Warning: This post spoils the ending of The White Lotus in great detail. It also immediately spoils the end of season 37 of Survivor if you care about that too.
Mike White should have won Survivor. Season 37 of the long-running reality show was based around the theme of David vs. Goliath, and White was the last Goliath standing, and objectively played one of the best strategic games possible. But he lost out to Nick Wilson, a public defender from eastern Kentucky; even White said in interviews following the season that it made sense that his fellow cast members gave Wilson the money over the guy who wrote School of Rock, and admitted that he maybe didn’t fight as hard for the million-dollar prize as he could have.
“If I was a[t] home,” White told Entertainment Weekly. “I was like, I would be wanting that guy to win. Not me.”
At the end of the first season of The White Lotus, which White created, produced, wrote, and directed, nearly every character you want to win at some point of the show or another loses. It’s a bloodbath for the show’s Davids — some more literally than others — and a complete and total rout for its self-obsessed, privileged Goliaths.
The most literal version of this is Armond, the unhinged hotel manager played by Murray Bartlett, who goes on one last bender before he’s to be fired the next day. He takes one of the most satisfying dumps ever filmed in Shane’s (Jake Lacy) suitcase—and then almost immediately gets accidentally stabbed to death with a pineapple knife by Shane.
Armond’s only one example of this. We find out that Kai (Kekoa Scott Kekumano), the employee who punched Steve Zahn and stole the Mossbachers’ bracelet when Paula’s (Brittany O’Grady) dumb scheme went sideways, got arrested after fleeing the hotel. Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) destroys the spa business dreams of Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) essentially as a form of self-care. And in one of the film’s final scenes, Rachel (Alexandra Daddario)—after a nightmare honeymoon—resigns herself to the fate of married life with the worst version of Andy Bernard.
There are satisfying moments where the show’s underdogs remind the guests that they’re actual living people, like Kai’s punch and Armond’s turds and even Paula (who is admittedly not exactly an underdog) briefly reminding her friend Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) that she’s effectively cosplaying social justice. One of the best of these is when Belinda tells Rachel, after listening to her blubbering about not actually wanting the new life with Shane she signed up for days ago, “You want my advice? I’m all out.” But the final scene shows Belinda and other hotel workers on the beach, forcing a smile and a wave as they greet the next batch of nightmares to stay at the White Lotus.
The thing White Lotus did most brilliantly wasn’t just its interrogation of the power dynamics between the social classes, but within them as well. Rachel, the one guest who we’re told has some connection to the plebs, is bombarded with reminders from Shane and his mom (Molly Shannon) about the lack of balance in her relationship. And Armond is constantly wrestling with his position in the resort hierarchy, from his relapse and subsequent descent into madness being partially motivated by the discovery that a new employee (Jolene Purdy) hid her pregnancy, to his resignation between lines with employee Dillon (Lukas Gage). “They exploit me, I exploit you,” he tells Dillon.
The show doesn’t always hit the mark here. It engages with Hawaii’s colonial history but the experience of native Hawaiians in kind of a hamfisted way. Lani (Purdy) and Kai, the only native Hawaiians on the show we actually meet, are basically used as avatars for the guilt of the more privileged people on the island, and as Michael Kuga pointed out for Vox, the show tends to fall back on a lot of decades-old tropes about Hawaii.
To White’s credit, he’s acknowledged his limitations. “I want to get into some of the stuff about Hawaii and the colonial, imperial parts of it that exist to this day,” he told Vulture ahead of the finale. “When you start trying to tell that story, though, it’s like, ‘Is this really my story to tell?'” Given the clunkiness of those stories he did try to tell, maybe that was for the best.
Quinn is the one character whose ending seems a bit out of place, as he makes a last-minute decision to flee his family and stay in Hawaii after sleeping on the beach all season. Whereas everyone else either ultimately accepts their rung on the social ladder or remains oblivious about it for the entirety of the season, guest and employee alike, Quinn chooses to return to the canoe instead of his life at home.
For six episodes, the White Lotus white-knuckled its way through one secondhand embarrassment after another. The guests were the butt of the joke, and the show satirizes the bumbling bourgeoise extremely well. But their humiliation is surface-level compared with the life-ruining (and -ending) consequences felt by what Armond calls the hotel’s “interchangeable helpers.” The Goliaths all get the last laugh; they all get to leave.