For all its expensive production, murder suspense, and ripping social satire, what strikes me most about Mike White’s satire show, The White Lotus, is how it uses glances to convey the storyline and its subtext. [Spoilers ahead.] In Season 2, the icy hotelier Valentina (Sabrina Impacciatore) scowls at the local escort women but then demurely fawns at the young female receptionist, whose equally fawning gestures imply a reciprocal attraction. Silver-haired Dominic (Michael Imperioli) guiltily stares across the bar at his jailbait Sicilian hookers, deadened by Gen-X’er self-loathing, while his Boomer father, Bert (F. Murray Abraham), unashamedly does the same, blissfully ignorant of his grandson Albie’s (Adam DiMarco) cringing disgust — whose #metoo Gen-Z era tells him to avert his male gaze.
A seemingly mortified Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) spies on two seemingly straight men going at it with reckless abandon, and her makeup-caked face collapses into folds at every disappointment. Harper (Aubrey Plaza) and her madly iconic “resting bitch face” (RBF) averts her eyes from Cameron (Theo James) to deflect his extra-marital advances while Cameron’s “bimbo” wife, Daphne (Meghann Fahy), brags about not watching the news. Cameron pivots to cross-examine Harper’s newly-moneyed husband Ethan (Will Sharpe) with passive-aggressive bromancey one-upmanship, and then Ethan looks back at Harper across bloodied goblets of Aperol spritz cocktails, mouths agape in mutual disgust at the intellectual bankruptcy standing before them. (One couple plays by the rules and is miserable, while the other breaks them and is happy).
Sex-starved Portia (Haley Lu Richardson) gazes poolside at a jacked and apparently straight British “chad” and fantasizes about the heteronormative vaca-fling denied to her by overly-chivalrous “nice guy” Albie. This later culminates in their jealousy-slinging “glancing contest” at the hotel bar while flirting with different people. Albie falling deeper into Lucia’s (Simona Tabasco) femme fatale manipulations with her downcast sad-puppy eyes. Ethan nervously spies on Harper and Cameron from a beach cabana, convinced they’re having an affair. A morally vanquished Dominic, tortured by his marital failings, covets the sights of happy families on the beach. “Innocent” Mia (Beatrice Granno) looks longingly upon the lounge piano player with stars in her eyes, unaware of the transactional sexual politics that would soon awaken her.
Indeed, The White Lotus is a television show of glances, whose freshly atonal brand of tension is further heightened by taunting baroque musical flourishes and languishing cuts to nature filtered through darkened sunburnt hues. These effects evoke a strange malaise-ridden dream logic suggestive of how paradise can often serve as fertile nesting ground on which our own personal hells can unfold.
Perceptions in The White Lotus Season 2, however, are not always what they seem. A theme perhaps best personified by Harper, whose slack “RBF” blossoms into terrified awareness when she realizes Daphne is vastly more intelligent and complex than her “dumb blonde” exterior would suggest. Valentina epically misreads the attractive woman at the hotel desk, fancying her as a victimized lesbian needing rescue from her “oppressive” male coworker, Rocco (Federico Ferrante), only to discover the two are engaged to be married.
Albie’s “nice guy” routine is but another form of patriarchal “microaggression” as he obligates Portia to reciprocate his oppressive kindness by guilting her away from pursuing her true love interest, Jack (Leo Woodall). “Surely you can do better than a caveman,”,Albie chides her. Albie’s sexless amiability is eventually awakened by the gorgeous Lucia ,who exploits his “nice guy” naïveté for “beta buck” financial advantage. Yet the way he turns his head in unison with his father and grandfather as they check out the hot woman at the airport suggests that Albie, freshly “red-pilled” from humiliation, might not be above the male gaze after all.
Tanya’s juvenile self-absorption resolves into mature intuition when she begins to connect the dots of her impending murder plot. Tough alpha-male Ethan capitulates to beta-male weakness alone in the hotel room, lost in the glow of his “digital mistress”. Genteel Quentin (Tom Hollander) and his merry band of “friends” are not as genteel and merry as they appear. The street-wise, cockney-accented Jack is presented as a grizzly tattooed alpha-bro but later revealed as a deeply insecure and submissive “twunk” in his “uncle’s” gay sex harem who only pretends to be straight to lure “cis-het” Portia into his trap, later wilting into a sobbing child under her nervous interrogations at the Palermo hotel — I was in a fucking hole…a fucking deep hole, man. Cameron is later revealed not to be the total asshole-bro-code-violating adulterer he seems. That White gets viewers to sympathize with Cameron – simply for not being a total prick – feels like some kind of high-level Jedi mind trick about male privilege that I have yet to process fully.
The White Lotus storytelling foundation is fortified with meaningful gazes, but more specifically, its subtext explores the illusory trappings of perception. This is also conveyed by the show’s enduring metaphor : the deluge of smash-cuts to classical sculptures and frescoes eerily imposing their unblinking stares upon their wealthy subjects. Much like the bespectacled eyes of Dr. Eckleburg from The Great Gatsby, they remind us that no amount of money or status can shield one from divine judgement; that our sins will always bear a price. Our indiscretions and self-delusions will always find a way to haunt us. In that regard, at least, we are all equal in the end.
The White Lotus relies on what is said and what is not said – the stories we tell ourselves within the margins of our perceptions – the self-deceptions we suffer from the misleading surfaces of things. From a misinterpreted flirtation or “RBF” to an ill-timed laugh or miscued vocal inflection or a misread text or “wink-wink” emoji, these are the seemingly innocuous gestures from which we invent the false narratives and half-truths that hijack our better judgment . These are manifestations of the mythologies we tell ourselves, often unconsciously, to stroke our egos and assuage our insecurities.
No one is immune from accepting platitudes such as: “shining city on the hill”, the “just war”, the “moral panic”, the “noble sacrifice”, the “tortured artist”, the “tragic hero”, the “hopeless romantic”, the “man of conscience”, the “social justice warrior”, the “super mom”, the “deadbeat dad”, the “people’s champion”, the “socially-inept genius”, the “femme fatale”, the “hooded thug”, the “clean-cut yuppie”, the “aloof boomer”, the “entitled millennial”, the “privileged WASP”, the “victimized minority”, and the “white savior”. These phrases we are subjected to nearly daily are expedient narratives whose colossal implications betray the deeper, sometimes frustrating complexities behind their subjects — narratives perpetuated by something as fleeting as a surreptitious glance or unexamined bias.
Yet, our sedentary minds stubbornly cling to these cognitive conveniences, resisting the possibility that the “blonde bimbo” might actually be profoundly intelligent and self-aware; or that the amicable young-faced nice guy might actually be a deeply jaded and hardened old soul; or that the stoic introvert might actually be exploding with passion and creativity from within; or that the “person of color” might not be as helpless and victimized as America’s political ideology suggests; or that the burly-looking man-bro sporting a thick Spartan beard might have more to him than simply “red-pill” reactionism. Or that a powerful nation bent on fetishizing its past may no longer be as exceptional as its self-aggrandizing mythology suggests.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion once riffed as she coolly summarized the totality of the human condition, unraveling all its mystery, confusion, pain, and joy with the effortless finality of a cigarette flick. She elaborates, “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.”
It is precisely this “phantasmagoria” of modern-day experience: the social media feeds, the memes, the soundbites, the infinite streaming “content”, the conspiracy theories, the “doom scrolling”, the small talk, the “hot takes”, the texting game, the swipes, and the glances that The White Lotus metaphorically explores, mocking these existential fronts with a cheeky “fuck you” rage. It’s possible that The White Lotus‘ appeal isn’t derived from its murder mystery, soapy surrealism, sexual politics, or beautiful people but by the magical thinking wrought from the “disparate images” of everyday life, albeit from the perspective of the beautiful, moneyed, and (effectively) white — but the lesson still holds.
Watching The White Lotus through this prism, we see its commentary on humankind’s most enduring and fatal flaw : we extrapolate that which we do not understand, lazily filling in the gaps with our ideologies, mythologies, learned stereotypes, and meme-logic. The human mind seeks to create order from chaos, protecting itself from the harsh complexities of life by simplifying it into allegory, soothing us through varying degrees of self-pity, delusion, and aggrandizement. We tell ourselves stories in order to live, yes, but more precisely, we tell ourselves stories in order to feel in control of our lives.
Just like Tonya, Albie, Harper, Ethan, and Valentina, we, too, are led astray by the deceptions and fraudulence of the human experience. We want to believe in the unwavering strength of our intuition, but the fact remains we attributed more value to an interaction where there was none or dismissed someone only to discover their merit later. We are bamboozled by the proverbial “glances” in our daily lives, digital or real, whose ensuing narratives have contributed to the paranoia of the time, or at the very least, unto ourselves. So we turn, consciously or not, to stories like The White Lotus to help us better see ourselves.