SPOILER ALERT: This article contains details about the season finale of The White Lotus. You’ve been warned.
Everyone is still reeling from the season finale of HBO’s much-buzzed about dramedy (or as some people call it, “satire”. The White Lotus but if there’s one thing we learned from Mike White’s examination of privilege in paradise is that rich white people are horrible and need to calm the fuck down.
Then again, I think all of us knew this already. The White Lotus just gave it a little bit of tropical flair. As actor Vishaal Reddy tweeted about the series: “Literally, nothing is happening. Yet everything is happening.” He couldn’t be any more correct.
After watching the finale on Sunday, there were a flood of hot takes and think pieces on the Internet. Social media was a ticker tape parade of “What does this all mean?” When it comes down to it, a quote said in the finale explains the moral entire series in a nutshell: “Well, I guess it’s not stealing when you think everything is already yours.”
This was said by the Paula (the talented Brittany O’Grady) to her best frenemy forever Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) when they talk about Olivia and her horrible families lack of awareness and performative white wokeness and privilege that Paula has been spectator to the entire vacation.
Now, there are plenty of things to unpack about this series which makes it great, clever, and uncomfortably insightful — specifically for white people. We can talk about Murray Bartlett’s wild journey ending with him dropping a deuce in a suitcase or seeing Connie Britton as an utterly monstrous Karen-adjacent matriarch. We can talk about the scene where we see Steve Zahn’s balls or every single word and that doomed marriage between Alexandra Daddario and Jake Lacy’s characters. Or we can dive deep into the wonder of Jennifer Coolidge (we will touch on that) — but we won’t because the entire series is pretty much told through the gaze of white privilege. There are so many nuances of colonization, appropriation, “woe is me” white people angst and performative liberal bullshit but I want to speak to the series through the eyes of the people of color in the series — specifically the aforementioned Paula and Belinda, who is wonderfully portrayed by queen Natasha Rothwell.
From the first episode, we see that there are many people of color who are staffed at the titular resort. We also immediately see Jolene Purdy‘s character Lani (who is a local, obvi) struggle as she keeps her pregnancy a secret her first day on the job — but it isn’t long before her water breaks and she gives birth only never to be seen again.
Lani hid her pregnancy secret from her boss Armond (Bartlett) when she interviewed for fear that she would not be hired if she did. This seems to be a common hiring practice among many businesses that impacts women and, of course, it’s unfair. The White Lotus touches on this issue, but again, we never see Lani again. This shows how disposable the staff at this resort is. They don’t matter. The guests matter. The staff (mainly the POCs) is essentially nameless help and a source of island magic for the guests to utilize — and to a certain extent, exploit at their convenience.
Many of us know Rothwell as the fun-loving, tell-it-like-it-is Kelli on Insecure, but in The White Lotus we really get to see the actor’s range as Belinda, the resort’s spa manager. After a wonderfully spiritual massage, she and Jennifer Coolidge’s eccentric Tanya form a bond — more on Tanya’s end, though. Tanya, who recently lost her mom and is on the island to spread her mother’s ashes into the sea, befriends Belinda to her silent discomfort.
You can tell that Belinda has to deal with white nonsense all the time at her job and she has mastered the art grinning and bearing it. Her guard is up because white people ain’t shit. However, as Tanya uses her as a crutch, Belinda becomes more comfortable because she has a good soul. As an employee at the resort, she has a job to satisfy the customer, as a human being Belinda empathizes with this eccentric woman who just lost her mother and just needs someone to talk to.
At one point, Tanya can’t stop gushing about Belinda’s talent when it comes to wellness. Tanya offers to fund Belinda’s own wellness center. Belinda seems skeptical at first, but it feels that Tanya is trustworthy. All Belinda needs to do is write a business plan and present it to her and she will have her own wellness center. Good, right? Well, this is the beginning of the end of that relationship.
As soon as Tanya meets a man, she is distracted from her relationship with Belinda. As Belinda becomes more and more invested in her dream of having her own wellness center, Tanya puts it further and further at the bottom of her priority list. In the final episode, after stringing her along, Tanya finally admits to Belinda that she feels that she can’t fund her business. Instead, she gives a tearful Belinda a stack of money in hopes that it will fix everything.
For many — especially in Hollywood — this scenario is familiar. This has happened to me at one time or another. Granted, it may not be exactly the same as Belinda’s journey, but there are similarities.
The story is simple: “normal” person needs help and someone with power and/or money offers their services. It’s seems skeptical at first but aforementioned privileged person charms their way into the “normal” person’s heart and gains their trust. After back and forth, the privileged person either gets disinterested or finds another “normal” person to fulfill their role as captain-save-a-ho.
This narrative in many shapes and forms but when it comes down to it, it’s a rich white person playing with the emotions of someone who doesn’t have as much as them. It shows the lack of empathy and the inconsiderate nature of privileged people like Tanya.
From Belinda’s reaction of Tanya’s news, it is definitely not the first time this has happened to her. In fact, it happens to marginalized people all the time. Dominant culture leads us to water and after they get what they need from us they push us into the water and say “sorry” while throwing us a life vest.
The pain Belinda feels is real and it feels like this is the last time she is gonna deal with this white nonsense. It shows when Rachel (Daddario) reaches out to Belinda to talk about her problems with toxic new husband. While Rachel pours her heart out, Belinda has an “I don’t give a fuck about your problems” look on her face before telling her “You want my advice? I’m all out” and walking out.
However, before the end of the episode, Belinda slaps a smile on her face to welcome a whole new batch of privileged resort visitors.
O’Grady’s Paula is a different story. She is a guest of the resort and her gaze is interesting. She soon figures out that she is somewhat of a spy who has infiltrated this white family and is living as if she is one of them — until the family’s ignorant microaggressions prove otherwise.
As the relationship between her and her woke BFF unravels throughout the series, it is clear that Paula is grasping a different perspective of her own identity as a woman of color. Basically, she finally realizes that the Mossbacher family has no idea about anything besides what is in their bubble. It becomes worse when at the end, Paula realizes her BFF is just carrying on their tradition of white ignorance.
If you’re a person of color and have spent time with a white family, there is a level of discomfort. Add in the fact they are a rich white family and that adds a whole different dimension of discomfort. I remember one time during college when I spent the weekend at my rich friends’ house in Texas. I felt out of place and at the same time, felt like a token. With each smile and eerie sense of hospitality, there was this unspoken declaration from this rich family that said, “Yes, we also allow people like you into our lives.
O’Grady’s performance captures this sense odd mix alienation and acceptance brilliantly and it comes to a head with her relationship with Kai (Kekoa Kekumano), a local who works at the resort that gives her a lesson on colonization. Paula is put in this situation where she has one foot in privilege and another in “the world of the help”. She thinks she is helping Kai by orchestrating a simple heist to steal jewelry from Nicole Mossbacher which immediately backfires and that’s the last we hear from Kai.
Again, this shows how people in the service industry and “the help” are seen as disposable as more weight is put on the well-being and care of the patrons rather than those who are serving them.
If anything, Paula’s story resonates. She is on both sides of the coin. We see that she is the only one out of all the patrons that empathize with those that work at the resort but at the same time, she has the privilege to walk away from the problems at the end of the day while the employees of the White Lotus have to endure the same white nonsense on a daily basis.
With that in mind, The White Lotus helps us pause in our every day lives to see what role we are stepping into: the privileged or those who provide for the privilege and how we use that role to make make the world a little less trash.