hinting at this escape route. In an ironic twist, one of these scenes happens during Kai’s botched robbery: after fighting about how Mark dealt with an affair he had earlier on in their marriage by buying Nicole a couple of flashy bracelets (the same flashy bracelets that Kai happens to be trying to steal), Nicole storms off into the room and ends up unwittingly alone with an anonymous intruder, that is, until Mark comes in and attacks the much burlier Kai with no hesitation. Unlike when he bought the bracelets, Nicole realizes, at that moment her husband actually showed that he values their relationship.
My personal favourite, though, is when after having his all-consuming devices get swept up by the ocean, Quinn has an out-of-body experience when he looks up from the beach and notices the unmistakable beauty of the nature around him. Observing a group of native Hawaiians rowing on the ocean shortly thereafter with a look of peace in their eyes that had been completely foreign to anything he’d seen before, Quinn suddenly realizes how small and empty the rich world he inhabits really is. Afterwards, following an awkward silence at a family dinner, the following dialogue with his mom ensues:
Quinn: I don’t want to go home
Nicole: What’s wrong with home?
Quinn: Everything sucks at home. It’s all dead!
Nicole: What are you talking about?
Quinn: I just… I wanna live
Nicole: Honey, we’ll take more trips… we’ll get out of the city…
Quinn: That’s not the same, mom. I want to live!
Already wiser than either of his parents – or any other guest at The White Lotus for that matter – Quinn recognizes that if you’re miserable at home, spending an obscene amount of money to get away from that home isn’t going to make you any less miserable. Not when underneath all the exterior fancy fluff of being a rich person you aren’t actually living because you’re too busy using your money to find ways to avoid it.
With that in mind, the next time you’re on Instagram and feel that inevitable pang of envy after staring at someone else’s obnoxiously flashy life, it might be more fitting to feel bad for them: who knows what kind of twisted baggage money like that can buy?
Dylan Skurka is a Philosophy PhD student at York University. Outside of academia, he enjoys writing about different facets of pop culture through a philosophical lens for a general audience to help show how relevant the subject matter can be for all walks of life. His writing has appeared in Philosophy Now and Brainwandering, the York Philosophy Graduate Student blog which he currently runs.